GETTING THE LOWDOWN: I'm sitting down to write this in the smoky ruins of my post-TAMMIES Showcase Shuffle mind. Two long nights of gin guzzling, cig puffing, ear blasting and club hopping have left my brain on empty with no gas station in sight.
It's a good thing I talked to singer, songwriter and bluesman Chris Smither beforehand, while my ears and intellect were still in reasonably good shape.
At least I thought they were in reasonable shape. Maybe the whole head apparatus has been shot to hell for years and, naturally enough, I don't know it. You see, I had been listening to Smither's latest album Up On The Lowdown and reading the biography his record label sent. In the bio it mentions Smither has been in love with acoustic music, especially blues, ever since he heard Lightnin' Hopkins' Blues In The Bottle album.
"At first I thought it was two guys playing guitar," he's quoted as saying. "My style--to a degree--came out of trying to imitate that sound."
So, there I am, listening to the very first song on Up On The Lowdown called "Link Of Chain," and wondering who's playing guitar alongside Smither. Immediately I look at the liner notes (my years of training as a music critic comes in handy sometimes) and see he's the only guitarist on the track. Whoops.
"That's great," he says with a laugh. "I love it. We're off on the right track."
Listen to his album or catch him this Friday night in concert--he opens for Rory Block--and you might be fooled by this finger-picking enchanter, too (fairly amazing if he can do it in person).
"What really happens is that people are so used to hearing guitar played with a flat pick that it comes as a revelation to them that there can be two things happening at once," he explains. (I can't use that excuse--I've seen and heard plenty of finger pickers.) "It's the result of keeping a steady rhythm going in the bass and then throwing in these unexpected notes and figures in the treble. If you heard exactly the same thing happening on the piano you wouldn't think anything of it.
"When you listen to boogie woogie you hear these very complicated bass figures going on with the left hand against a lot of syncopated stuff from the right hand. And you never think, 'Oh, it must be two people playing.'
"It's really not something you hear on flat-picked guitar. If you're really not used to hearing people play with finger picks or play with their fingers, which is certainly the case with most rock and roll guitar and electric blues, then it comes as a real surprise. The first conclusion that your brain jump to is that there are two people playing."
Yeah, two very good guitarists playing with a restraint that sounds simple and relaxed--belying the complex foundation. Even though Smither is an extraordinary player, it would be an injustice to ignore the voice his notes swirl around.
His rough-hewn voice and low-key vocal style recall J.J. Cale's easy-slidin' vocals, but Smither has an urban, modern edge blended in with a soulful gruff acquired in his hometown of New Orleans.
Although he grew up in the Crescent City he moved to Boston as a teenager in the '60s.
"The fact is, the kind of thing I do is viewed with a jaundiced eye in New Orleans. It wasn't, and still isn't, much of a guitar player's town. It's a horn player's or piano player's town."
He recorded two albums, I'm A Stranger, Too! and Don't It Drag On in the early '70s and then cut a third album Honeysuckle Dog with Lowell George, Dr. John and Bonnie Raitt (Smither wrote "Love You Like A Man" for Raitt) which was never released by United Artists.
"I think it resides in the vaults of Capitol Records (Capitol ate up UA and the label no longer exists). I'm pretty sure that if I were to get a hit, a real hit, that record would be out in a hurry," he says laughing. "But the world is not a poorer place for it not being out."
That may or not be true of that album, but it isn't the case with his Another Way To Find You ('91) and Happier Blue ('93).
The latter received airplay on Triple A radio stations (stations playing "adult alternative" music). They're the VH-1 of radio, they play hits by Bob Dylan, R.E.M., Raitt, Tom Petty and a smattering of old Motown mixed in occasionally with artists, like Smither, swimming against the mainstream.
"That's the hook that I hang on. When Happier Blue came out it was a wide-open format, meaning they weren't controlled and dominated by major labels," he says.
Hopefully, Up On The Lowdown will get some play, too. It's definitely his best work to date. The title track is a bluesy little rocker with sumptuous lyrical and musical hooks. "Link Of Chain" is modern Delta blues--sweaty, percussive guitar beside the passionate cool of Smither's voice and feverish, philosophical lyrics. "'Deed I Do" is quintessential Smither: His melancholy voice and tasty guitar liquefy in an introspective, heart-crushing song.
Hear Smither and one of the great Delta blues artists around--Rory Block--at the Berger Center for the Performing Arts, 1200 W. Speedway, on Friday, April 7, at 8 p.m. General admission tickets are $10 in advance.
LAST NOTES: Gangsta rapper Ice Cube is at the Buena Vista Theater, 251 S. Wilmot Road, on Monday, April 10, with Da Brat. Call 747-1886 for ticket information.
Pete Anderson (plays guitar with Dwight Yoakam and also produced several of his albums) is at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Friday night with Al Perry and Greyhound Soul.
Celtic music rings out from The House Band at the Berger Center on Tuesday, April 11. Call 327-4809 for information.
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