STILL ON THE LEVEE
Signature Sounds Recordings ★★★★★
Renowned songwriter reviews his 50 year career with a little help from his friends Chris Smither is highly esteemed for his guitar skills and as a sublime wordsmith by many key musicians today from Emmylou
Harris and Bonnie Raittto Diana Krall and John Mayall. He has written and performed since the mid-1960s deciding to review his significant back catalogue by re-cutting some of his personal favourite songs. He has called on the services of friends Allen Toussaint, Kris Delmhorst and Loudon Wainwright III, together with band members from Morphine and Rusty Belle as well as family members Catherine Norr and Robin Smither.
Smither describes his style as ‘one-third Mississippi John Hurt, one-third Lightnin’ Hopkins and one-third me’. I would add a touch of JJ.Cale, and Kris Kristofferson plus a smidgeon of John Martyn and Ray Bonneville. You come up with the pared-down rough simplicity that is quintessential Chris Smither. STILL ON THE LEVEE contains 25 songs over two discs with lyric booklet, photos and introductory articles by a former manager and the current album producer. Disc one starts with one of Smither’s first recorded songs, Devil Got Your Man. This has a fine cello solo from Kris Delmhorst midway through and good harmony band support from the project’s
scratch four-piece outfit, The Motivators. It eases us into this understated but frequently spirited set. Smither’s best known song is Love You Like A Man, originally released on his 1970 album, I’M A STRANGER TOO! It was covered two years later by Bonnie Raitt to become one of her most successful songs and is still in her live repertoire. Smither provides an uplifting bounce in this 2014 rendition with upbeat ragtime-styled guitarfinger-picking and an irrepressible country yodel, enhancing the natural rasp in his baritone delivery.
This album set is not a greatest hits collection or a hastily put-together rehash of past glories. Each song has been carefully crafted and given added soul from an artist who hasdeveloped quietly and subtly over fifty years as a performer and song creator. Smither enlists the support of other musician friends, bringing their experience and abilities to this project. Loudon Wainwright joins Smither on WhatTheySay (on disc two) where the smartly observed lyric recalls Wainwright’s own wry musings with lines like ‘Friends in need are friends indeed, but friends who think are what we
need. They hardly talk at all, they just do it’. These observations are in contrast to the jaunty music-hall piano accompaniment and cheerful acoustic backbeat behind the vocals.
Both discs conclude with versions of Leave The Light On, a more recent number, first appearing as the title of Smither’s 2006 album release. Disc one’s version is more acoustic and taken at a mid-to-fast tempo with daughter Robin playing violin solo and Rusty Belle providing harmony accompaniment. The second version is slower, more soulful and darker. Smither shares lead vocal on verses here with Kate Lorenz of Rusty Belle. The final ensemble unison chorus is nothing short of a gritty triumph. Both recordings are very different and are metaphors for the ‘as was’ and ‘as is’ sides of Smither’s performing years.
This is a beautiful piece of retrospective craftsmanship by an accomplished artist, compiling a tender renewal of past offerings. What we have are 25 polished, varnished and utterly fresh songs, filtered through the lens of time and love. Simon Beards