The Anthropology of Chris Smither: Day One at the Signature Sounds 20th Anniversary
The Signature Sounds 20th Anniversary Celebration starts with a conversation between friends: Jim Olsen, the label's founder, and Chris Smither, the label's most storied act. The two are sitting on the slightly raised stage of the Parlor Room, a two-year-old, 50-seat concert venue attached to the Signature Sounds offices. A blue velvet curtain hangs behind them, and cover art by all the Signature Sounds' artists proudly decorate the deep red walls.
For the benefit of their audience, each man speaks into a microphone, but they're hardly necessary. The Parlor Room has the intimacy of a living room. It’s the perfect place to listen to music, the perfect place to eavesdrop on Smither's 50 year run through music.
"I was gonna be an anthropologist. That's what I was supposed to be. I moved to Mexico City for a year to learn Spanish and work on some digs," Smither says. “But I also had a guitar."
Smither’s easy, thoughtful voice cuts across the near-silent audience hanging on to every word of stories that pass from his lips with nonchalance.
It's not just Signature Sounds' 20th Anniversary; it's also Smither's 50th year playing music professionally, and his 70th birthday (he turned 70 on November 11). For the occasion, he's released Still on the Levee on Signature Sounds, a two-CD career retrospective where Smither and his band the Motivators went back to his hometown of New Orleans to re-record 25 of his songs, starting with the first song he ever wrote, "Devil Got You Man," and going forward from there.
Still on the Levee is a look back, and, looking back, Chris Smither wasn't the type of anthropologist he planned on. But when he speaks of his own storied past, it's clear that, whether he knows it or not, he is a living, breathing text of an era of music men that's lost and gone, only kept alive through stories like his own.
Smither is candid, plays the occasional song, and tells tales with matter-of-fact sincerity. His stories are surreal and unbelievable, but he’s too well-traveled to notice anymore. He grew up in -- then moved on from -- 1950s New Orleans, flamed out in the "classic manner [of] wine, women, and song" at the University of Paris, met Taj Mahal at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival, played "Love You Like a Man" for Bonnie Raitt in Dick Whitman's living room (where, on any given day, he'd bump in to Son House or Skip James), and saved Townes Van Zandt from drowning in a swimming pool while they were on tour together in Florida.
Smither bursts about how fun Townes seemed and how it was hard to see how crazy he was at the time, but jokes that, as he came to know Townes better, he realized near-death experiences were a "very common occurrence."
After an hour, it feels like we've only scratched the stories on a life so rich that its led to 15 albums worth of words that resonate, float in the air, and stick in your ear long after the songs end. But, this conversation is only an appetizer for the night's show—which doubles as Chris's 70th birthday party. Before the night is up, he will share the stage with a generation he influenced long before they shared a label.
When the time comes, Jim Olsen walks out on stage at the Academy of Music in Northampton to introduce the first set of the evening, which he calls "the bedrock of the Signature Sounds catalog.” They are four artists who have released over 30 of Signature Sounds' 140 albums.
The curtain opens to Mark Erelli in an-all black suit with a white cowboy hat. Alongside him, with suspenders and a curled mustache, is Zachariah Hickman on stand up bass. The two-man outfit leads off the night with "Undone,” but this is as sparse as the stage will get over the next three hours. Technically, each of the four "bedrock" artists have their own section of the set, but the stage becomes a revolving door of artists, swelling with musicians that are, for all intents and purposes, a musical family. They jump in and out of songs, switch instruments, share vocals, and overlap. It is celebratory and friendly, familiar and jovial, and feels just like it should — a party.
"We invited them separately, but knew they'd make a band," Jim says after the set. "It's just what they do."
Erelli plays a bluegrass version of his "Troubadour Blues," which features a reference to Chris Smither in the first verse:
When I was a boy
I went to hear this picker play
I still recall his blue guitar
Like it was yesterday
I was a powder keg a-waitin'
For someone to light the fuse
He struck a match and I did catch
The troubadour blues.
Erelli waxes with an ear-to-ear smile between songs about how he’s worshiped Smither since high school, from the guitar playing to the song-writing to the ever-full head of hair. He holds Smither in the very highest esteem, which rings true for the rest of the Signature Sounds bedrock of Jeffrey Foucault, Kris Delmhorst, and Peter Mulvey.
When Erelli brings out Foucault to play "Alright For Now," he recalls when the two became friends: during a Midwest tour, they stayed up late picking guitars in Foucault’s parents’ kitchen in Wisconsin. Eventually, they played Smither's Another Way to Find You all the way through.
Erelli then passes the baton to Foucault, but doesn't get far: Erelli plays lead guitar on a black flowered Telecaster in the background, while Kris Delmhorst (Foucault's wife), Peter Mulvey, and Motivators' drummer Billy Conway come out to collaborate time and time again, most notably on "Careless Flame," from Foucault's Cold Satellite days. It is a heartbreaking, road-worn story that sounds like a Texas bus stop, and Foucault says "it's about one of [his] favorite things: leaving" — not an unfamiliar theme to anyone on Signature Sounds, least of all Chris Smither.
The harmonies and Telecaster's twang give power and depth to the ensemble, their harmonies rising in support of Foucault's pointed voice. He sings:
On some stranger's tongue, today I heard you name
and it flickered and went out like a carless flame.
The lyric rolls over and engages the crowd, and bleeds straight into Delmhorst's turn to steer the ship.
Delmhorst is a 13-year veteran of Signature Sounds, and she apologizes in jest when she takes over, yet keeps Foucault and drummer Billy Conway on stage. "It's hard not to turn every song into a big love fest," she says with a smile.
She runs through "Bees" and "Homeless" before getting to "92nd Street," where her velvet voice rises from its smooth, easy delivery to a fever pitch backed by a driving electric guitar and pounding drums. All this gives her a bolt of energy that sustains.
When she brings out Mulvey (the last of the four bedrock artists), she recalls their first meeting, in the spirit of friendship that has overtaken the night. When working in a bakery in Boston, she heard Mulvey on a radio station that was giving away free tickets to his show as Johnny D's that evening. The tickets were going to the ninth caller, and when Delmhorst called, she was the first. When she called back, she was caller number two. "It took a little while, but I got them," she laughs.
That night, she met Mulvey, and the two have been friends ever since.
Mulvey echoes the story before launching into one of his own: he first opened for Smither at a coffee house in Westborough, MA in the late '90s. "He was gracious to me that night, and every night since," says Mulvey, before playing a cover of Smither's "Every Mother's Son," which he recorded in 1997.
It wasn’t until 2006 that Smither actually signed on Signature Sounds, but he impacted the label long before. His fingerprints are all over the first set of the weekend, helping mold label's foundation when the bedrock was coming of age.
In the spirit of the night, the party keeps going. After bringing out David "Goody" Goodrich to play guitar and Rusty Belle's Matt Lorenz to share vocals, Mulvey is surrounded by the familiar cast of characters to end on his shuffling, feel-good anthem, "Symapthy" — the groove leads into intermission, and the door is held open for the man of the hour.
"Thanks for helping me celebrate my quantum leap into geezerdom," the still-writhe Smither jokes after his introduction.
With the Motivators behind him, Smither runs through a set that spans his 50-year career. But, the music feels newer and fresher than his age would suggest. His soulful, folksome, bluesy voice is as resonant as ever. It feels updated when set against an electric guitar and a harmonica pulsing through a bullet microphone. It's a distinct change for a man who, when he started, "didn't wanna be in a band" and was drawn to the acoustic guitar over an electric.
"Usually I play by myself," Smither tells the audience. "But I can't tell you what a thrill it is to play with these guys. They're all extraordinary."
The thrill is matched by the Motivators, who jam on "Love You Like a Man," "The Speed of Light," "Train Home," "No Love Today," and "Hundred Dollar Valentine." The set is highlighted by "Surprise, Surprise," an irreverent, bouncy blues that sounds like Son House. Smither (the once solo-bluesman) throws around the spotlight to his band, who each take a solo. They shout in call-and-response to Smither's wilily lyrics, and leave the audience stomping and enthralled.
Back stage, Erelli pulls up a folding chair and watches a high school hero from a distance. The rest of the Signature Sounds family repeats this act at varying intervals throughout the night, all eventually stopping and paying homage. It makes Smither's new home on Signature Sounds feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy, since it seems like the label would sound a lot different in the present if it weren’t for Smither.
On "Caveman," Smither brings out the family again. He, Foucault, Mulvey, and Erelli all take a verse. On "Seems So Real," the stage grows fuller, with the bedrock artists -- the Motivators, Rusty Belle, and Smither's twin sister Catherine -- backing him like a revivalist choir. After a slideshow and blowing out the candles of a birthday cake, Smither ends the party with "Leave the Light On," where he sings words that ring truer now than when they were recorded:
I will live to be a hundred, I was born in ’44
30 to go, but I ain’t keepin’ score
I've been left for dead before, but I still fight on
Don’t wait up, leave the light on, I'll be home soon.
It's a fittingly celebratory sing-along in a venue a stone's throw from the Signature Sounds home on a night that's been a reunion. This show has been a look back, but it's also been a promise of what's to come over Signature Sounds' next 20 years, over Smither's next 30.