Chris Smither’s blues hide hope in tough topics
BY JEFF ELBEL January 11, 2013 12:56PM
♦ 8 p.m. Jan. 11
♦ S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Ave. Evanston
♦ Tickets, $22-$34
♦ (847) 492-8860;
Chris Smither has traveled countless miles with his careworn blend of folk and acoustic blues. His hallmarks include the fingers of an effortless musician, a voice as craggy and deep as the earth, the soul of a philosopher and master poet, and the foot-tapping percussion of a restless wanderer. More than forty-five years into a life in music, Smither returns to Evanston’s S.P.A.C.E. for a performance onJan. 11.
Smither arrives with fresh songs from his 12th studio album, “Hundred Dollar Valentine.” Though he has a reputation for a cynical streak, Smither gently insists otherwise. “Most of my songs are fairly hopeful,” he says. Smither is also quick to support the idea that an elemental purpose of the blues is “to dispel the bad” by confronting it.
A description of unfulfilled aspirations during “Place in Line” comes with avuncular advice to not sweat the small stuff. “Don’t try to find your place in line, ’cause it’s everywhere,” Smither sings, reassuringly. “The cynic would say, ‘There’s no place for you,’” he says.
In any case, Smither’s album doesn’t wallow in fatalism. While darker passages during songs like the conversational “On the Edge” may seem too close to the bone for fiction, the collection is leavened with everyday wisdom in “What They Say” and witty, rapid-fire wordplay in “Make Room For Me.” Other lyrics reveal a guardedly optimistic observer of the heart.
During the song “Hundred Dollar Valentine,” tangled anecdotes coalesce into a lovesick wrestling match between doubt and trust. “I wanted to convey this overwrought, anxious guy who’s acting as though he’s never going to see this woman again, when she’s only gone to work,” says Smither. “And yet I can remember days when I felt just that way. A day can at times seem like an eternity.”
Headlining artists including Diana Krall and Emmylou Harris have covered Smither’s songs. His “Love Me Like a Man” even appears on Bonnie Raitt’s greatest hits collection. For “Hundred Dollar Valentine,” Smither reached into his catalog himself.
“Every Mother’s Son” meets at the stylistic intersection of Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and Johnny Cash while describing a wayward life. The song first appeared on Smither’s 1972 album “Don’t It Drag On.” With a deeper key and slower tempo, the song now packs a palpable sense of regret. “It’s much more resigned,” Smither says of the new version.
“I can’t remember exactly what had happened when I wrote the song, whether it was in response to someone ‘going postal’ or murdering people in a Burger King,” Smither says, suggesting a sadly repetitious scenario. “The song gets more relevant every year. Of course, you don’t dream that a few months after the record comes out, this horrible thing’s going to happen in Connecticut,” he says, referring to tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
An omnivorous reader, Smither suggests Steven Pinker’s recent “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” for a different view. “It seems counterintuitive to say that we are gradually becoming less violent and murderous, but Pinker has eight hundred pages worth of statistics to back it up,” he says.
Mournful guitar and weeping harmonica during “What it Might Have Been” mark the death of a relationship. The song echoes “I Feel the Same,” another song originally written for “Don’t it Drag On.” “They’re bookends,” says Smither, “written forty years apart.”
The newer song illustrates the precision Smither has developed as a lyricist. “I’m more comfortable with language now,” he says. “’I Feel the Same’ is so spare, though. It would be difficult to point out any mistakes. That song has always been a touchstone. I use it to remind me that you don’t have to say a whole lot.”
It helps any storyteller to retain some mystery. “Keep your mouth shut and some people will think you’re a fool,” says Smither, quoting the proverb. “Open it, and they’ll know for sure,” he concludes, laughing.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.