MUSIC REVIEW: Singing the Blues, Effortlessly: Chris Smither Plays Mad River

Most folks who’ve ever listened to the blues casually assume that this time-worn and much-appropriated musical genre is more or less focused on all things depressing – cheatin’, lyin’, stealin’, boozin’, lustin’, heartbreak, and life’s many other sorrows and woes.

While this is certainly true, there is an often-overlooked playful aspect to blues music, as well, and few blues musicians capture the clever side of blues better than Massachussetts blues veteran Chris Smither.

Affable and understated, Smither is one of those rare birds in the blues/folk world – a solo acoustic performer (think John Fahey, Dave Van Ronk, or Leo Kotke) who has carved out a successful long-term musical niche for himself without sacrificing his commitment to the genre he most loves. Audiences and critics alike laud Smither for his standout talent. The Associated Press calls him “an American original, and one of the absolutely best singer-songwriters in the world.” Wired magazine, meanwhile, refers to Smither as a “megawatt solo performer,” while Rolling Stone baldly states that “Chris Smither delivers one of the most riveting live shows you’re ever likely to see.”

I’ve listened to Smither’s music on and off for years – and, in spinning his newest (and twelfth) 2006 CD “Leave the Light On,” I can only conclude that his newest project is the best testament yet to Smither’s tremendous virtuosity as a performing songwriter.

Begin with Smither’s instrumental skills, which are top notch. Anyone who has ever futzed around with blues chords knows how easy they are to play, but how hard they are to play really well. Smither’s effortless playing is as smooth as it comes – he can lay down both a bass line and a blues riff without thinking too hard. The album’s first cut – “Open Up” – slides the listener right into the space, and then segues into the title track, which showcases Smither’s slapping bass-driven thumb pick style. Tremendous.

And all this smooth playing is so tasty, in part, because it opens up the ear to Smither’s gifted lyrical abilities. Simply stated, Smither is fun to listen to because he is so good at turning a phrase.

If I were young again I’d pay attention /
To that little known dimension/
The taste of endless time/
It’s like water, it runs right through our fingers
But the flavor of it lingers
Like a rich red wine…

Notice how Smither takes the songwriter’s tendency to simply rhyme one verse’s end with another (standard beginner’s stuff –not bad) and “complexifies” it by adding the “time/wine” pairing. And he does this sort of verbal acrobatics constantly, to the point where anyone who thinks about songwriting begins to wonder if there’s something in the whiskey he’s drinking that gives him special word smithing powers. I could write pages on Smither’s penchant for phrase-turning – suffice to say the man combines the best themes of the blues vernacular in a unique style all his own.

And Smither’s voice – how to describe it? By turns wry, witty, and wistfully hopeful –good vocal qualities to have for a blues performer in the midst of interesting times.

So if you’’ve never heard Smither perform – take a chance and come on down to the Valley Player’s Theater on Saturday, September 13 for the 8:00 show. Be prepared, though, to be quietly, cleverly, effortlessly wowed by one of America’s greatest living acoustic bluesmen. Hope to see you there.