Local blues band cause a ‘commotion’

Ellie Smith & The Commotion, featuring (left to right) Kenny Smith (bass), Ryan Verthein (Guitar), Ellie Smith (vocales), Dacid Listrom (drums), and Dan Manuer (guitar) blends blues, funk soul and rock for a sound that's made them one of topeka's hottest acts.

Ryan Ogle / Washburn Review

With Topeka’s blues scene in the middle of a healthy resurgence, one band in particular has been making a bit more noise than the rest. In fact, one might say they’ve been causing quite the commotion.

Led by the bluesy-beyond-her-years Ellie Smith, “Ellie Smith & The Commotion” are quickly becoming a local favorite with their smooth blend of blues, funk, rock and soul. Smith’s charismatic presence and vocal rekindling of the flames lit by Janis Joplin and Etta James are enough to grab the attention of anyone within earshot, but the singer has assembled a worthy supporting lineup over the band’s two year existence.

It all started with Smith’s father and bassist, Kenny Smith. His work with Buzz Norman, The Cows and many other acts has made him a respected and well-known name in the Topeka music scene.

“I was playing at Farmer’s Markets with my father and Suki Wilson [owner of local nightclub Uncle Bo’s] told me she wanted to hear me sing blues,” said Smith.

Smith took Wilson’s advice, and along with her father, began hunting for musicians that shared her vision. The first of these players, guitarist Ryan Verthein, came from the most unexpected of places.

“My dad found Ryan at a garage sale,” said Smith. “He was in it to win from that moment on.”

Fronting a band came naturally to Ellie, who not only inherited an ear for music from her family, but also spent part of her childhood in theater. The transition from one stage to the next was not a difficult one to make.

“I’ve always sang,” said Smith. “My head was always full of music so I just let it all out.”

Being a female who has yet to enter her 20’s in a scene typically populated by older and more weathered blues singers  has presented challenges to the vocalist, but Smith’s confidence and talent often answer any doubts one might have.

“It was a lot of ‘How old are you?’ after we play,” said Smith. “It was much easier to just sing first and ask questions later. Being young and a girl can be really weird in this business because people think I’m just here to look pretty, but I’m not. Singing is my business and business is good.”

After several months of playing live and honing their sound, “Ellie Smith and The Commotion” welcomed drummer and Washburn University student David Liston into fold. Known around campus as “Drum Major Dave,” Liston came to The Commotion through the recommendation of Smith’s brother and has been laying down grooves for the band for the last year. The drummer’s experience behind the kit and drive to play made him the perfect fit for the band.

“I started playing rock n’ roll when I was little and I’ve gone through several phases throughout my life,” said Liston. “This is the real world stuff. This is what pays the bills and where the creativity comes out. It’s less structured, which is fun and great to study. I love it all.”

The final piece of the puzzle was recently added in the form of guitarist Dan Mauer. Citing the elder Smith as one of his earliest musical influences, Mauer, who first picked up the guitar at 16 and spent time in Atlanta mastering his craft, jumped at the chance to jam with the man he considers a “guitar hero.”

Mauer isn’t alone in his sentiment as each member of The Commotion recognizes how vital their bassist is to the band’s existence.

“I’m so lucky to have him. Plus, he has all of our equipment, so we really wouldn’t be anywhere without him,” said Smith. “He loves playing with me and I love playing with him. It’s a really good time.”

“Ellie Smith & The Commotion” can be seen performing throughout the area on almost any given weekend. The next chance to catch them live will be on Saturday, Sept. 29 at The Celtic Fox when they perform a fund raiser for Veronica’s Voice, an organization formed to fight human trafficking in the United States.