Often simple is best. You know how in the long dark nights of winter you sometimes find yourself pining for the backyard grill on a beautiful summer evening? Sure, you could head out to any number of high end bistros (kind of like The Dakota!) and order a complex gourmet meal. The type where the waiter or waitress (or how about “waitperson”, for any Berkley residents? I considered calling them servers but that’s probably also fraught with some kind of unintended consequence) reads from a card to explain the complex preparation of the daily special.
Sometimes you simply can’t beat a beautiful piece of meat or crispy piece of chicken. Delivered with little more than the right amount of salt and pepper. (Hopefully, I haven’t driven away any vegan readers with that analogy! I’ll include you in a second.) Have you ever looked across at your dining companion as you sliced into that wonderful rib eye or mixed up the vegetables fresh picked from your garden (see, told you!) and opined: “You know, there are fools all over town spending their money who don’t have it as good as we do right now!”
Apologies to my friends at The Dakota and their wonderful menu. It’s just an analogy.
That’s how Chris Smither’s performance at The Dakota last night felt. It’s been a very busy summer of music. Personally, it was the fourth day in a row out for live music. The prior three were loud, hot rock and roll. I love that! But when you get to be my age you also learn to appreciate a quieter night now and again.
The stage was set with a simple padded piano bench and a monitor. On the heels of a run of big PA systems and 100 watt amp heads over the previous days, it felt like a move back to the back deck with best friends. That’s all Smither really needs. One simple guy with his guitar and a head full of songs. Music at its most basic and direct. Like that steak on the grill. A genuine pleasure.
Over the half century that Chris Smither has been performing, the music landscape in this country has changed in myriad ways. In the 1960’s things began to accelerate. What once was a world of a mere handful of broad genres, began to segment into definitions even a dictionary couldn’t name. Imagine telling a 20 something Chris Smither or Bob Dylan that in years to come, people would feel a need to categorize everybody’s music. You’re Techno, Emo, alternative, indie, hip hop as opposed to rap, post punk or power pop. Smither and Dylan would have looked at you like you were missing the point. Or possibly out of your mind.
A couple weeks back I had a long conversation with Smither which can be found HERE. We discussed how he viewed himself as an artist. He is comfortable with the description of American songwriter. Nothing else really fits. Mainly because Chris doesn’t try to follow any rules. His music goes where it goes. He’s earned the right to employ any style he wants to use for any song. It’s the difference between the chef who pokes the piece of meat and decides it’s perfect and the one who sticks to the rule of x minutes on each side. Who would you trust?
Smither sat down with a parlor guitar and smiled. Tuned and greeted the full house. The next 90 minutes slid past like a warm summer breeze. Moments of levity. Moments of thoughtfulness. Some self-deprecating stories of days past and chuckles over the foibles all our Mothers shared. Sitting with Chris Smither is like a drip of crystal clear water falling into your cup after a thousand year journey through limestone. It isn’t fancy. But it’s pure. It feels like life.
I had never seen him live before last night. However, after time on the phone with him and time spent listening to his music, particularly the delightful album Call Me Lucky, I was looking forward to his wit. Some people are comedians. Some are just droll and a joy to listen to. Part of that is humility. Of thinking of yourself as no different than the person who just paid to sit in your presence. It’s never about craving a spotlight. It’s just a quality that impels them to share some songs. Barriers don’t exist. It’s musical intimacy.
And in that super segmented, genre defined world we now inhabit, there’s not a lot of that left. At least at the level at which Smither does it. It’s traditional. It’s American. Most of all, it’s comfortable. I have a note about midway through the show that describes his voice as “your favorite pair of tattered, old Levi’s”. You don’t walk away from his show thinking “Man, that guy can sing!” Instead you walk away thinking: “Man, that guy sings great songs!” But you’ll wear those jeans every day. And reach for them tomorrow.
While Smither originally hails from New Orleans, a city and place that influenced him greatly, he’s spent the last half century in Massachusetts. There’s no shortage of the laconic Yankee in him. It’s a wonderful mix. Boston in the 1960’s was a hotbed of traditional folk music. The Bonnie Raitt’s and Chris Smither’s of the world were absorbing everything they could from the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and Son House. They were undeniably country blues beginners in those early days. But when these Boston folkies and country blues types ran into the likes of Arlo Guthrie and the Woodstock crowd, rules and definitions fell away. Just make songs to which people can relate and want to listen to.
What Smither undeniably picked up from that apprenticeship period was how to play a guitar. Those old blues masters were self taught. They employed different methods of tuning that allowed songs to cry, party or menace. Tough for anybody to copy you when they can’t replicate the sounds on the guitar. It’s those esoteric tunings that are at the core of the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil one night at The Crossroads. Not many players do this any longer. Almost a lost art. It’s a finger picker’s secret bag of tricks. Smither has no problem reaching into that bag. If you weren’t paying so much time concentrating on his lyrics, you’d spend all your time marveling at what a master player of the instrument he really is.
He chatted about how he writes songs. Much of that was covered in the linked interview above. The bottom line is that it’s hard for him. There is no formula. Someone in the audience asked him how many songs he’d written and he thought for minute. “Probably about a hundred.” I was stunned. I was expecting five or ten times that number from a guy with 18 albums and 50 years under his belt. Then the light bulb went on. There are so few because he isn’t done with it until it’s perfect. Listen to his lyrics. Not one word that doesn’t need to be there. Not a single phrase that feels contrived. Some artists mine precious stones. Guys like Chris polish them until they are gems. Nobody other than his good buddy Dave Goody Goodman will get a peek until it’s damn good and ready.
You want to get a sense for how it happens? Just listen to Comes Down To The Sound from the Call Me Lucky album. The song was born during a particularly fallow period. A radio interviewer asked him how he wrote songs. Since he couldn’t figure out what or how at that point in time, he was stumped on how to answer. When he hung up the phone, he thought to himself: “Maybe I can write something about songwriting.” I provide a listen here simply because it’s worth your time.
The smiles on peoples’ faces, the knowing glances between spouses, the foot tapping; all of it tells you his music works. I witnessed something I’d never seen before. Wives keeping the beat on a husband’s forearm. Husbands tapping along on a wife’s knee. What’s with that? Has anybody ever drummed on you before? But it points to that kind of communion I continually seek in my musical journey.
My favorite musing of the evening came as he teed up a brilliant and haunting version of Bob Dylan’s Vision Of Johanna from the 1966 classic Blonde On Blonde. Chris was describing how he decided what cover songs he would record for his albums. He said the only rule he and producer David Goodman employed was that the song be “Sturdy”. It had to come from a sturdy songwriter. “You know. It has to be able to stand up to a lot of abuse. Dylan songs, for instance, are sturdy. They can take a lot of abuse. Hell, even Bob has been known to abuse them.” He shook his head and reminisced about Blonde On Blonde making the rounds in Boston when it first came out. “All of us, who were trying to make a living making music, looked at each other and went: ‘Uh oh. What the hell are we supposed to do now?'”
The answer was proved over time. Just be Chris Smither. It’s enough.
I love following the music scene around here because of nights like last night. Sometimes you find something new. Sometimes a new door opens and you know that there is exploring to do. Sometimes your frame of mind and your physical condition harmonize with the sound waves coming at you. The music rejuvenates your soul. Just like finishing the perfectly cooked meal off your grill after a long day of working on the land. It’s a feeling that it’s still a wonderful world. Thanks for that, Chris Smither.