“Hearing is letting it happen,
To listen’s a work of will.”
—(“Small Revelation,” Chris Smither)
The fact that reknown folksinger Eric Von Schmidt painted the cover for his friend’s record says something of who Chris Smither is and how long he has been around. Chris has been a mainstay in acoustic blues since the ‘60s folk music trend crested into the blues revival. In those days, Chris would have been working the coffee house circuit. Those were small venues, with atmospheres of close intimacy. Hunched around small tables pushed tightly together, people tended to speak quietly because they had come to listen.
As a result, musicians really honed their skills because they knew how closely they would be paid attention to. There really is no forgiveness when playing live, but Smither insists “playing’s the thing.” Live as I’ll Ever Be is an outing to a Chris Smither concert, containing 14 songs recorded over a two year period of shows. Here you’ll have front-row seating to those versions that especially asked to be remembered.
Smither is a guitarist, singer, and songwriter to be reckoned with. He sings in a beautifully timbered deep voice. His guitar work blends stong roots with his own innovative stylings. In listening to him play, there are reminders of Mississippi John Hurt’s sweet picking style, but not all here is sweetness and light. Smither’s guitar can slip into an eerie melancholy when called for, as in his introduction to “The Devil’s Real.” His move into the song carries all the tradition of hard, hard trouble blues, the first few bars as chilly as walking past a cemetery in gloomy weather. Although you must admit the possibility that “The Devil’s Real” can be a troublesome and scary realization. Similarly, the lead in to “Link of Chain” evokes the lonesome desperation of old prison blues before stepping up into a country blues riff and then picking up the beat.
Because he can paint tone pictures like these, Smither attracted people like Bonnie Raitt and Lowell George to his work. He can easily sing and play a solid version of “Dust My Broom,” which he is careful to point out is actually a song written by Robert Johnson. The others are original blues compositions, many times presented in a step-lively style. As Chris admits in one, he just can’t shake these blues.
Lyrically, these songs are concerned with the difficult nature of freedom. Smither’s voice sometimes sounds grizzled, as if he’s handing over advice he learned the hard way. He reaches for his expression from lessons learned in a world full of rough justice. Knowledge seems to arrive in a series of small revelations, as in “Slow Surprise,” where “There is a way the subtle changes come to stay, barely noticed, hardly known…” Through all the songs, there’s a strong sense of endurance, acceptance, and resignation, just like the portrait of Chris on the cover. The peach farmer just knows the crows will always find a way to get to the peaches before him.