Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Freight & Salvage: Chris Smither

On a cold, rainy evening in Berkeley this past weekend I saw Chris Smither perform at one of the coolest venues in town: the Freight and Salvage coffeehouse. With floor to ceiling wooden walls and wagon wheel chandeliers, Freight and Salvage offered me an incredible concert experience (while completely satisfying my caffeine addiction). Every seat was filled and the aisles were full of people teeming to get an earful of Chris Smither, an acclaimed "blues infused innovator." Celebrating it's 40th anniversary in 2008, Freight and Coffee has created a tradition of playing host to a myriad of musicians of all genres. In its biography, the owner, Nancy Owens, states that, "Since its founding in 1968, the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse has been deeply rooted in that aspect of Berkeley's culture that embraced freedom, tolerance, cooperation, and innovation. It has resisted the bottom line mentality, and, instead, has been a mission-driven non-profit organization. The club not only survives, it has become a world famous venue for traditional music, be it folk, jazz, blues, bluegrass, world-beat, or gospel...From the start, my hope was to be multi-ethnic and multi-racial," Nancy continues, "a group of men and women and children who could get together in a spirit of community. Somehow, our dreams came together and meshed, and we created this community."

Christ Smither put on a great show, expertly blending beautiful guitar with gruff, grainy vocals. Tossing his hair back and forth and singing through a half-cracked smile, his commanding presence and witty banter was comfortable and effortless. He charmed the audience with anecdotes and stories about everything from past music festivals, to his impeding age, and, most memorably, to his young daughter. Stereo Review wrote that, "Chris Smither recasts the real folk blues in the ethereal language of the poet, projecting a kind of streetwise mysticism." Check out Richard Skelly's review as well:

"Like John Hammond and a handful of other musicians whose careers began in the 1960s blues revival, guitarist, singer, and songwriter Chris Smither can take pride in the fact that he's been there since the beginning. Except for a few years when he was away from performing in the '70s, Smither has been a mainstay of the festival, coffeehouse, and club circuits around the U.S., Canada, and Europe since his performing career began in earnest in the coffeehouses in Boston in the spring of 1966. Smither is best known for his great songs, items like "Love You Like a Man" and "I Feel the Same," both of which have been recorded by guitarist Bonnie Raitt. Raitt and Smither got started at about the same time in Boston, though Smither was born and raised in New Orleans, the son of university professors.

Smither's earliest awareness of blues and folk music came from his parents' record collection. In a 1992 interview, he recalled it included albums by Josh White, Susan Reed, and Burl Ives. After a short stint taking piano lessons, Smither switched to ukulele after discovering his mother's old instrument in a closet. The young Smither was passionately attached to the ukulele, and now, years later, it helps to explain the emotion and expertise behind his unique fingerpicking guitar style. Smither discovered blues music when he was 17 and heard a Lightnin' Hopkins album, Blues in the Bottle. The album was a major revelation to him and he subsequently spent weeks trying to figure out the intricate guitar parts. Smither moved to Boston after realizing he was a big fish in a small pond in the New Orleans folk/coffeehouse circuit of the mid-'60s.

Since then, he's more than proved his mettle as an enormously gifted songwriter, releasing albums mostly of his own compositions for the Flying Fish, Hightone, and Signature Sounds labels. Smither's albums during the '90s and into the 21st century include Happier Blue (1993, Flying Fish), Up on the Lowdown (1995, Hightone), Drive You Home Again (1999, Hightone), Live as I'll Ever Be (2000, Hightone), Train Home (2003, Hightone), Leave the Light On (2006, Signature Sounds), and Time Stands Still (2009, Signature Sounds), a career highlight. Any of Smither's releases are worthy of careful examination by guitarists and students of all schools of blues and folk music. Smither is still, to some extent, an unheralded master of modern acoustic blues. Fortunately, his recordings and festival bookings during the '90s and into the 21st century have elevated his profile to a higher level than he's ever enjoyed previously."

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