After 50 years, musician Chris Smither is “Still On The Levee”
Acoustic blues and folk singer, songwriter and guitarist Chris Smither made a splash in the 1960s and early ‘70s — and then walked away from music for most of a decade. After fighting some personal demons, he reentered the musical fray in the ‘80s and has remained a songwriting and performing force whose fans include such luminaries as Bonnie Raitt and Dave Alvin.
This year Smither marks 50 years in music with three releases including last week’s release of the career-spanning double-CD retrospective “Still On The Levee.” He is currently touring nationally in support of the new release.
“One-third John Hurt, one-third Lightnin’ Hopkins and one-third me” is how Chris Smither describes is his guitar-playing, but his music draws on a number of American styles. Raised in New Orleans, Smither relocated to Boston in the 1960s at the height of the folk revival. But New Orleans left its indelible stamp.
“As far as the musical influences of the town, I didn’t know anything else,” Smither recalled at JazzFest earlier this year. “It’s like asking a fish what water’s like. I didn’t understand what sort of things from New Orleans influenced me until I left.”
Smither combines the sultry groove of New Orleans’ acoustic blues with the precise, thoughtful wordsmithing of the New England folk tradition. Combined with finger-style guitar that cascades and chimes and a voice like water-smoothed gravel Smither creates music that is beguiling, witty and wise.
Smither’s music — be it recorded or live — can flow over listeners like a deliciously languid New Orleans summer night; watch or listen more closely, however, and the depth of the lyrics and complexity of the guitar playing are revealed as gems hidden in plain sight.
“Train Home” (first released in 2003 and rerecorded for this year’s “Still On The Levee”) is a quintessential example. On one hand, it’s a catchy song with a driving beat (supplied by Smither’s foot) and an eminently-hummable refrain. On the other hand, it’s a blues song with existential overtones about the existence, or not, of afterlife and why that matters (or not) to people.
With lines like “The why we’ll never know, we passed that long ago. Is and was is all we’re ever gonna be” and “Nothing is as clear as this confusion” — accompanied by guitar wizardry that draws comparisons to Leo Kottke delivered in a most casual way — “Train Home” is but one example of the layered, faceted appeal of Smither’s music.
Last week, Mighty Albert/Signature Sounds released “Still On The Levee,” a two-CD retrospective with a 50-year wingspan of Smither’s songs. No mere reissue of previous releases, “Still On The Levee” pulls songs from Smither’s previous 15 albums and features them in reimagined formats. Smither returned to New Orleans to record the album, and worked with luminaries such as Allen Toussaint, Loudon Wainwright III and rock band Morphine on selected songs.
The two discs of “Still On The Levee” have somewhat different flavors, with more emphasis on simple and acoustic arrangements on the first and electric on the second. But Smither’s words, playing and voice stitch the double-album into a complete whole. Standout cuts include the spare country blues treatment of the traditional “No More Cane On The Brazos” (which feels like hearing time-worn recollections on the dusty porch of an old general store), a moving arrangement of Smither’s first song “Devil Got Your Man” spiced with slow sax and strings and both versions of “Leave The Light On.”
Yes, each disc of “Still On The Levee” closes with “Leave The Light On.” The first version has a fuzzed, acoustic-into-electric feel, looking ahead to the more elaborately-produced songs on the second disc. The second version, a baton-passing duet with Kate Lorenz of Rusty Belle, has a striped-down angular funkiness. Leave it to Smither to go out on a song about life and, well, death that has both starkness and a slow-burning groove.
Fifty years into his career, Smither’s multi-generational, multi-genre rerecording of his songs displays confidence and imagination in addition to his musical talents.
And those early New Orleans and Delta influences?
“I kept it up,” says Smither. “I was just sort of addicted to it.”
For more information, visit smither.com and the venues’ websites.
Chris Smither’s August 2014 “Still On The Levee” tour dates:
Aug. 1: City Winery, Napa, CA
Aug. 2: The Palms Playhouse, Winters, CA
Aug. 3: Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz, CA
Aug. 10: Bridge Street Live, Collingsville, CT
Aug. 12: Payomet PAC, N. Truro, MA
Aug. 14: Natalie’s, Worthington, OH
Aug. 15: SummerSounds, Greensburg, PA
Aug. 16: Songside Concerts at Brown’s Orchards, Loganville, PA
Aug. 22: Tupelo Music Hall, White River Junction, VT
Aug. 23: Prescott Park Arts Festival, Portsmouth, NH