Fred X – Great music, and cake for everyone

Picture 5As show time approached, music fans milled in front of the Bellows Falls Opera House, munching on barbeque and comparing notes from past festivals.  Downstairs in the reception area, festival organizer Ray Massucco unveiled an enormous “Fred X” cake, and later when he introduced local singer/songwriter Josh Maiocco, he offered everyone in the house a piece.

It’s Roots on the River, a musical Brigadoon that materializes every June in the mist of Bellows Falls and Rockingham.  For four wonderful days, any music lover can be part of community – there’s enough cake for everyone

Stave, Gary, Jackie and Amy, who traveled from Great Britain for the festival, commiserated with their friend Randy, who’d made the trek from northern California.   Soon, their friend John joined them.

“I came to my first Roots in 2007,” said John, who’d come from Manchester, England.  “Now, I have a girlfriend in Saxton’s River.”

Picture 3Josh Maiocco worked though a short set of autobiographical songs and a few covers, including a tasty medley of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

“No way I’m playing here without doing a Chris Whitley song,” Josh said, as he ended with “Dirt Floor,” a poignant reminder of Whitley’s last ever appearance, at the 2005 festival.

A laid-back Chris Smither won the house over with his good humor and great songwriting.  There’s probably no musician as comfortable in his own skin as the New Orleans-raised Smither, a writer/essayist who spent nearly as much time telling stories as singing songs during his set.

He previewed songs from the upcoming “Time Stands Still,” a studio album due for September release.  Among the highlights was a song he wrote for his four-year old daughter  (he quipped that she’d written two thirds of it, but he didn’t want to tell her because “then she’ll want money”), a conversation between father and daughter which contained this knowing refrain: “The wisest answer’s one you’ve learned a long time ago: ‘I don’t know’”

Picture 4Smither introduced another new song, “Surprise, Surprise,” as “topical – which is just as hard to write as a regular song, but only lasts for six months or so.  With such a short shelf life, you have to play it a lot.”

After two relatively sedate, sit-down solo sets from Maiocco and Smither, Sonny Landreth’s brand of Southern blues-rock was a bit jarring, and a few fans made an early exit.   Fans of the slide guitarist, however, were  electrified by his high-energy pyrotechnics.

It was  a great kickoff to the festival, which continues tomorrow with a free Ninja Monkey/Spike Dogtooth show at the Farmer’s Market, and the first of Fred Eaglesmith’s  shows in the tent behind the Everyday Inn.  Ray Massucco commissioned another cake specially for the show, in the shape of co-star Junior Brown’s “guit-steel” guitar.

It’s Brown’s birthday, and Ray’s a hospitable guy. There will probably be plenty to share.

Tickets remain for Friday night’s show, and the all-day Saturday ten extravaganza, featuring Eaglesmith’s band, the Bottle Rockets, Hayes Carll, Roger Marin, the Sweetback Sisters, Caroline Herring, Red Molly and Jenee Halstead.

There are also seats available for the Meetinghouse show on Sunday, featuring Eaglesmith and Jeffrey Foucault.

Chris Smither – Leave the Light On

smither.jpgFor much of his career, Chris Smither’s had a reputation as a musician’s musician, a polite euphemism for toiling in relative, if comfortable, obscurity. He’s best known for giving Bonnie Raitt “Love Me Like a Man.”

That may not change with his latest, and it’s a shame. “Leave the Light On” is packed with wry wit and rugged charm. It’s full of touching moments like “Father’s Day,” where he arrives at a beautiful understanding of tenuous, yet enduring family love, along with passages of buoyant optimism.

The record’s tone is set with the leadoff track, “Open Up,” which melds a bemused sensibility to a jaunty Texas swing beat. He sounds a bit like John Prine when he reports “I don’t think for pleasure/it’s just hard not to do/my thinking is a measure of how much I need a clue.”

“I’m still flying blind,” he continues, but if that’s true, he still sees quite clearly.

Smither faces his own dark history on a few songs. “Shillin’ for the Blues” revisits his alcoholism and the resentment it fueled, while “Seems So Real” plunges him deeper into the abyss, as he sings, “if down were up you couldn’t get much higher.”

He also covers Lightnin’ Hopkins “Blues in a Bottle,” but with 21 years of sobriety, most of the record is a hopeful look forward rather than a ruminating backward glance. In the title cut Smither wishes he’d noticed “the taste of endless time,” but makes it clear he’s more concerned about what’s left to be gained when he sings “I’ve got plenty left I’ve set my sight on/don’t wait up, leave the light on.”

David “Goody” Goodrich’s stellar production and backup playing propel the disc. Enlisting help from Americana darlings Ollabelle, along with string wizards Tim O’Brien and Sean Staples, he gives “Leave the Light On” plenty of texture, but doesn’t bury Smither’s earthy essence beneath it.

Anita Suhanin, who’s done session work with Goodrich before, shines on “Cold Trail Blues,” her wind-tossed soprano the perfect counterpoint to Peter Case’s sad song of romantic loss. She also enlivens the title track.

On other highlights, Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” is transformed into a waltz to surprisingly good effect. “Origin of Species” is a hilarious send-up of the intelligent design movement, and “Diplomacy” is perhaps the most good-natured protest song anyone’s written in years. With his latest, Chris Smither proves that age and experience are reliable incubators of artistry.

Five Stars

More info: Chris Smither performs Thursday, September 21 at the Somerville Theatre and Saturday September 23 at the Iron Horse Music Hall