Review by Fred Rudofsky
Calling Chris Smither a singer-songwriter is a misnomer – he is a entertaining sage, a metaphysician on acoustic guitar, diagnosing what ails mankind and offering some relief but no easy answers in his unique songs. His solo show at The Linda – featuring 18 songs from throughout his remarkable career – was a clinic in blues power and the honesty of a good song.
Appropriately, Smither started off with the entreaty of “Open Up” from “Leave the Light On.” The sizeable crowd was drawn in by his gritty voice and deft finger-picking, and many feet were tapping along when he moved on to “Lola” (not the Kinks song, just so you know).
“Hundred Dollar Valentine,” his new album for Signature Sounds, ranks among Smither’s best albums, and enthusiastically he showcased several songs from it. “Make a Little Room for Me” took wry yet eerie jabs at religious hypocrisy, climate-change deniers, and rapacious CEOs and their political lapdogs who have the system rigged (“To keep us all free, they’re going to put us in a cage/ With a fence on the border to maintain order and the minimum wage”). The title cut voiced the yearning for a lover to come home, while “On the Edge,” which Smither deemed a “hopeful song” (with a melody hinting at the chordal melancholy of Skip James’ “I’m So Glad”) argued how “it’s never too late to take a stand”, no matter how liminal one’s life may seem. And in three verses, “What It Might Have Been” captured that moment when both sides in an affair realize the passion is gone, and it is time to walk away.
What makes Smither such an engaging performer is how he juxtaposes often contradictory songs. Saying that his mother “would have hated this song”, he played a hilarious seduction song, “Don’t Call Me Stranger,” in which a once good man has succumbed to using pick-up lines in bars like, “I ain’t evil / I’m just bad.” Without missing a beat of his tapping feet, Smither played a song his mother “would have loved,” 2009’s “Time Stood Still,” told by someone who experiences a rare introspective moment only to realize “my shadow kicks me from behind.” Much like his peers Loudon Wainwright III, Richard Thompson and Hamell on Trial, Smither can make the most ghastly situations downright hilarious – “Surprise, Surprise” looked at the SOL economic vibe the nation has felt since 2007, the lyrical jabs in each verse prompting nervous recognition, followed by cathartic laughter throughout the theater. The late George Carlin and Bill Hicks would have loved this song.
“I Don’t Know” was perhaps the mesmerizing song of the evening, inspired by Smither’s young daughter’s inquiries about the origins of this and that, including her own place in the world. The song title served as the punchline refrain to a young child’s increasingly cosmological questions, and the lack of a satisfactory answer by the father struck a chord with every parent in the audience.
To close out the night, Smither played five songs, a soulful mix of new and old, and then came back for an encore, a sublime take on the Mississippi Sheiks’ 1930s classic “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”
If you or your neighbors missed this show, be sure to tune in to WAMC for a broadcast in the near future.
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
CHRIS SMITHER SET LIST
Make Room for Me
Hundred Dollar Valentine
On the Edge
Don’t Call Me Stranger
Time Stands Still
What It Might Have Been
I Don’t Know
Place in Line
Origin of Species
Feeling by Degrees
Crocodile Man (Dave Carter)
What They Say
Seems So Real
Leave the Light On
Sittin’ On Top of the World (the Mississippi Sheiks)