Chris Smither performs in Portsmouth
In the late 1970s, hard living nearly stopped Chris Smither cold. For 10 years, he didn’t perform, spending the hiatus, he said, “retreating into a whiskey bottle.” Fortunately, Smither survived and thrived. Now 74, he’s making some of his best music. Call Me Lucky, released in March 2018, finds him both reflective and cantankerous, with his pulsing fingerpicking guitar style right in the pocket.
“It all comes down to the sound of something longing to be,” he sings on one of the new collection’s best songs. Smither continues to write like his life depends on it, deftly addressing mortality on “By The Numbers” and raging about modern ennui with “Nobody Home,” a raucous complaint about technology, and the current state of politics.
Along with strong new originals, Call Me Lucky also contains a few well-chosen covers, including a faithful version of the Beatles’ “She Said She Said” born from a missing a John Lennon tribute concert in New York City due to heart surgery. “It’s always been the song that convinced me the Beatles were actually on to something,” Smither said by phone recently. “I didn’t get really involved in them until Revolver came out; I would just play it over and over again. It was haunting.”
Smither finds sadness at the core of two more covers, the early blues standard “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” The latter is especially revelatory; who knew what a sad, desperate song it was? “I know!” Smither exclaimed, crediting longtime producer David Goodrich for suggesting it at a planning meeting for the new album a few months before Berry’s death in 2017.
“He had turned 90 and just put out a new record,” Smither continued. “We’re wondering what on earth does Chuck Berry sound like at 90? Kind of laid back? Changed; depressed? Then Goody leans over to me and says, ‘hey, play ‘Maybelline’ and see if you can do it in a minor key.’ We sat around and played with it for about ten minutes. Then we just looked at each other and said, ‘oh, we gotta do this, this is amazing.’”
Smither’s first new effort in six years was also one of his most enjoyable projects. Done at Blue Rock Studio in Austin with a tight band including Goodrich, Billy Conway, Matt Lorenz and engineer Keith Gary (who also played piano), it stretched into a double album with B Side transformations of Smither originals. “Everything On Top” is startling, moving from a blues shuffle to a raver worthy of Alejandro Escovedo.
“That’s easily the most rocked out thing I’ve ever done,” Smither said. The retakes were done after hours, motivated by his producer’s desire to hip more artists to him. “Goody has this thing where he thinks nobody covers me enough.” Offers are rebuffed by claims that Smither’s guitar style can’t be imitated. “He keeps trying to tell them, ‘you don’t have to play the guitar, you can do these songs any way you want.’”
To prove the point, early in the sessions, the band laid down a wild musical track while Smither slept. “I walked in the next morning and it was playing through the speakers,” he recalled. “I said, ‘what the hell is that?’ and they said, ‘it’s ‘Everything On Top’ – see if you can sing it.’ It took me about two tries, and it was a lot of fun.”
Five more cuts got the late night treatment. “They’d just take one of the songs we had done that day and redo it, entirely differently,” Smither said. “I’d come in the next morning and they would dare me to sing it; the whole point of it was that on none of them was I playing the guitar.”
Through it all, Smither remains a steady troubadour, touring with more stamina that many artists half his age.
“I love the playing; I don’t like the going as much as I used to,” he said. “The traveling… is a little bit daunting, but once I get out there, I’m fine. I did this tour in January of this year and it was about as busy as I care to be, Ireland and the UK, 19 shows in 22 days. But halfway through it, I’m starting to feel pretty strong. You get all honed up, and put one foot in front of the other; before you know it, you’re back home.”
When: Friday, August 2, 8 p.m.
Where: 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth
Tickets: $30 at eventbrite.com ($35/door)