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Vancouver musician uses looping technology to build tracks while performing on stage

If You Go

What: Tony Smiley, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and digital-looping master

When: 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27

Where: McMenamins Edgefield Winery Tasting Room, 2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale

Admission: Free

Edgefield website: visit mcmenamins.com

Tony Smiley's website: visit tonysmiley.net

COURTESY PHOTO: TONY SMILEY - Vancouver, Washington-based musician Tony Smiley has a steady stream of regional gigs featuring his memorable style of creating, via digital technology, ensemble-like backing tracks all by himself. Like most musicians who catch the rock 'n roll bug early in life, Tony Smiley played in a band or two in high school.

"In one of the bands, we'd rent out a grange hall and have these big shindigs," he said of his formative years in Hood River. "We'd charge five bucks a head. There was nothing else in Hood River for kids to do."

The fledgling guitarist and drummer soon found out that forming a band is one thing, keeping it intact quite another.

"I have a lot of respect for people who can keep bands together. It's really hard, you know? It's really hard," he said.

In the midst of those interpersonal frustrations came digital technology to the rescue — specifically electronic foot pedals that record, or "loop," snatches of music and vocals and play them back at the artist's will.

"Once looping technology came out, I decided that that would be a good way to go," Smiley observed. "I could play the songs I wanted and not have to worry about dealing with a whole bunch of other band members.

"No matter what, using looping or whatever, I'm stuck with myself anyway. So I decided to keep rocking out."

Smiley's uniquely solitary vision grew from there. With an arsenal of (mostly) non-argumentative digital gadgetry, guitars, keyboards and percussion devices, the singer, writer and builder of songs stays busy with a steady stream of regular gigs around the Pacific Northwest — and beyond when he gets the chance.

East Multnomah County residents can catch Smiley's satisfying style of multi-tasked music free of charge each month at McMenamins Edgefield Winery Tasting Room. This week, fresh from a Feb. 22 gig at Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort, he performs in the tasting room at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27.

The 45-year-old Vancouver, Washington, resident builds his show with a mixture of his own compositions and a wildly eclectic range of covers by artists like Billy Idol, Dr. Dre, Nirvana, Eminem, Tom Petty and even newer R&B sensation, Lizzo.

"It depends on the show," he said of the songs he chooses to present. "I choose covers I think will be fun for people to sing along with. I also do my covers much in my own style. A lot of people come up to me and say they have a lot of fun guessing what song it's gonna be."

For those who haven't experienced a digital-era one-man ensemble such as jam-band phenom Keller Williams, Smiley builds his backing musical tracks on stage as he goes along.

He may start by establishing a guitar strumming pattern, then "loop" it so it repeats throughout the song, then do the same with a bass guitar, keyboard or backing vocal line. Drums and percussion are added either by playing instruments or digitally programming beats.COURTESY PHOTO: TONY SMILEY - Tony Smiley combines a witty, whimsical stage presence with the craft and creativity of building digitally looped backing tracks for original as well as cover songs.

Before long, a complete bed of music is born for Smiley to sing on top of. While audiences usually enjoy the craft and creativity at play before them, Smiley strives to balance the act of building sound with putting on a show.

"With the looping, I have to be kinda picky with the songs I do," he explained. "You can do A and B parts, but it takes a long time to build up. You kind of lose people's interest ... You're already five minutes into the song and you haven't started singing yet."

Through the years, Smiley's learned a thing or two about holding an audience's attention: cracking jokes and otherwise engaging the crowd while he's creating sound loops.

"I used to trip more on, 'Well, I'm here to play music. I don't need to be entertaining,'" he explained of his earlier, artistic-based approach. "But for the last number of years I've really embraced that (showman) aspect."

Smiley's found ample inspiration in how other performers present themselves on stage.

"I went to see some of my favorite musicians and left feeling deflated," he said. "But when you go to see a band that really puts it all out there and makes the show a completely different thing from the album, that's what I've been embracing."

Calling his younger self "too rebellious to even want to take lessons," Smiley found music came naturally, making his spirit soar.

"When I first picked up a guitar, I wrote two songs. It was like, 'Holy smokes, this is great. I just learned guitar!' It was that thrill right there that kept me going. Someone showed me a drumbeat, and right there I knew I'm gonna play drums forever."

Smiley may not have had a career plan, per se, but with nearly 20 years of creating, recording and performing music — with able booking and management support from his wife Amy Marie — he's pretty sure he stumbled onto the road he was meant to travel.

"I haven't had a day job in 14 years now. It's awesome," he said. "I'm tickled pink and truly grateful that I get to this and have so much fun doing what I do. It seems like a dream."


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