Jesse Smith is a musical native son of Atlanta, Georgia. His face has become easily recognized with a nod or a smile in the city he has grown up in while playing bass for Carbonas. His presence is so unpretentious that you would be hard pressed to conclude that he is also the front man of one of America’s latest buzz bands, Gentleman Jesse and His Men. It is tough to tell which band constitutes his day job; the punk and roll Carbonas or the hook and pop Gentleman Jesse. There is ample evidence that even he is unsure of the answer. The cover of his first solo release finds him mimicking Elvis Costello, standing firmly behind the camera. But while Costello’s cover was a brazen challenge, Smith seems slightly embarrassed to even be in the picture. The cover is an apt metaphor for a guy who seems to be completely about the music and not yet comfortable being the “face” of a city’s pop resurgence.
Late last month the unassuming Smith, sandwiched between local opener Poison Arrows and headliner Paul Collin’s Beat, with his natural wood Rickenbacker and an argyle sweater worn as un-ironically as possible, tore a hole through The Earl’s Saturday night audience. The task was no easy one as Poison Arrows, with the support of a number of vocal fans, set the bar very high. Put together from the remnants of another Atlanta outfit, The Heart Attacks, they lit off a forty-five minute set of bad jokes and Replacement’s like punk before inviting the crowd back to a nearby apartment for what promised to be an unforgettable fire. Poison Arrows’ set would have been enough to satisfy most music fans but the best part of the evening was yet to come.
Jesse Smith’s 2008 self-titled release on Douchemaster was gaining steam as most magazines completed their year-end releases. A far more mainstream sound than his other punk project, the record reveals an immense pop potential. It makes up for dissimilarity in its tracks with pure enthusiasm and hooks. The live show is much the same. Announcing that he was suffering from a cold, and would not be capable of delivering on all of the high notes, Smith did a little less than forty-five minutes covering nearly everything off of the debut record. His take on “Butterfingers” had the same effect on the audience as Norm’s anticipated arrival at Cheers had on its patrons. “If I Can See You (You’re Too Close to me)” was a sing along. Smith’s vocal delivery, as well as his appearance, is a bastardly combination of Buddy Holly, Billy Jo Armstrong, and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek.
Live, he is unassuming but fearless. His guitar playing is also more than up to snuff. Prior to the start of each track, he would take to standing, back to the crowd, on a cinderblock in front of the drum kit. Before the applause had time to die down, Gentleman Jesse and His Men would be thirty seconds into the next track. It is difficult to see where this confident front man intersects with his “differently” demanding other musical job. Jesse and his Men lived up to their names by taking control of the room ten seconds into their first song and they did not let up.
The downside of seeing an emerging rock star is brevity. The set was over as soon as it started. Jesse did not strike as the kind of performer willing to put his crowd through a series of covers to fill a set. Rather, he and the band spit through everything they had and left. Nonetheless, Gentleman Jesse and His Men, with the release of a fresh and exciting record and a live performance that combines the infectiousness of a new artist with the mastery of a veteran, have announced their intentions. If the desire is there, there can be little question that the world of pop is there’s for the taking. It is good to know that there are places where a gentleman can still succeed.