November 2006

Chris Smither
November 19, 2006 Hugh's Room Toronto
When the blues are comfort food...
by Sebastian Cook with photo by Roger Humbert
New Orleans-born, Boston-based folk and bluesman Chris Smither is my ultimate musical comfort food. His Delta-rooted thumb and two-finger picking guitar is marvelously paced, rhythmic and intricate; his feet are miked to bring out that old-time foot-stomping heartbeat. His sandpaper voice, aging over the years like fine wine, rings with emotion; the experience that inspired each song revealed with singular authenticity. And if he wasn’t one of North America’s most respected singer/songwriters, it’s no stretch to think Smither could easily be making his living as a standup comic. Every bit as engaging as his music is Smither’s rapport with the audience, so effortlessly funny and warm yet also revealing a soul that has come through the wars to a place of peace no one can take from him. On two separate occasions, news of his gigs in American cities where I have family and friends has been the catalyst for 500-mile road trips.

This time, it was merely a cross-town subway jaunt to Hugh’s Room for his Leave the Light On tour stop in Toronto. I had arrived late and missed the opening song "Train Home", sitting down just as Smither — clad in the same black silk collared shirt and jeans he wore when I first saw him 10 years ago — started "Origin of Species" from the new disc, doubling the full Sunday night house over with his tale of having debuted it in the somewhat under-evolved state of Kansas. “I’ll just sit back in the shade / while everyone gets laid / It’s what we call intelligent design,” he crooned.

Next up was "Lola" from 2003’s Train Home, introduced as “one of his less cheerful love songs” about “the kind of woman his mother begged him to stay away from.” “Love ain’t cheap / but death’s free.” Words to remember if not to live by, to be sure. After the song, he told the story of his new GPS system, the next woman in his life he had nicknamed Lola, purchased to help navigate strange cities as Smither is almost constantly doing.

Chris Smither

One of my personal favourites, "Crocodile Man" by the late Dave Carter, followed. “Tangled with a barker / ran off with the kitty / crawled to Mississippi and I got away clean”; this song represents the New Orleans-born Smither in his most natural element.

The most moving song of the show was "Father’s Day", a dedication to his soon-to-be 90-year old father and surprisingly, the first of its kind in Smither’s lengthy repertoire. “Time’s slow too but it gets you there / See what’s become of me before you’re gone / Still afraid I’ve found a way to let you down / Small time left to make small things right.” We’ll all heard these familial tributes come out trite and clichéd before, but in Smither’s hands and vocal chords it was a lesson in grace, forgiveness and love that almost every man in the audience could relate to on some level.

He rounded out the first set with "Diplomacy", “a brief overview of the U.S. State Department” that had the crowd howling with laughter; a song about cake and ice cream whose title escapes me; "Link of Chain" from 1995’s Up on the Lowdown with its bass shuffle groove. And finally, he introduced the New Orleans-inspired folk rag "No Love Today" with a tribute to his 2-year old daughter (more evidence that Smither may in fact just be getting started!). The song is a simple yet profound plea that the city of his birth is not what we see on sanitized TV and simply “needs people”; and a tale of coming across a kid in Hawaii playing that very song and reacting in disbelief to Smither’s introducing himself as the man who wrote it.

After a short break to sign CDs at the front of the house, Smither returned with another rootsy favourite from Up On The Lowdown called "Can’t Shake These Blues". He then delivered "Drive You Home Again" with a particularly haunting style that evoked J.J. Cale. On "Shillin’ for the Blues" he reminded the fool in all of us that, “It’s never nice to hear advice you know you’ll never use.” Next was one of his classics "Love You Like a Man" — written when he was 23. He observed with typically dry wit that the artists who cover it are always women. “What you need is a man to hold you / not a fool to ask you why.” That line alone would certainly explain the song’s resonance with women!

"Cave Man" from 1997’s Small Revelations spoke to the Neanderthal in every man, followed ironically by a cover of "Floatin’ The Blues" by the sensitive womanizing folk great Jesse Winchester. Then came a 3/4 version of Bob Dylan’s "Visions of Johanna"; conceptualized with his British folk and bluesman friend Steve Tilston and which Smither prefaced with a good-natured dig at Dylan’s ability to remember his own lyrics. Surely this is a sign of a man confident in his own place in the pantheon of singer/songwriters.

Back to the blues it was, with another selection from Small Revelations entitled "Hold On" with its memorable chorus, “The only thing that’s truly free is this little voice that’s tellin’ me / to hold on”; followed by the slowly lilting "Killin’ The Blues", which appears on his only live album to date (Live As I’ll Ever Be, 2000) and if I recall correctly is a collaboration with Steve Tilston.

Smither closed the second set with the Celtic-infused folk number "Leave The Light On"; a meditation on life on the road and the family waiting at home with lyrics that progressed as a time signature: “For years when we were single / for years we sang in couplets / for years we lived in waltz time”, with the refrain, “Don’t wait up / leave the light on / I’ll be home soon”. Blind Willie McTell’s all-time classic "Statesboro Blues", another staple of Smither’s live show, was the aptly chosen encore, delivered as always with no-holds-barred lyrical energy and flawless guitar work.

It is rare that one can experience a singer/songwriter’s performance where not a single note or word feels wasted or out of place. On this night, Chris Smither was, as he always is, one of the exceptions. Keep your ear to the ground for his next Toronto show or nearby festival performance, because he is one of the essentials of our times.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
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Roger Humbert
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