Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chris Smither @ Ashfield Town Hall in Ashfield, MA, January 15th, 2011

One of the great privileges of living in Pioneer Valley, as many Sound of Blackbirds readers probably know, is that it is the stomping ground of lots of American “roots” musicians. Singers, songwriters, pickers and players of all instruments, and venues of varying sizes for them to play…they are all over the place in the Valley. There are amateurs and professionals, teachers and students, the locally renowned and the nationally famous, songpoets and musical craftsmen and craftswomen. And then there is Chris Smither. I’ve written at length about Smither in other entries, including some remarks about his latest recording, Time Stands Still (2009), on my old blog, so I will not take the time to extol his virtues again here. But I was thinking last night on my slow, slushy drive up to Ashfield, how amazing it is that I can hop into my car, drive 30 miles or so, and see one of the greatest living professional songwriter-guitarists perform some of greatest material in an intimate setting. As it happens, this performance was in the midst of a four day workshop that Chris Smither was conducting in town, at the Mighty Albert. A couple dozen or more of his students were in the front rows of the audience last night.

Ashfield, MA is about a 1 hour drive from South Hadley. Last night, it was a bit more, due to the light snow and slippery driving conditions. The drive home, after the snow had stopped, was faster. I had never been there before, and I was delighted by the venue. It was the Ashfield town hall, a beautiful old building, very New England, clearly used quite a bit, given the town's frequent use of open town hall meetings to conduct its public business. The lower level was a wide open space, with plenty of nooks set aside to fill out ballots. There were lots of big file cabinets, old law books on bookshelves embedded in beige walls, boxes of paper that were labeled “for shredding,” and even a beautiful old ballot box, labeled “Perfection,” patented in 1905. For this evening, the open space was devoted to selling cookies and cheesecake and tea and coffee. No food or drink was allowed in the concert space, which was several flights of stairs up, on the top floor, in an auditorium that, I imagine, is used for town meetings.

Chris Smither took the stage at about 5 minutes past 8:00, played an hour set, took a 30 minute break, and played for another hour or so. 22 songs in all, by my count. He opened the concert with the song that he’s been using as his opener for about 5 years now: “Open Up.” His foot tapping was in perfect, toneless harmony with his syncopated finger-picking, as usual, and he was in fine voice. I won’t quote the opening lines, which are as perfect a statement of purpose as I’ve ever heard, because the second couplet struck me like never before. I’m so attached to the opening couplet that the second one seems less essential, but it didn’t last night: “I’m still flying blind, hoping I might find / a way to stop my thinking, and open up my mind.” The entire song moves with a generous groove, a bright melody, and words that deal with the dualities that have defined his songwriting for the past 40 years: heart-mind, body-soul, me-you, life-death (although this particular song only hints at the last one). I’m glad he begins with this one. It’s a song that gathers depth each time I hear it, and it’s a perfect concert opener. From there, he moved on to “Link of Chain,” originally recorded for Up on the Lowdown (1995) and perfected for Live As I’ll Ever Be (1999), which sounded as great as it ever has. I note that, in the Chris Smither Songbook, the songwriter’s own commentary on this song begins as follows: “I originally wanted to call this, ‘The Importance of Being Close While Maintaining Identity,” but decided that it showed a lack of commitment, so it remains a sort of impressionistic paean to living in the moment. Nice groove, though.” Amen to that. Chris Smither has a distinctive sound and a distinctive singing and songwriting style. A voice, that is. From a distance, it is easy to hear the songs blend into one another. With a touch of attention, the great universal themes assert themselves, filtered through melodies that recall Mississippi John Hurt (one of Smither’s earliest inspirations) and in thematic sync with the rhythmic foot-tapping. Eventually, every song, whether an original or a cover, takes on a distinct shape, and each one seems like a piece of a greater whole.

The great man played a first set of music that covered highlights from his most recent three albums. His second set dipped back into some of his older albums although, as usual, he did not play any material from his first two albums, I’m a Stranger Too! (1970) and Don’t It Drag On (1972). The second set also featured performances of other people’s songs. I heard him play Dave Carter’s “Crocodile Man” at Falcon Ridge in the summer of 2002, the very first time I heard him live, and it was lovely to hear him recall meeting Dave at a festival some time before that. His slow, measured version of “Sitting on Top of the World” is coldly ethereal, hinting at hurt and grief that are even deeper that the lyrics suggest. The stolid foot-tapping and the weariness in his singing evoke spiritual fortitude. It was, for me, the emotional high point of the concert, bold and beautiful and oracular. You can find his recording of it on his 1984 album It Ain’t Easy. It is the single best version of that song I have ever heard.

There were easily over 300 people in the audience, perhaps over 400. It was an older audience for the most part, although a few folks brought their children. While there were definitely some fans of Smither’s present, I sensed that a lot of attendees were locals who wanted a night out. There were laughs of delight and recognition when the singer hit keys lines. “Origin of Species” and “Surprise, Surprise” always work. Three songs in, folks laughed so hard at “she says the love ain’t cheap, but the pain is free / and I say, ‘but that sounds good to me!’” that a lot of them missed “she’s got hooks to make a fish think twice,” not to mention “if I think at all, I think this feel nice!” That song, “Lola,” was preceded by a story about having to buy a new GPS, which he’s had to do many times, he explained. Now, he names every GPS he buys, Lola. After telling us that he wrote “I Don’t Know” after writing down his little daughter’s questions and observations about the world, he expressed his suspicion that she was starting to understand that she had a role in writing the song: she’s begun asking for her royalty checks. He seemed pretty amused by his own song, “Get a Better One,” which he sang with a big smile. And “Never Needed It More” and “Time Stands Still” are love songs of maturity and experience, eliciting entirely different kinds of smiles. Meanwhile, there’s nothing funny at all about “No Love Today” or “Drive You Home Again” or “Seems So Real.”

For the encore, he treated us to J. J. Cale’s “Magnolia.” He introduced it by explaining that it’s a song he returns to whenever he’s working on his own songwriting. It’s an example, he said, of how the simplest of songs are often the most effective. And I'll be damned if it wasn't the second best moment of the show. What does it mean, I wonder, that this most brilliant of songwriters moved me the most with performances of songs he didn't write? That this most brilliant of songwriters is in complete control of his talents as a singer, a guitarist, and an interpreter, that's what. I will see him again soon, I hope.

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