I had the privilege of catching Chris Smither at the Corner Hotel on Monday night, together with Anna, who I had previously made a convert, and Greg who had never heard of the man, but who is now an acolyte.
I first saw him at Port Fairy four or five years ago. As the saying goes, I was ‘blown away’, a reaction I’ve seen replicated in others I’ve introduced to his music. I have yet to meet anyone who has not responded to Chris Smither when confronted with a CD thrust underneath their nose by me.
He has the sort of face that’s often described as ‘lived-in’. It’s not so much lived-in, as in need of renovation; the kind of thing real estate agents describe as ‘a handy-man’s dream’.
I mean no disrespect to the master (just the opposite), but he has the sort of face on which life has not been kind. This gives his music a special kind of intensity in live performance.
Smither’s voice has aged like mahogany. He has that enviable deep timbre that suggests life deeply lived.
I’ve become slightly obsessed with his version of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘Blues in the Bottle’ on the most recent album, hearing its perfect stark intensity in my head in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Blues in the bottle
Blues in the bottle
Stopper in my hand, doggone my bad luck soul.
Stopper in my hand.
Pour the blues out of the bottle,
Pour ‘em into the man.
It doesn’t hurt to have the biographical detail of his difficulties with alcohol in one’s mind while hearing this, which must have been hard indeed. Hard enough to keep him out of the recording studio for a decade.
The song is restless but familiar at the same time, possibly because it’s in E flat. My understanding of harmony is shaky, but it seems to rattle around just outside of resolution, in that beautifully fluid and melodic picking style Smither has. The ears and body sense that the melody is homeless, seeking home, perfectly complementing its bleak lyric.
The song ‘Origin of Species’ is a highlight of the album, and has been getting some attention around the internet. I heard that Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the songs of 2006. Chris was nonplussed. “Who knew they were listening?” he said the other day on radio.
It’s a tiny masterpiece of concision and satirical edge in these days when a significant lobby group are demanding that a form of superstition be taught in our schools as science.
Eve told Adam, “Snakes! I've had' em!
Let’s get outta here.
We'll raise our family someplace outta town.”
They left the garden just in time
with the landlord cussin', right behind.
They headed east and finally settled down.
One thing led to another... a bunch of sons, one killed his brother
they kicked him out with nothin' but his clothes.
But the human race survives 'cause the brothers all found wives.
Where they came from ain't nobody knows.
Then came the flood, go figure,
just like New Orleans, only bigger
no one who couldn't swim would make it through
the lucky ones were on a boat,
think circus, then make it float
and hope nobody pulls the plug on you
how they fed that crowd is a mystery,
it ain't down in the history.
It's a cinch they didn't live on cakes and jam.
But lions don't eat cabbage, and in spite of that old adage
I've never seen one lie down with a lamb.
Charlie Darwin looked so far into the way things are
he caught a glimpse of God's unfolding plan
God said "I'll make some DNA, they'll use it any way they want
from paramecium right up to man.
They'll have sex, and mix up sections of their code;
they'll have mutations.
The whole thing works like clockwork over time.
I'll just sit back in the shade while everyone gets laid
that's what I call intelligent design."
Yes, you and your cat named Felix
are both wrapped up in that double helix
it's what we call intelligent design.
In a couple of short verses, he goes from a potted history of Creation, notes the silliness of the story, name checks Hurricane Katrina, Charles Darwin, wraps up evolution in a couple of lines and gives the listener a sense of its ineffable mystery. He also manages to include the word “paramecium”, which is surely its first ever appearance in a song. And to top it all off: a punchline!
‘Leave the Light On’ is a brilliant album, stretching Chris’ usual mode of solo acoustic guitar and voice in satisfying ways, with vocal harmonies and David Goodrich’s slide guitar.
Here’s an idea I wish Chris would consider: A Smither album with Daniel Lanois as producer, with his eclecticism and his mysterious sense of mood and unorthodox sonority. That I’d like to hear.