Review: Chris Smither – Out To Lunch 2019
Chris Smither is a musician’s musician; he is esteemed by guitarists, singers and songwriters alike. Small wonder then that tickets for this gig sold out quickly on their release and that when we arrived well before 8pm, we were lucky to nab just about the last four available seats.
Opening for Chris tonight was Matt Lorenz, otherwise known as The Suitcase Junket. Lorenz is a multi-instrumentalist, and besides appearing on Smither’s recently released album Call Me Lucky, he is accompanying him on his current UK tour. His is an eccentric act to say the least; with a hairstyle midway between Cosmo Kramer and Lyle Lovett, this veritable one-man-band sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Singing directly into the sound hole of his guitar or creating music with the hotchpotch of sundry items that make up his kit including a cook pot, a baby’s shoe and a saw blade is unusual enough. But it is his unique vocal style that really sets him apart from other artists.
When you first hear this confusing sound during his songs, a sound that’s weird and beautiful in equal measure, you wonder where it’s coming from. Audience members look at one another in bafflement; is he whistling?? Is it a backing track? How’s he doing that?? Then when he gives a demonstration in isolation, of what is somewhere between whistling, humming and throat singing, there is an audible “Wow!” from the audience. It’s difficult to convey to you exactly what this sound is like, the only thing I can compare it to is the sound of the mouth harp, but even that’s not quite right. Just YouTube it and see for yourself.
In a set full of funky, bluesy, honky-tonk sounding songs, my favourite was that inspired by his favourite chicken, “Jackie“. “I give her food, she gives me food, it’s a fairly standard human/chicken arrangement,” he tells us. Lucky chicken to have been immortalised in such a song, so evidently influenced by Chuck Berry that the only thing missing was the duck walk across the stage. Lorenz looked genuinely touched by the warm response.
Chris Smither began his set with the nice, easy, “Open Up” – and he makes it sound easy, effortless. The enthusiastic response confirmed that this was the main attraction, the reason we were all here. Smither’s deft guitar skills are legendary, as are his intelligent lyrics, and in “Make Room for Me”, he referenced, “a fence on the border, to keep us all in order, on minimum wage.” The less than subtle reference to Trump, sent a ripple of laughter around the room and Chris promised, “More about that later.”
A common theme in Chris Smither’s music is love and romance. He has a knack for penning irresistibly seductive songs, his delivery of which, is very convincing. One example is “Don’t Call Me Stranger”; “Come with me, I’ll guarantee you the best time you’ve ever had… C’mon baby, do yourself a favour and take my hand,” he’s a shameless flirt! With lyrics like that and a voice like he has, even at 74, I think he could convince me of just about anything. At the end of the song, he acknowledged that this was the kind of song that his mama would have hated. “Christopher, can’t you just play me something sweet?” she would ask. “Can’t you play me a love song?” “That was a love song,” he told us, and the wink was implied.
Missing tonight were his sometimes stage-mates; a plywood board on which to stomp and a mic trained on his feet. Still his feet provided the percussive accompaniment throughout the night. They should have their own tour!
All Smither’s albums are a mix of love, blues and humour, and his latest release is no exception. “Nobody Home“, he explains, is just about a guy looking for help, but brings the promised return to political satire; “I saw a clown with a comb-over, trying to float a loan through the CIA, while he tweeted on his phone.” He could hardly be more spot-on! Though he had the good grace to admit once the laughter and applause died down, that it was “almost too easy.”
What doesn’t come so easily though, is writing large numbers of songs. More prolific song-writing friends he confesses, write all day and night, only stopping to go into the studio – a practice which requires discipline, and as such, is against his nature. He asserts that he is only prompted to get down to writing again, when people start to wonder if he might be dead! Even then, he has to book a recording studio ten months in advance to put himself under pressure to lock himself in a room to write just enough to ensure he’ll have sufficient material when the time rolls around.
Ironically then, it was a discussion about the struggles of songwriting with a radio DJ that became the basis for one of the most beautiful songs on Call Me Lucky. The radio jock had asked him, “How do you write songs?” and he explains that he could only give a very reductive and incoherent answer. Afterwards though, he sat down to think about how he does it and wrote “Down to the Sound” about just that. I’d enjoyed this song on the record, but following his explanation, poetic lyrics like, “In my pockets of memory, where I keep my change, there’s no notion of order, it’s hard to arrange, it won’t bear inspection, there’s nothing to see, chaotic collections of symbols of me. It all comes down to the sound, when you can’t find your key, spin it around on common ground, until it sounds like me, and when it sounds like me, I almost hear my name,” take on a new significance.
The much-loved song “Train Home” was next, and Chris’s acrobatic fret skills are mesmerising. If you are going to any of the other scheduled dates on this tour, I seriously recommend that you get as close to front and centre as you can because the dexterity of those long, elegant fingers is a something to see.
In a rare, fleeting brag, Chris then extolled his own skill when he said, “Let me play you a real bluesy blues. If I hadn’t written it myself, I’d call it a classic.” As a young performer, his bread and butter had been listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt and wanting to be one of those guys. When the American folk-singer Vance Gilbert told him, “There’s a black man inside you trying to get out,” Chris was delighted, and admits that some years when he had his DNA analysed, “he was right, and it was the proudest moment of my life!” That blues classic was “What it Might Have Been.”
For the most part, Chris Smither doesn’t do covers. On occasion when he does, he explains that he and the producer and musician David “Goody” Goodrich had come up with a rule as to what songs he could cover; only “sturdy” songs, in other words, songs which could stand a lot of abuse. Bob Dylan is a very “sturdy” song writer he explains, “his songs take a lot of abuse – he abuses them himself!” Chuck Berry too qualifies, and that’s why “Maybellene” made it onto the new record. However, Smither’s version in minor key sounds so far removed from the original, you’d be forgiven for not recognising it.
Inviting Matt Lorenz back onto the stage, quipping, “you’re not going to do any of that weird shit are you?”, he needn’t have worried. The Suitcase Junket merely provided gentle slide guitar accompaniment on a beautiful version of another of the new songs, “Count on Me”. Together they also gave us a rendition of the other cover song on the new album, The Beatles’ “She Said, She Said.” It’s a delight live, just wonderful. Chris relayed how for years he’d been embarrassed about how late he’d come to The Beatles’ music, several albums in, but then he’d heard Revolver, and finally realised those guys were onto something! A nice little insight into the young Chris Smither.
Looking around tonight’s venue, The Black Box in Belfast’s historic Cathedral Quarter, I noted that it’s ideal for this type of gig; intimate without being cramped, a great view of the stage from any position, top class sound and lovely people. It’s actually a registered charity and it’s the work of many dedicated people to keep it going. And it’s so much more than a black box; it’s developing more and more character with each legendary artist they bring there and it’s fast becoming one of my favourite rooms in Belfast.
Lorenz remained on stage for another few songs from the new album, “The Blame’s on Me” and “Everything on Top,” providing groovy guitar and backing vocal, with a smattering of that inexplicable sound of his. These new songs are fresh but with a classic “Smither” sound. He bid his farewell then, leaving Chris to return to a few classics; “Hundred Dollar Valentine” and of course, “No Love Today.” He joked that no-one ever knows the name of this one and he’s regularly asked to play, “that fruit and veg song”, but this song is no gimmick. Lines like, “Everything I thought was love was worthless imitation,” make it a sincere song, full of despair, and there was a swell of anticipation round the room when we realised that he was about to play it. It’s an extraordinary song.
Ever aiming to move in a slightly different direction with each new album, Chris was messing around with some chords and challenged himself to write a song in which he kept the exact same finger shape throughout, and just moved it around the fret. Guitar nuts would love this! “And I did it,” he said. “It came out really depressing but I’m gonna play it for you anyway.” In fact, “Lower the Humble” is anything but depressing. Some Smither songs are hilariously funny, some are bitingly acerbic, others, like this one, are simple, beautiful and elegant.
With a nice bit of his signature foot-stomping in “Change Your Mind,” sadly it was time to draw things to a close and he ended on the unfailing favourite, “Leave the Light On.” It’s a lovely, nostalgic number about the passing of time, and man’s struggle to swim against the current. “I will live to be a hundred, I was born in ’44, 26 to go but I ain’t keepin’ score, I’ve been left for dead before, but I still fight on, Don’t wait up, Leave the light on, I’ll be home soon.” Time may be passing, but handsome in his periwinkle shirt and with a face full of character, Chris Smither has a charisma that many much younger men, never achieve.
The standing ovation was incessant – they weren’t going to let him go. “Will we do one more?” he asked, gesturing us to sit. And he brought the night to an end with Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesbro Blues.” Any serious blues aficionado couldn’t have been disappointed with his version and when he sang “I know I ain’t good looking, but I’m somebody’s angel child,” he believed every word.
Chris Smither is one of the best authentic blues performers out there. I first saw him almost twenty years ago in Magherafelt’s Bryson’s Bar and he’s as exciting today as he was then. Posing for pictures and signing merchandise after the show, he exuded warmth and charm. I cannot recommend highly enough that if you have a chance to catch one of his gigs on this tour, you grab it with both hands.