Concert Review: Chris Smither at Caffe Lena, 12/17/06
By Glenn Weiser, Metroland, Dec 21, 2006

Thinking Man’s Blues: Chris Smither, Caffe Lena, Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 17

“I don’t think for pleasure, it’s just hard not to do/My thinking is a measure of how much I need a clue,” sang Chris Smither in his easygoing, husky baritone to a sold-out house at Caffe Lena on Sunday night. The tall, lean 62-year-old New Orleans-born singer-songwriter clearly was too cerebral to remain within the fold of the country blues that was his first musical love. There was more to life than the whiskey, gambling, and hard-hearted women that bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins and his other early influences moaned about on their records, so he began writing his own material around 1970. In 1972 Bonnie Raitt recorded his slow blues “Love Me Like a Man,” and Smither’s star was rising.

Then it collided with the bottle. From the early 1970s until 1985, he drank heavily, and his creative life got paralyzed. But he shook off his demons after a dozen lost years, restarted his career, and has been racking up kudos for his smart songwriting and snappy fingerstyle guitar work ever since.

Asked in an impromptu interview before his absorbing show what his favorite themes to write about were, Smither, attired in a black jeans and a black blazer, replied, “The big stuff—love, hate, death, life.” He explained that with the exception of his humorous, topical numbers, his lyrics gravitated toward the philosophical.

That was evident from the beginning of his two-set performance. Using familiar blues and folk chord progressions as a backdrop, Smither’s songs, many drawn from his 12th and latest CD, Leave the Light On, plumbed the Great Questions, albeit with a merciful levity. The opener, “Train Home,” a minor-key ditty played with his usual alternating bass fingerpicking over his incessant foot tapping, began with “Take a look inside/I got nothing left to hide,” and, several more soul-searching verses later, finished with “We’re all waiting on that train to take us home.”

About love, that eternal vexation of idiots and savants alike, Smither sang in his “Lola” that “Everybody says she’s a hell of a kid/But she ain’t no kid when she’s cutting me apart/That’s OK, I told her from the start/Don’t stop sweetie till you get my heart.”

Before the show, he commented that what he saw as the conservative excesses of the Bush administration had spurred him to write political songs for the first time. One of these, “Origin of Species,” a satirical look at the religious right’s assault on the theory of evolution, drew laughter when he got to a line claiming that God “just sits back in the shade while everyone gets laid/Now that’s what I call intelligent design.”

Smither also offered some tasty covers, included a 6/8-time reworking of Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” Jesse Winchester’s “Thanks to You,” and Dave Carter’s “Crocodile Man.” But the high point of the evening was his revved-up, showpiece version of the tune he says still pays his bills, “Love Me Like a Man,” here performed in its original form as “I Can Love You Like a Man.”

The evening’s only shortcoming was that too many of his songs go at the same tempo and with the same style of guitar accompaniment, which made the performance somewhat monochromatic. But that’s only a small complaint when weighed against Smither’s wicked picking and insightful lyrics.

Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2006 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  

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