Welcome back, welcome back: Corey Smith holds class barside

by Ryan Snyder

Corey Smith played Wake Forest University’s College Town, on the hallowed grounds of the old Ziggy’s music hall, this weekend. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

In a lot of ways, Corey Smith never really left the teaching profession; he just has bigger classrooms nowadays. The former high school teacherturned-rock and roller continues to dole out life lessons in front of teens and young adults, but now the guy who still exudes the “cool teacher” vibe answers to his students instead of scabbish administrators.’­

Smith’s Saturday concert outside of the Last Resort in Winston-Salem — and just across the street from the old Ziggy’s location — was a welcome back of sorts, not simply for the Wake Forest students who populate the area now known as WFU College Town, but for a number of high school and college kids easing back into the grind. Smith brought his full five-piece band for a show that felt more like a cabana-side jam than a parking-lot concert thanks to the Last Resort’s missing wall and sand volleyball courts.

Walking out to the theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter,” his 90-minute set saw him draw from his entire discography, all the way back to Undertones and its propulsive follow-up In the Mood, with a few of his modish covers scattered in. He set the pace instantly with the feverish jamgrass cut “I Can’t Help Myself” and spilled out party tunes all over the audience in the show’s opening stanza. “Party,” of course, and “$8 Bottle of Wine” seem pandering to a young crowd on the surface, but though there is no room for stereotypes with Smith. Dare to call him a country artist and he’ll sing you his white-boy version of 2pac’s “Hellrazor” with a completely straight face. Not surprisingly, his take on the gangster classic came on the tail end of his musical diatribe against the Clarke County sheriffs, plaintively titled “F**k the Po po.” It was moments like this number where the storyteller side of Smith’s personality reared itself, providing further evidence to just how he endears himself to so many. His tale of his wife being browbeaten needlessly by LEOs could happen to anyone, though few could spin it into an entertaining a yarn as Smith does.

He constantly shows unexpected versatility while showcasing his own sound, though he’s still able to keep a safe distance from the sellout zone at all times. His high audience IQ compeled him to road-test some of his riskier songs, namely his addiction narrative “Rose-Colored Glasses,” but he smartly followed it up with a cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” sung with the same inflection and tempo as Dave Matthews would sing “Crush.” Clearly not everyone in the audience could place it, however, which for those who grew up with it, was a mildly disheartening commentary on a generation gap that was theretofore unknown. His cover of Rehab’s “Sittin’ At a Bar,” on the other hand, was instantly recognized by a wave of cheers. Smith’s take was anything but ordinary, turning the song’s sunny fatalism into a skip down the radio dial. Smith’s riff on “Blister in the Sun” spun into the drum fill from “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” into a bar of “D’Yer Mak’er,” back into the Rehab cover and into countless, barely identifiable snippets.

If sometimes it really does feels like Smith is preying on the same stereotypes that country music songwriters use to push the likes of Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw to the top of the charts — which it sometimes did when he sang “21” or “If I Could Do It Again” — Smith comes with a verbal disclaimer. He told his young audience, “They hear my songs and they think I’m celebrating recklessness, or I’m celebrating poor decisions. I’m not. All I’m doing is describing things as how they occurred to me or how they appear to me.” Therein is the common thread woven between all Smith’s songs, with his young audience experiencing at that very time the things Smith sings about occurring in the past. His music is real, and no matter what the content, Smith is brazenly autobiographical. He’s the closest thing to the lyrical fountain of youth that most will find and he owns it.