Baldwin’s Station, Sykesville, MD
September 23, 2010
Chris Smither has been playing for 40 years, and you can certainly tell. He’s experienced. He’s polished. He’s got that old-time country glamor. He’s got an easy way with the crowd and knows how to read his audience. It’s also apparent that the man has picked up quite a few tricks in that time. He knows how to work a crowd, pouring on the charm with self-deprecating humor that the dinner-and-a-show crowd knows how to relate to. He’s the kind of black-clad blues-and-country singer that puts you at ease and makes you feel thoughts out of your ken. After listening for a little while, you know what it’s like to follow your kid around and write down what she says to turn it into song—and, a few songs later, “Origin of Species” tells you a little bit about Darwin. Smither sings normal fare about dusty roads and God Almighty and his own children and parents, but that’s a good thing—blues songs need a bedrock in tradition, and Smither’s songs are catchy and wonderfully written, with a clever, acerbic edge not always found in the genre. But there aren’t too many folks who can write fun songs about Charles Darwin and get away with it (well, maybe Bad Religion).
Also, his set kind of rocked.
Michael Tager: Chris, how many times have you played at Baldwin’s Station?
Chris Smither: Oh, three times I’d say.
MT: And is the normal kind of venue that you play?
CS: Oh no, definitely not. I normally play clubs and bigger concerts or festivals. Most common are places that hold 250-400. I don’t think this place can hold 100.
MT: Do you prefer playing those bigger kinds of places?
CS: Not really. The smaller ones, from a musical standpoint it’s easier to build rapport. The bigger places, you have to spread yourself and it can be more … artificial.
Appearing at Baldwin’s Station as part of the Uptown Concert series, Smither at first glance does not fit into the scene. It’s a family kind of restaurant, the kind with exposed wooden beams and $10 plates of cheese, and Smither looks like he belongs in a big honky-tonk with a band of solemn guitar players behind him. Instead, he flashes a grin and takes a seat near the front of the room, in a corner, and as the lights go down and cutlery clinks on plates, he starts singing.
MT: Who are you writing for?
CS: Me. If it pleases me, a vanishingly small percentage of the population, I figure it’ll be good enough for the rest.
MT: Your songs seem to have a lot of humor—or at least are interpreted that way. Would you say your songs are funny?
CS: Oh, they’re funny, and when you get a reaction like the other night, you can tell there are new people in the audience. I get a lot of people who come to shows over and over. When there’s laughter like that, there are a lot of people who haven’t heard me before. The songs aren’t slapstick. There’s a lot of semantic and linguistic jokes. Doesn’t work well in the city. You’d think people in New York would be sophisticated, but the jokes go over their heads. My songs are fairly serious, but with a funny side to make it human.
The songs he plays are as old as his 1970 hit “Love You Like a Man”—which has been covered by musicians as esteemed as Bonnie Raitt—or topical ones about the financial crisis. He refers to “No Love Today” as the “fruit and vegetable song,” and there’s “Lola”; we all know “what happens to broads named that” (as he says with a teasing grin). The high point is “Leave the Light On,” a beautifully melancholy piece about youth and love. Smither’s crushed-gravel voice and delicate, whiskey-soaked guitar strumming are perfectly suited to the songs he sings, and the pain and irony, punctuated by biting humor, come through in an almost visceral way.
The crowd doesn’t move much—there’s an occasional head bob here or toe tap there—but the laughter at some of his lines is huge, filling the sold-out venue, and the sound of the applause at the end of each song belies the number of hands clapping. After the second set and again at the end of the night, there’s a huge line of people buying CDs and waiting for a moment of Smither’s time. He’s amiable and friendly and, most of all, comfortable. This has happened before.
MT: “Love You Like a Man”—is that typical of your earlier sound?
CS: Well, that’s a pure blues song, but lyrically [it’s] something different. I still write songs like that, but they were all blues back then. I’ve grown into other forms of music. [Laughs.] Wish I could get another hit like that.
MT: There seemed to be a huge reaction after the songs were over, but not a lot during them. Why do you think that is?
CS: People who hadn’t seen me before have uncertainty in how to behave. Run into that a lot. Especially in a venue like this.
MT: That fades after a second performance, or maybe in a different place?
It might seem as though “dinner and a show” is an antiquated concept. It isn’t. Seeing an artist like Smither in such an intimate, comfortable setting is an experience not to miss. After listening to Smither’s songs and understanding his writing process, you’ll want to see him again.
He performs a lot. Go see him. You won’t regret it. [smither.com/tour]
—Michael Tager (Baltimore, MD)
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