San Jose bluesman escapes Russia, organizes Ukraine benefit

JC Smith was born, raised and learned to play the blues in San Jose. But the award-winning vocalist and guitarist is one in a long line of American blues musicians who have achieved more success abroad than at home. For Smith, who has done 10 tours and played more than 200 shows in Russia over the last decade, his Russian fame his outstrips his Bay Area name recognition his.

“The (Russian) people love the music,” he says, “and they embrace the culture of the blues.”

That’s where Smith was in February, midway through what was supposed to be a run of 18 shows in 19 days, when Russian forces invaded the Ukraine. As the situation worsened, the bluesman was forced to cancel his remaining gigs and quickly flee back to the US, leaving behind friends and band members who live in Russia.

“There was some sadness — quite a bit,” Smith says. “But I was happy I made it out.”

Months later, the circumstances still rest so heavily on Smith’s heart, he’s doing something to help: an April 30 concert at San Jose’s Tabard Theater to support Doctors Without Borders’ efforts in Ukraine.

“They are in a place where they could get blown up at any time, and they are helping people,” Smith says of the international humanitarian organization. “It’s very admirable — a lot more guts than I have.”

In a nod to the Ukrainian flag, the show has been dubbed the “Yellow and Blues” benefit and features the JC Smith Band — with Noel Catura on sax, Scott Porter on keys, Ray Figeroa on bass and Tim Richard on drums — as headliners . Show time is 8 pm and tickets are $35-$50 via tabardtheater.org, with 100 percent of the ticket proceeds going to Doctors Without Borders’ efforts in Ukraine. Patrons must show proof of vaccination to attend.

SAN JOSE, CA – April 27: Pictured is JC Smith’s guitar and a flyer for a concert that The JC Smith Band will be part of to benefit Doctors Without Borders’ efforts in Ukraine on April 30 at the Tabard Theater in San Jose. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Besides catching Smith and company in concert, “Yellow and Blues” attendees will also get to see Legally Blue, Rome Yamilov, Paul Keller and Robert Berry, the South Bay music icon who says he was glad to join Smith on the bill.

“I was honored that he called me,” says Berry, who is known for his work with Hush, Ambrosia and the Greg Kihn Band. “I think the whole world is proud of the effort that the Ukrainian people and the government has put forth. I’m glad to support them.”

Smith’s latest Russian tour was filled with difficulties from the start. Confusion over COVID-testing mandates between the two countries, as well as limited flight availability, left him stranded at LAX for far longer than expected. The trip from San Jose to Moscow ended up taking three days — and that’s not counting the six-hour connecting flight to Siberia.

The delay meant Smith had to hit the ground running, still battling jet lag at his first gig. But despite his weariness his, Smith was glad to be back and playing.

“Anywhere out of the United States — even Canada — they embrace the culture,” says Smith, adding that many Americans don’t really understand what goes into playing the blues. “They say, ‘Oh, you’re a great jazz musician.’ I say the only time I am playing jazz is when I am hitting the wrong the notes.”

He played six gigs in Siberia. “The destinations were six hours away from each other — in the snow,” he says.

Smith didn’t spend much time keeping up on what was brewing with the Russia-Ukraine situation during the Siberian portion of the tour. That changed when Smith and his band his, which featured all Russian musicians, got to Moscow. The bandleader knew something was wrong when he noticed his keyboardist crying one morning at breakfast.

“I asked her what was wrong, and she said, they had just invaded,” he remembers.

At first, Smith decided to stick it out and continue the tour. With “all the terrible things going on,” he says,” we could bring some joy for about an hour and half in each city.”

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