Review by Greg Haymes
Friday night was supposed to be a dynamic double-bill of solo acoustic singer-songwriters David Lindley and Chris Smither at The Egg, but apparently Lindley didn’t get the memo. Or forgot about the gig. Or his booking agent got his wires crossed. Or something…
Whatever the fuck-up, Lindley was a no-show, having already moved on to Shirley, Mass. for his Saturday night gig. The folks at The Egg didn’t get notification that he wasn’t en route until sometime around 5pm, which didn’t leave Lindley enough time to high-tail it back to Greater Nippertown for the show.
Consequently, there was only a small crowd on hand for Smither, but he didn’t let them down.
Sitting all alone center-stage accompanied only by his exquisite acoustic guitar fingerpicking and the steady thump of his left foot pounding on the stage, veteran singer-songwriter Chris Smither transformed Swyer Theatre into an intimate coffeehouse with a quietly dazzling hour-and-45-minute performance.
At heart, the 72-year-old Smither is a bluesman, and he proved it by displaying his command over a wide range of styles – from the jazzy ragtime of the opening “Open Up” to the slow blues churn of “What It Might Have Been,” from the jaunty romp of “Make Room for Me” to the New Orleans-flavored “No Love Today,” resonating with the cries of the fruit peddlers who once pushed their carts along the streets of the Big Easy.
But while most great bluesmen stick to such time-honored topics as guns, gambling, rot-gut whiskey and unfaithful women, Smither threw out most of the well-worn cliches and instead took a decidedly more existential approach to his lyrics.
The first words out of his mouth on Friday night rather neatly offered a summation of what was to come throughout the rest of his concert: “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/I’m still flying blind, hopin’ I might find/A way to stop my thinkin’ and open up my mind.”
Whether it was the Zen introspection of “What It Might Have Been” or the fatalistic resignation of “On the Edge” – which poetically informed us, “We’re dancing on the edge of the stage, it won’t be long before we fall/The dance is the thing, the fall just brings us the news/That we don’t get no curtain call” – Smither laid claim to the crown of Philosopher King of the Blues.
He wasn’t all about Deep Thoughts, however, and the small but devoted audience occasionally broke out into laughter at his consistently clever wordplay. While Smither’s sense of humor ranges from wry to pitch black, he nailed the crowd’s collective funnybone with “Origin of Species,” a sly debate over intelligent design versus evolution, as well as a new song (“Nobody’s Home”?) that included a verse about “a clown with a comb-over” in a big white house in Washington.
He also shared his philosophy about “sturdy songwriters” and their “sturdy songs” – songs so well constructed that it’s nearly impossible to fuck them up no matter what you do. As evidence, he offered up a pair of prime examples with his encore of Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” (“If it wasn’t for Bob Dylan, I wouldn’t have a job,” he explained) and a totally Smitherized, radical reinvention of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.”
And while Smither may not be in the same ranks as Dylan and Berry, he showcased a few songs on Friday that might rightly be described as “sturdy songs.”
CHRIS SMITHER SET LIST
Make Room for Me
Don’t Call Me Stranger
Time Stands Still
Nobody Home (new)
Get a Better One
Hundred Dollar Valentine
What It Might Have Been
On the Edge
Place in Line
Drive You Home Again
Origin of Species
Maybellene (Chuck Berry)
No Love Today
Seems So Real
Leave the Light On
Visions of Johanna (Bob Dylan)