Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chris Smither @ Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield ME, August 12th, 2011

I took Hillary to the Stone Mountain Arts Center (SMAC) on Friday night to share an even of Chris Smither music with her. I can't remember how many times I've seen him perform--a dozen? maybe more?--but his concerts are the very surest of sure things. And this was my first time at the SMAC since Anthony and I drove out there to hear Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas over three years ago. Hillary and I arrived early and partook of their delicious chicken soup (with cornbread and watermelon on the side) and spent over an hour chatting with each other and with the couple sitting next to us. In fact, I even found myself defending Hot Tuna to the gentleman sitting next to Hillary, after my passing mention of them yielded expressions of contempt from him and his woman friend. Jefferson Airplane? That got more eye rolls. It turns out that this couple has being seeing Chris Smither play shows all around New England since the late 1960s. "Are you on a hot date?" the woman asked us.

Chris Smither looked and sounded great. "Does he wax his hair?" Hillary wondered, which made me laugh. What didn't make me laugh, but did make me smile, was the way the great man foot-tapped his way into "Open Up," which he's been opening his concerts with for years now. Ditto the way he picks the introductory guitar licks to "Link of Chain" before his feet and guitar launch the blues shuffle that backbones the song. The laughter began next, as he talked about losing his GPS machines, which he eventually began calling "Lola," his next song. "She's got hooks to make a fish think twice."

I've seen Chris Smither enough times, and listened to his music enough, to know what was coming. His stories, even when I've heard them before, are a delight. He talked about his daughter's question about royalties before playing "I Don't Know," the fruit and vegetable man from his New Orleans childhood before "No Love Today," his father's longevity before "Father's Day," the difficulties of writing topical songs before "Surprise, Surprise," and the first time he met Dave Carter before Carter's own "Crocodile Man." His sets don't vary too much from show to show, but the quality of his voice, the intricate guitar playing, the toneless foot-tapping continue to call me back.

Having been "called back" at different times over the past 9 years or so, certain songs make more of an impression on me. Friday night, I was particularly moved by two of his newer songs: "I Don't Know," which I'm convinced is one of Chris Smither's very best songs, and "Time Stands Still," which is not the only love song he's written, but it's as close as he comes to a romantic song. Beyond those two, his version of "Sitting on Top of the World" is stark and ethereal in his voice and hands, and I never tire of hearing him singing it. He sang his own "Drive You Home Again" with plain-spoken gravity, and the audience's chuckle at the final lines, "if I drive you to distraction / I will drive you home again" was a great moment. "Seems So Real" sounds just fine on his Train Home (2003) album, but it really gathers steam in concert.

For the encore, he played Dylan's "Visions of Johanna" and got the last of the evening's big laughs with the song's greatest nonsense line, "geez, I can't find my knees." I'd forgotten how beautiful his version of this song is, performed in waltz time, with his rich easy voice delivering some of the greatest opening lines Bob Dylan has ever written: "Ain't it just like the night / to play tricks when you're trying to be quiet? / We sit here stranded / though we're all doing our best to deny it."

On our way out, Hillary and I watched the great man greet his fans and sign autographs, and I remembered the first time I ever got his autograph, at Joe's Pub back in the fall of 2006. That, and having heard him wish me a happy birthday from the stage in upstate New York in the summer of 2007 are enough for me. But I sure could use a dozen or so new songs from the great man, and it's those I await.

No comments: