Friday, May 25, 2012

Chris Smither @ One Longfellow Square, Portland ME, May 20th, 2012

A few songs into Chris Smither's Sunday night performance, I found myself wondering what it would be like to hear Chris Smither again for the first time. Not possible for me, of course, and every person's first connection with a musician or work or art that becomes meaningful cannot be duplicated. But before the show I was wondering if hearing the great man could ever feel as meaningful as it did a decade ago, at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in 2002, or at the Joe's Pub shows in the years that followed, or even the performance at the Green River Festival in 2009. Perhaps thinking in that way put me in the right frame of mind, or maybe sitting less than 5 feet away from the performer had something to do with it, but Sunday night's show was one of the greatest performances I've seen from him. I sat front row center and looked up into the great man's worn, serious face as he picked and stomped and sung song after song with more power than I've heard from him in years. My attention rarely swayed after that one moment early on.

One thing that made the show unusual was that the performer was promoting a new album. He played most of the songs from Hundred Dollar Valentine (2012), which is now available. The only ones from the album that he didn't do were the oldies that he rerecorded, the profoundly plain-spoken "I Feel the Same" and the dark but hopeful "Every Mother's Son." I haven't listened to the CD yet--I bought it after the show--so I didn't know any of the new songs. There was some dense verbiage in several of them, and one was a blues that the writer remarked he didn't write too much of anymore. If you think you've heard it before, he told us, there's a good reason for that. There wasn’t a single dull moment in the entire show, including the new songs whose hooks and twists seemed familiar somehow, offhandedly borrowed from the same wellspring of blues and folk music that are the square root of everything the great music plays.

He played two one hour sets, separated by about a half hour intermission. The early set featured mostly recent material. After the opening manifesto "Open Up" and the diseased love song "Lola," he unveiled the new material, and it sounded glorious. The foot-tapping was as simple as always, and as profound as always too, as it complemented the lyricism in the words, the rough depth of the voice, and rhythmic syncopation of the guitar. The new album's title track was particularly fine, especially with the line about the airline taking away his lighter. And "Don't Call Me Stranger" from Time Stands Still (2009) elicited laughter and applause with its greatest couplet, "I'm not evil / I'm just bad."

The second set began with "Link of Chain" and "Can't Shake These Blues," songs that date back to the mid-1990s. Smither's longevity and reluctance to play any original material that he recorded before 1990 allow for the labeling of those two songs as oldies. Much of the rest of the second set consisted of familiar material, like "No Love Today," which elicited some of the loudest applause. Dave Carter's "Crocodile Man" smoked, and so did "Seems So Real," which sounds ok on the Train Home (2003) album, but really gathers steam in concert. The set concluded with "Leave the Light On," which will probably conclude his sets for many years to come.

For the encore, he played the oldest of the oldies, "Sitting on Top of the World," which dates back to the 1920s. Or back to the 1984 album It Ain't Easy if, like me, you think that Chris Smither reinvented the song. Which brings the "oldies" question back onto the table…and reminded me of the performance I heard earlier in the day of a trio performing a honky-tonk version of the same song, at Local Sprouts. As I once heard Stephin Merrit say in an NPR interview, song lyrics don’t convey enough information to direct a singer how to sing them—or something like that. I’ve heard this particular song over and over again, in different arrangements with different attitudes. Earlier in the day, the trio played the song for good times and smiles. At night, Chris Smither’s performance evoked peaceful quietude, hiding something sad, even dreadful, as the stolid foot-tapping transformed the suppressed hurt into graceful forbearance.