Chris Smither & The Motivators 70th Birthday Celebration – Academy of Music, Northampton, MA 11/28/14 (SHOW REVIEW)

January 2nd, 2015

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chrissmither

Chris Smither has played countless shows in his lengthy career, but none quite like this one at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts. This show was a night of celebration as it honored the blues-influenced singer-songwriter’s recent 70th birthday and his 50-year career making music.  But that wasn’t all – this evening also kicked off a weekend of shows celebrating  the 20th anniversary of the record label Signature Sounds Recordings of Northampton, Massachusetts, the label Smither records for.  Signature Sounds, which launched the careers of artists like Josh Ritter and Erin McKeown, is currently home to some of the finest folk and Americana musicians working today including Eilen Jewell, Crooked Still, and Lake Street Dive.

The evening kicked off with  brief sets by four singer-songwriters on the Signature Sounds roster: Mark Erelli, Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault and Peter Mulvey. All four are accomplished artists who have been influenced by, and are great admirers of, Smither’s work.  They are all friends (Delmhorst and Foucault are married) who have collaborated in the past. So it wasn’t long before they were sitting in during each other’s sets, lending their voices and guitar work to whoever was center stage. This portion of the evening ended with all four of them coming together to sing Mulvey’s rocking song “Sympathies.”

Then it was time for the guest of honor.  Smither thanked the crowd for being there to celebrate his “leap into geezerdom,” and backed by his band, The Motivators, launched into “Open Up,” an upbeat and slightly countryish tune that benefitted from the full band treatment.  Brief solos by guitarist David “Goody” Goodrich and harp player Jim Fitting brought cheers from the crowd and served as an indicator of what listeners were in store for this night. It was the perfect start to a near perfect evening.

Smither then welcomed singer Laurie Sargent on stage to lend her voice to “Make Room For Me,” and she would later rejoin him at various points in the set.  Smither usually performs solo, so it was a treat for both him and the audience to hear him with such a fine group of players. The Motivators, which also included drummer Billy Conway (Morphine), provided just the right support for his trademark acoustic picking and warm vocals, fleshing out the songs and giving then a new sense of vitality.

The band also appears on Smither’s “Still on the Levee,” a collection of some of his best known songs that he re-recorded last year in his hometown of New Orleans. This past year Signature Sounds released the two disc set along with a Smither Tribute album called “Link of Chain.”  Smither played  many of the songs off  this career  retrospective during his almost two-hour set.  Having performed for some 50 years he brings a sense of humility, humor, and warmth to the stage.

Smither’s intricate finger picking, which he has said was influenced by Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins, informs all of his work – from the quieter numbers like “Shillin’ For the Blues” to more straight up folk-blues tunes like “Train Home”.  But we can’t overlook Smither’s lyrics, which range from the gritty social commentary of “Surprise, Surprise” to the poignant “Father’s Day” with lines like “Ain’t I done good? I needed that from you/And all I’ve got to say is, by the way, you done good too,” reminds us what a gifted lyricist he is.

Smither brought his twin sister, Catherine Norr, on stage to lend her vocals on the pensive “’Deed I Do,” then had Kris Delmhorst join him to sing the chorus on “No Love Today” which was inspired by the chanting street vendors Smither heard while growing up in New Orleans.  Smither and the band then tore through his most famous song, “Love Me Like a Man,” which has been covered by both Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall.

Erelli, Foucault and Mulvey returned to the stage to sing on “Caveman” followed by Smither gathering all the musicians who had played that night for a massive sing-a-long on “Seems So Real.”  The festivities ended with a giant cake and the entire audience singing “Happy Birthday.”  Smither wrapped the night up with “Leave the Light On,” and as he sang the line “I’ll Live to be hundred, I was born in forty-four,” the crowd roared in appreciation and in anticipation of hearing a lot more from this artist in the years to come.

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Chris Smither, still on the levee after nearly half a century: Veteran singer-songwriter’s work celebrated in two new albums, upcoming concert

October 23rd, 2014

CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Signature Sounds president Jim Olsen calls Smither

By STEVE PFARRER Staff Writer

Wednesday, October 15, 2014
(Published in print: Thursday, October 16, 2014)

It was almost 50 years ago that Chris Smither dropped his college studies in anthropology and, guitar in hand, headed north from his home in New Orleans. His destination was Boston and its burgeoning acoustic music scene. Smither, who’d been bitten by the blues and by the folk music boom led by Bob Dylan, didn’t have an exact plan in mind, but he figured he’d at least spend the summer up north to see what happened.

What happened was that Smither became one of the most respected singer-songwriters in folk music and a certified road warrior, playing as many as 200 shows a year. With his crisp, finger-picked guitar and weathered voice, he turns the blues, as The New York Times puts it, “into songs that accept hard-won lessons and try to make peace with fate.”

Now, as he stands on the cusp of turning 70, Smither, who moved to Amherst from the Boston area in 2009, has gone back to his roots in a couple of ways. With the retrospective album “Still on the Levee,” released by Signature Sounds this past summer, he’s re-recorded 24 of his songs spanning the length of his career — and all those tracks were laid down in New Orleans, the first time he’s ever made a record in his old hometown.

“It’s quite possible we could have gone anywhere and had the same kind of rejuvenating effect,” Smither said during a recent interview at Signature Sounds’ Northampton office. “But I personally was excited to go back. I left New Orleans when I was 22, and the three weeks I was down there recording was the longest time I’d spent since I left. … I was amazed at how much I got back into being there.”

To honor Smither turning 70 next month, Signature Sounds isn’t settling for one album. The label has just released a Smither tribute CD, “Link of Chain,” on which 16 songwriters and musicians interpret his songs. And on the weekend following Thanksgiving, the independent record label is hosting four concerts at Northampton’s Academy of Music to celebrate its own 20th anniversary: The debut concert, on Nov. 28, will feature Smither, with a number of supporting artists. (See sidebar)

Jim Olsen, Signature Sounds’ president, said the seed for the tribute album was a concert that friends of Smither held for him 10 years ago in Boston, playing covers of his songs to celebrate his 60th birthday.

“I was just kind of blown away by a lot of the performances, and for his 70th birthday, it seemed like a good idea to do [the two new albums] in roughly the same period.

“Chris is such a musician’s musician,” Olsen added. “He has so many fans in the musician world, I thought there’d be a lot of interest in doing this, and there was.”

As one example, singer-songwriter Mark Erelli, who once lived in the Valley, joined Greenfield-based Jeffrey Foucault to harmonize on “Song for Susan,” one of Smither’s early ballads. In a call from his home in Melrose, Erelli said Smither’s blues-inflected music, which he’d discovered in the early 1990s when he was in high school, has been a big inspiration in his own career.

“I toured with Chris is England and in the Mid-Atlantic, and the more I got to know him and hear him play, the more impressed I was,” he said. “He’s such a soulful songwriter, and his guitar playing is so distinctive, such a part of his songs. For me, he was a kind of a bridge between rock and traditional folk.”

Erelli recently released a tribute album himself, “Milltowns,” on which he covers selected work by the acclaimed (and late) New England songwriter Bill Morrissey. But, Erelli added, “I could just as easily have done a project like this with Chris’ music.”

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