“That’s illegal in some states,” says the leading lady of April Smith And The Great Picture Show. The lead guitarist/accordion player and Smith’s right-hand man just added another line to his musical resume by shredding on an electric ukulele, an instrument with one of the smallest fret boards, better known for its use in Hawaiian music and some Beatles solo projects.
The band on stage is dressed as though it’s about to recreate Newsies, but rather than rallying together to protest, each member is smiling and giving playful looks to each other and the crowd, clearly enjoying the party they’ve started. The energy is irresistible and contagious.Smith enters the stage like an excited teenage girl, saying a quick hello to the crowd before going into “Movie Loves A Screen,” a song that sets the tone for her signature piano-hall/ragtime/1940s sound and allows for crowd participation in handclaps. The horns used in the recording of the song are replaced with a violin played by Smith’s keyboardist, Ray Malo (Smith later takes over this role while playing a mean mouth trumpet on “Colors”), which isn’t as drastic of a change as you might expect.
Since her beginnings, April Smith’s music has always been about contrasts and unexpected pairings or changes. This is the girl whose music was influenced by everyone from the Andrews Sisters to Tom Waits, and also elements of Edgar Allen Poe and Wes Anderson. The youngest in her family, Smith developed her spitfire personality in order to break into her older siblings’ world, and it has stuck with her in her songwriting and performance. She easily slides between a child who refuses to grow up and a seducing songstress without any warning, then scrunches her nose and giggles at the end of each song as she thanks the crowd.
On stage, Smith is that girl you want to be your best friend. Mid-song she points to a fan in the crowd and says, “Oh my god, I just noticed we match!” She speaks the things we’re all thinking, like asking why the ladies’ room looks as though a mischievous cat went on a toilet-papering spree, or asking a “What the hell?” of the blustery weather (her mother adds in that March came in more like a Charlie Sheen than a lion). She looks like a modern-day bombshell you could find on a WWII USO tour, decked out in a striped shirt and anchor-adorned belt over her tutu-like skirt.
Her cheekiness shines through as she goes into “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” a song that praises her sweetheart’s looks but begs him to keep his mouth shut, and also “Stop Wondering” where Smith tells off an ex with a “Bitch, please.” Though her nature is precocious, her voice is anything but dainty and small. It’s appropriate that the band’s album is titled Songs For A Sinking Ship considering Smith’s voice alone could keep it afloat.
Though the set consists mostly of songs from the album, the group adds in surprise covers, all treated with the Great Picture Show touch. Smith belts out Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as if her life depended on how passionately she could sing it. They also perform their rendition of Trey Songz’s “Bottoms Up,” which is given a violin intro and outro, and is classed up to the point where I would feel comfortable playing it in front of my parents. “We’re available for bar and bat mitzvahs and brises,” states Smith, to which her band mates cause a fuss. “OK, maybe not brises. Two out of three, two out of three.”
After an extended version of “Wow And Flutter” that allows each band member to solo it out, and somehow effortlessly weaves Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” into the work, Smith and the group re-enter the stage for an encore of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” running Bono’s work through the Great Picture Show filter with an accordion, a violin and an upright bass as usual.