Strutting and fretting his hour
Common Fence Music
BY SCOTT HEMEON
Where can you sit comfortably with several
friends at a table, step out to the porch for a breath or a smoke,
cut up some apples
and cheese, uncap a six-pack of beer, plow through a platter of
sushi, and sample some homemade desserts, all while listening to
great live music in an intimate setting? Well, unless you somehow
manage to get Chris Smither to come over to your house with a picnic
basket and pull out his guitar, you'll have to go to Common Fence
Point, which is what I did Saturday night.
The moment I heard Smither skipping along
the neck of his guitar I knew I was hearing an accomplished guitarist
- and all he was
doing was tuning up and talking to the audience. He teaches a guitar
workshop at a summertime camp hosted by Jorma Kaukonen (of Hot
Tuna and Jefferson Airplane fame) - and it is easy to see why.
His playing is very precise and crisp yet breezy and fluid. He
explained that his admiration of Mississippi John Hurt evolved
into attempts to emulate him when Smither was 17. He said a lot
of his contemporaries were "closet" Hurt fans and that
they "didn't have a prayer" when it came to approximating
the bluesman's style and talent on guitar. Someone from the audience
yelled, "You do Chris."
And they were right.
But that was only half the equation. The
guitar playing was simply the clothing Smither used to dress up
the characters he delivered
to the stage for the receptive audience - and characters they were.
He dragged out ghosts and thieves, lovers and ex-lovers, tears
and laughs from the costume closet - all in the service of his
play- a production of life. Every song had soulful singing, nimble
fretwork and clever rhyming. (So clever actually that I became
distracted trying to anticipate the schemes).
Smither told funny stories of broken dreams,
loves lost and seemingly stolen automobiles all delivered with
the timing and wit of a comedian
and had the audience chuckling. Then he would transition seamlessly
into an achingly sad story about his father or his own failings,
then jerk some tears with a poignant rendition of Dylan's "Desolation
In between each song Smither told a story
about the song, its subject, where he wrote it, or somebody in
a Hawaiin fruit shack unknowingly
singing one of his numbers. He recalled a rather funny anecdote
about a prim elderly woman who approached him after a show in Ireland
and said that it would mean a great deal to her if he would sign
her "record" if she could only "figure out how to
open the f**king thing." This story and Smither's declaration
that the Irish at his show were "determined to have fun" delighted
my Irish friends in attendance Saturday. Smither effectively functioned
as a master storyteller/narrator for our journey through his life.
Smither's father once bemoaned that Chris
couldn't write any nice simple love songs, just a bunch of "dysfunctional ditties." Resigned
to that fate, Smither delivered them in succession to his approving
audience. As a consolation to his father's assessment, Smither
chose his "favorite in the world" of those love songs
that others write, gracing us with an encore of J.J.Cale's "Magnolia."