Chris Smither - guitar, vocals
Leaving New Orleans to immerse himself in the thriving folk and blues scene around Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late-1960s, Chris Smither soon proved himself to be an eloquent songwriter, masterful guitarist, and a gifted singer, with a rich, emotionally charged voice. With a songwriting maturity and depth that belied his young age, Smither caught the attention of Cambridge blues promoter and manager, Dick Waterman, an important figure in the blues revival of the 1960s. By 1969, Smither had moved to Garfield Street in Cambridge and regularly visited Waterman's home, where many blues legends of the era were known to assemble. (It was there that Smither first performed his song "Love You Like A Man" for Waterman's friend, Bonnie Raitt.) That same summer, Smither appeared at the high profile Philadelphia Folk Festival and began work on his debut album. Just entering his mid-twenties at the time he released his 1970 debut, I'm A Stranger, Too, Smither was already writing songs with the insight and eloquence of some of the period's best singer/songwriters, but with a distinctly original sound that reflected his Louisiana roots. I'm a Stranger, Too was well received, as was the follow-up, Don't It Drag On, and Smither was poised for major success and recognition. However, it was not meant to be. Shortly after being signed to United Artists and recording his third album, the label was purchased and put out of business, resulting in the cancellation of Smither's 1973 album, Honeysuckle Dog. This lost gem would eventually be issued in 2005, nearly 32 years later, but this bad luck, combined with a major tragedy in his personal life, sent Smither on a long cycle of depression. Although he remained a fixture on the New England folk club scene, he didn't release another record for more than a decade.
This 1973 Chris Smither performance, when he opened for Judy Collins at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, is quite remarkable as it captures him right at the end of this early phase of his career, prior to the cancellation of the Honeysuckle Dog album and his descent into alcoholism. The performance not only features some of his best early originals and interpretations, but it also contains material from his cancelled 1973 album, as well as several songs that wouldn't see the light of day until his recovery and return, well over a decade later.
The performance kicks off with Smither's interpretation of Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" showcasing his strong rhythmic sense and a lovely, fluid, finger picking style. "Mail Order Mystics,"a standout original from his second album follows. This is a prime example of Smither's stoic existential songwriting as well as his Delta-inspired guitar chops. Before returning to that album's material for "I Feel The Same," a song of maturity and depth that Bonnie Raitt would record, Smither tackles three compelling covers that would turn up on his albums well over a decade later. Recorded by countless others, "Sittin' On Top Of The World" is unlike any other version. Smither slows the song down considerably, bringing out a beauty to the melody that was rarely apparent, and adds some eloquent finger picking. His interpretation of Elmore James' "Dust My Broom" is equally unique, showcasing Smither's vocal and guitar work, but forgoing the slide guitar grandstanding that is most often the focus of this song. On Chuck Berry's "Maybelline," Smither brings out the deep-rooted blues that are inherent to this song, but not so apparent on the rock and roll approach so often applied to this classic. Fans of George Thorogood and the Destroyers may notice that band's root sound is totally encapsulated here. With just a bottom heavy acoustic guitar and his voice, Smither is equally powerful.
Following this, Smither encourages the audience to quiet down, before playing "Long Gone" a delightfully introspective unreleased number, making it a particularly welcome presence here. Venturing back to his first album and the first of two Buffalo Springfield tracks to be featured in the show, he next performs a lovely rendition of Neil Young's "I Am A Child." Once again, Smither savors the beauty of the melody. Amazingly, his vocal brings out even more tenderness to the lyric than Neil Young himself, a truly remarkable accomplishment. Smither next tackles the early R&B tune, "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" in an infectious East Texas boogie arrangement that he learned from Lightnin' Hopkins.
The next two songs are both windows into the distant future. "The Glory Of Love" would not turn up until his 1984 comeback album, It Ain't Easy and "Leave The Light On" would eventually become the title track of his 2006 album nearly 33 years later! On the former, Smither's acoustic guitar work is exemplary. Fans of Jorma Kaukonen's acoustic work will find much to love about this performance in general and will find this number particularly striking.
As the set builds toward a close, Smither next delivers several compelling covers—the next three of which are all inspired choices. Both Richie Furay's "Kind Woman" and Bob Dylan's "Down In The Flood" receive excellent, thoroughly original readings. Randy Newman's "Guilty" is superb and another treasure that was originally intended for Smither's cancelled 1973 album, Honeysuckle Dog.
The set ends with Smither's signature original, "Love You Like A Man," one of the key songs from his debut album back in 1970. This was the song Bonnie Raitt revamped into "Love Me Like A Man," one of her earliest classics and it is a delight to here the original performed by Smither himself. The set closes on a peaceful tranquil note with Smither's version of "Green Rocky Road." This is by far the most traditionally folky number of his entire set. Most well known for Dave Van Ronk's version, Smither's take is equally compelling.
With a thoroughly original distillation of the folk and blues he grew up listening to in New Orleans, this set is an outstanding example of Chris Smither at his best, right before bad luck would set in and derail his recording career for well over a decade.