As I type this, I am listening to the album Don't It Drag On, Chris Smither's 2nd album, originally released in 1972. Until now, I've never listened to it from beginning to end. One reason for that is the unavailability of the album; I found a copy from a used CD store via amazon.com. But another reason is that Smither rerecorded almost every song on the album, mostly for the 1990 live album Another Way to Find You. Two of the them show up on his most recent album, Hundred Dollar Valentine, as new studio recordings. But on Don't It Drag On, all of them sound like the work of a young old man, like Neil Young had decided that blues and bluegrass were the way to go after all. His voice hadn't quite filled out yet--or at least it doesn't sound like it on this recording--and the foot-tapping had not yet become an important part of his sound. So it doesn't sound like the man who recorded Another Way to Find You, or anything after. But the arrangements--eerily austere on "Another Way to Find You," gently propulsive on "Don't It Drag On," mournfully elegiac on "Every Mother's Son," tightly bluegrassy on "Friend of the Devil"--are winners, every one. And the songwriting and the guitar picking are the brilliant flashes that he's been coming up with ever since he began recording again with It Ain't Easy (1984). And in the end, although I love the way his voice has changed as he's aged, even the somewhat thin vocal sound on this album (and on its predecessor, 1970's I'm a Stranger Too!) feels right somehow.
At the World Cafe this past weekend, the 68 year old was in fine voice. The thick, slightly slurred baritone felt warm and comfortable, like it always does. The pleasures of his performances don't quit over the course of 90 minutes, and they'd probably still feel fresh after 120. "Open Up" has become the standard way for him to greet audiences for many years now, and "Lola" is a common follow-up, and everything seemed to unfold effortlessly from there. His sets still emphasize newer material, from Drive You Home Again (1999) up through Hundred Dollar Valentine (2012). For the fans, there are few surprises. Once, he dipped back to the Up on the Lowdown (1995) album for "Can't Shake These Blues." When he was ready to conclude with what has become his standard farewell, "Leave the Light On," requests for "No Love Today" echoed through the room, and he obliged, playing both of them to close the set. He returned to play J. J. Cale's "Magnolia," a simple love song that, he explained, signified that he was getting himself ready to write the material for his next album.
The high points were plentiful. The newer "Place in Line" elicited murmurs and sighs of appreciation. His waltz-time version of "Visions of Johanna" had the feel of complete command. "Leave the Light On" is always a climactic moment, and it was on Friday night. "Seems So Real" once again felt tougher and more strident in concert than on record. And the concluding "Magnolia" radiated love. Hearing Chris Smither perform in concert is an essential experience for anyone with an interest in this kind of music, and as he ages, each performance feels increasingly special. "Since space and time are bending / there's no finish line," but eventually there will only be a body of recorded work left behind, and the memories of these performances. I've seen around 20 of them, but they aren't enough. I am not looking forward to a time when they'll have to be.