[21 August 2014]
It’s not uncommon for artists of a certain vintage to revisit their past work with the benefit of hindsight. Time changes the artist, and hence the artist’s relationship with their songs. These changes—maybe a slight lyric modification, a change of tempo, additional or less instrumentation—are most common in live performance. Some take the extra step to actually re-record older material in the studio. Folk/blues maestro Chris Smither has just released such a retrospective collection, Still on the Levee, focusing on 25 songs from throughout his long career.
Smither’s been recording since 1970, coming up through the folk scene of New Orleans and Cambridge, MA. Though influenced by older players such as Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins, he quickly developed an immediately identifiable singing and guitar style of his own. On her second album, Bonnie Raitt recorded Smither’s “Love You Like a Man” (retitled “Love Me Like a Man”), which she still performs today. It’s gone on to be his best-known song, covered by many others. This is a good thing and a bad thing, as equally strong material he’s written tends to get overlooked in the shadow of that song. Still on the Levee may remedy that some.
This could have been a straight rehashing of his greatest hits, songs he’s already released numerous times on live albums. He’s already re-recorded a few of his songs over the years, as well. Instead though, this is a carefully picked selection, sometimes touching on the well-known and sometimes not. Some tracks are reworked and some are true to their origin, but imbued with a deeper soul. In addition, he’s joined on some songs by guests who bring their own styles and approach to the material. These guests include Loudon Wainwright III, Allen Toussaint, Rusty Belle, and members of Morphine. Emphasizing the down home vibe, Smither is also joined by his sister and fiddle playing adopted young daughter.
A highlight is “that” song, the obligatory “Love You Like a Man”, which is given a rollicking, vigorous workout, with impassioned vocals belying Smither’s 69 years. The harmonica soaked “Another Way to Find You” is even more bluesy than before and a slow “Rosalie” is transcendent. “Winsome Smile” is less, well, less winsome, and has now become a rocker. “Don’t It Drag On”, however, in this new duet version, loses a bit of its original ruminative poignancy, while a soft background drumbeat hurries it along a bit too much. It’s the only reworking that doesn’t improve on or equal the original.
Elsewhere, “Train Home” and “No Love Today” are given a cinematic scope with the addition of songwriting legend Allen Toussaint’s piano, showing that a whole album of Smither and Toussaint together would be a welcome thing indeed.
This is turning into a year of retro-Smither. Along with this retrospective, there’s also a new collected lyrics book going back to 1966 and in September there will be a tribute album (Link of Chain).
It all comes down to the songs, and that weathered ‘n’ warm voice and guitar.