We had only been there five minutes and already I was annoyed. Having never been to McCabe’s Guitar Shop, it was not remotely what I had expected. Instead of a truly intimate setting like I’d been accustomed to in Boston at folk/acoustic clubs like Club Passim and the Kendall Café, McCabe’s is set up like a church basement, with lots of folding chairs packed into tight rows and oddly placed pillars blocking sightlines. We had arrived exactly five minutes late and were exactly the last people to get there, so we clambered over a couple of fat old hippies to get to the last two chairs in the back row, from where we had a great view of the neck of Louise Taylor’s guitar, peeking out from behind one of the oddly placed pillars. I couldn’t believe it—everyone was on time for an acoustic singer-songwriter show? Didn’t anyone in the folk scene get stoned anymore?
We had come to hear one of my idols, Chris Smither, the man who wrote Bonnie Raitt’s hit “Love Me Like a Man” and who is arguably the best acoustic blues guitarist since Lightnin’ Hopkins. I had dragged along my friend Jason, who is also a singer-songwriter-guitarist and who therefore, I thought, might appreciate hearing one of the true masters live. Now, as we sat crammed into our back-row seats listening to Taylor’s pleasant but unremarkable opening set, I worried that he would wind up hating the whole thing. This didn’t feel like a fun night out—this felt like going to Sunday school. The crowd was church-mouse quiet, sitting on their hands and practically holding their breath through each song and then applauding politely at the end. There were no whoops and no cheers (although Taylor’s rambling stories elicited some hearty laughs, so at least people were awake). But the evening wasn’t off to a great start.
Still, there was something very appropriate about coming to hear Chris Smither at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, which really is a guitar shop. To listen to this finger-picking wizard in a room literally lined with guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, dobros and other stringed instruments is a little like getting to watch Monet paint at the Louvre. McCabe’s is the top venue for acoustic acts in all of Los Angeles; while there’s something kinda cool about a retail space beating out all bars and coffeehouses for that title, it’s probably also an indication of just how insular and fusty the L.A. folk scene is. You can’t drink a beer while listening to J.J. Cale or John Gorka, but you can shop for a new capo at the intermission.
But as soon as Smither took the stage I began to relax a little—getting to see and hear the master work his magic was a treat, even sitting in a folding chair and having to crane my head around the pillar to watch his fretwork. Smither took the stage with a relaxed and unassuming air, and immediately fell to tuning his trademark blue Alvarez guitar. “I’ve had hours to do this,” he joked. Smither totally lacks a showman’s charisma (which probably partially accounts for his lack of fame) but he has another, equally rare gift—as you listen to him talk and play, the room gets smaller; by about the third or fourth song, you feel like you’re in the company of an old, close friend. I had seen Smither once before in a club the size of a living room, and so had not fully appreciated this ability. But at McCabe’s it was extraordinary to experience, especially being stuck in the back row, and made me understand why none of Smither’s eight studio albums, as good as they all are, had ever fully captured his talent.
Smither began making records back in 1971, but a combination of bad deals and personal problems kept him out of the spotlight until 1991, when he reemerged with a live-in-the-studio record called Another Way to Find You. That record remains Smither’s masterpiece. It is a glorious combination of perfect studio acoustics and that magical, intimate vibe Smither creates before a live audience, coalesced into a series of absolutely riveting performances of the best songs off Smither’s first four albums; in addition, there’s a handful of definitive covers (every Deadhead should own Another Way to Find You just for his haunting version of “Friend of the Devil”). Since then Smither has matured into a finer songwriter, but a less fiery performer and less of a true bluesman—Smither’s recent tunes all have a distinctly country twang, and the sophisticated chord changes of most modern folk, though the blues is still there in his tremulous, world-weary voice.
Smither started his set with one of his most honky-tonk numbers, the sprightly, countrified “Link of Chain”. The intricacy of Smither’s playing is much-analyzed and revered, but what always strikes me about it, especially hearing him live, is his tone—Smither’s fretwork is so rapid and precise that he can hit every note with exactly as much volume and resonance as he chooses to give it, which makes his playing more rich than flashy. Another reason why he’ll probably never be famous—there’s never anything histrionic about Smither’s playing, it’s just quietly flawless.
From “Link of Chain”, Smither moved into the two best songs off his most recent studio release, the very fine Drive You Home Again: a bluesy ballad called “No Love Today” and the hilarious “Get a Better One”. “Get a Better One” sounded a bit corny on disc, but it’s great in front of a live audience, where its goofy, unexpected humor draws big laughs; “No Love Today”, however, succeeds in either setting. It’s the kind of song that has become Smither’s stock-in-trade: a melancholy mid-tempo number with wise lyrics recounting heartbreak and hard lessons learned, and bluesy chords etched into high relief by the grace notes that seem to spill effortlessly out of Smither’s guitar. Over the course of his set Smither played many other fine songs in a similar vein—his own “Hold On” and “Drive You Home Again”, an extraordinarily pretty version of J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia”—but personally I’ve always tended to prefer his more rollicking blues numbers, which never seem to work as well in the studio but are nearly always incandescent when he plays them live. And Smither didn’t skimp on the more traditional stuff—he laid down terrific covers of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie and Albert” and Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom”; reprised his own medley of “High Heeled Sneakers” and “Big Boss Man” off Another Way to Find You; and wrapped up his set with a fabulous traditional number called “Duncan and Brady”, a blues-folk ballad punched up to an almost rockabilly tempo. Smither also trotted out “Love You Like a Man”, which for all its bluesy swagger sounds like a throwaway track now compared to his more recent work. If it weren’t for Bonnie Raitt it would probably be consigned to the vaults—and indeed Smither introduced the song almost apologetically, though he still plays it with gusto.
Less apologetic were renditions of Smither originals off his last three studio albums, including what to my mind are his two best numbers to date—“Can’t Shake These Blues” from 1995’s Up on the Lowdown and “Winsome Smile” from 1997’s Small Revelations. The first is simply a flat-out great song, with an unforgettable, loping guitar riff and some of Smither’s best lyrics, which are a giddy combination of wry wit and soul-searching pathos chronicling a battle with depression (“I went to my doctor, such a waste of time/ He gave me a bottle full of dope of some kind/ He said ‘Shake ‘fore you use’/ But it just don’t shake these blues”). “Winsome Smile” is less hooky musically but features lyrics that are even better. Smither always introduces the song as a pep-talk for a lovelorn friend, but more than that, it’s a wise and brutally funny guide to surviving heartbreak, a topic Smither has clearly thought about a lot (“You think if she’d just talk you could explain it all/ She’d be polite, but all night she’s been hoping you won’t call”). Both these tracks and other great songs like “I Am the Ride” and “Drive You Home Again” show Smither maturing into a terrific songwriter—and if his own low-key delivery of this material can’t make it famous, someone like a Bonnie Raitt needs to come along and do the job for him.
So okay, the evening turned out well despite the folding chairs and the comatose audience. How could it not, when one of the world’s great guitarists is serving up a generous and lively two-hour set? But I still wish there was someplace in L.A. to hear world-class acoustic music and drink a beer at the same time.