Every year now for the past decade I receive a most welcome postcard from singer songwriter Chris Smither detailing his touring schedule for the month’s ahead. To repay the complement I have attended a performance on every tour because I think it’s a nice traditional touch, good revenue for the postal system which pays the bills in my house, but most of all because Chris Smither has been trekking around this planet for to thirds of every year now for decades with his gentlemanly manner, well crafted songs, intimate performances and spine chilling folk blues guitar style and is one of my favourite live performance experiences.
Chris Smither is one of the most respected and likable performers with a well rounded signature guitar style that smoulders and grooves in the finest traditions of acoustic folk & country blues and a song writing style that strikes the perfect balance between serving tradition well and redefining the craft to catch the attention of the contemporary listening buds.
Over the past few years I travelled down to veteran promoter Larry Roddy’s promotions in the beautiful setting of the Ballymore Inn to catch Chris’s annual visit and over the years I’ve been to Whelan’s several times, Mother Redcaps and tonight it was all happening in The Village formerly known as the Mean Fiddler and before that again The Wexford Inn.Chris arrived on stage and kicks off spellbinding us with his musicality and effortless virtuosity on a 12 fret cutaway Collings acoustic, a majestically sounding guitar, thumb pick and fingerpicks pinching the bass notes and cascading across the chords on the title track of his 2003 CD Train Home.
His unique heel and toe was tapping out the percussive rhythm as he warmed up the crowd with uplifting energy saying he was keeping the mood light for awhile:
“I don’t want to get to heavy to soon”
Chris grew up in New Orleans but really got into the folk scene in Cambridge Massachusetts in the late sixties and has been playing festivals, clubs all around the world and making the most penetrating and delightful albums ever since.From his new CD Leave the Light On, Chris introduced one of his trademark humorous lyrical overviews of mankind called Origin Of The Species, going back to the beginning of time and tracing the biblical versus Darwin journey from the garden up to the present. Nine out of ten people have a bible of some sort in the house, what’s wrong with the other guy?
“The whole thing works like clockwork over time
I’ll just sit back in the shade while everyone gets laid
That’s what I call intelligent design” ©
Dave Carters Crocodile Man breezed along with driving rhythm and smooth bluesy finger style followed by the tale of Lola the kind of woman your mother warns you to keep away from and the kind of advice you don’t take until it’s to late.
Chris talked about his new state of the art GPS device which helps him find venue’s in difficult locations and especially the persuasive comfort of the systems sexy female voice to a man as she helps him find his way along the highways.
“Freeway exit 1.5 kilometres away”
I suspect that her charm would probably be lost on our own M50 you wouldn’t get to hear her often enough to develop a relationship.Chris played a song called Diplomacy about the sense of disillusionment that has existed under George Bush and his administrations foreign policy decisions and many people including myself have found the real ambassadors of perspective and reassurance for that wonderful talented and influential continent in recent years has been its artists like Chris Smither, Bruce Springsteen and The Dixie Chicks whose good fortunes have been recently restored with multiple awards at this years Grammy’s.
“It’s the land of the free, blind and leading the lame”©
Chris’s dad Robert was a professor at the University of Tulane but his uncle Howard was also a learned man and gave the young embryonic musician some indelible advice:
“If you know two chords you can play a lot of the song’s you hear on the radio and if you know three chords you could pretty much rule the world”©
Chris has an ode to his father on his new CD, a song he approached with reticence “ scary enterprise” , because of the profound closeness and sensitivity of the subject matter but as he said his father is now in his 90’s with no sign of quitting yet and Chris he is in his early 60’s it was time to deal with it.
“It takes so long to say more than goodnight”©
Chris Smither creates the atmosphere of a living room for his worldly wise lyrics and nice melodies. His thumb & finger style blend of rhythm and lead has the knack of making an audience cosy and comfortable pacing his performance with ease, economy and grace and it is mature melodic easy to follow musicianship at its best and absolutely A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.
The songs are the magic, each tune deceptively refined and clinging tenaciously to the memory from a craftsman with talent to burn and Chris doesn’t believe in burning it but using it wisely and living proof that restraint doesn’t equate with wimp out.
“I don’t pick no cotton
I never pick my nose
I couldn’t pick a pocket
In a pile of dirty clothes”©
Chris draws admiration from the singer songwriter audience and the traditional folk blues audience because his music redefines its ancestral identity in a manner that is satisfactorily challenging and reassuring.
Specifically interesting is the seamless integration of guitar and voice
Chris Smithers approach represents a modern vision of the blues that moves the listener forward through the time zones from finger picking Delta and all stops in between to places it has never been before called Evolution Street.
Songs like Link of Chain fire the latent blues imagination of the listener and have enough modern charisma to make them mainstream radio friendly.His reputation as a songwriter has been enhanced over the years as various music luminaries like Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Diana Krall have recognised his talent and recorded versions of his versatile compositions.
Chris done an online search recently and found 15 versions of his classic Love Me Like a Man and all the artists were women so he reckons that is a pointer that he is doing something right.
Songs like Leave The Light On and Open Up from the new CD and my own favourite Happier Blue show an unerring eye for those narrative details that once heard, can indelibly invite a song into your brain forever.
There are precious few songwriters of this calibre around and he is my favourite interpreter of the works of one Mr Bob Dylan from his Dylan meets Canned Heat vibe on his early 70’s Down In The Flood, What Was It You Wanted on Up On The Lowdown in ‘95 to Desolation Row on Train Home in 2003 and now Visions Of Johanna on the CD Leave The Light On.
The guitar playing is clear musical and easy to follow and demonstrates astounding acoustic finesse bringing the full house in The Village down to pin dropping attention during, Killing the Blues.It reminded me of a quote I picked up recently from local musicologist Sean Finn attributed to Joni Mitchell:
“Relax your body. Keep your eyes closed. Feel the beat. Express how much you enjoy that beat with your body and forget what you look like.”
For fans who wants to get some of Chris’s incredible licks under their fingertips he has a new instructional DVD available from his web site WWW.Smither.Com which promises a pot pourri of lick, riffs, tips and working methods.
A life dedicated to touring and playing his music around the globe has earned him a loyal following who responded with rapturous applause at the end of the show bringing Chris back for an encore on Blind Willie Mc Tell’s Statsboro Blues.
Veteran roots promoter Larry Roddy was clearly delighted with the excellent turn out which had been a cause for celebration at the previous performances in Cork and Galway as were many supporters, Charlie Hussy from D.C.A.L.’s Bluestrain on 103.2fm and online every Sunday night, Frank Mulligan, Benny Conaty and Kevin Morrow aka Hollywood Slim contemplating putting his own acoustic roots outfit together which is good news from a local who brings flair and originality to our blues and jazz scene.
I recall another gig in Mother Redcaps back in the early 90’s when the hail rain and snow was belting down on a miserable winters night in Dublin and despite only a handful of dedicated supporters in attendance Chris got up an played out of his skin, told stories and sang as if there was three hundred in the audience and sent us on our way home with satisfaction and added value.
“These men you’ve been seeing
They got their balls up on the shelves
You know they could never love you baby
They can’t even love themselves”©