August 2000

Chris Smither - Live As I'll Ever Be
HighTone HDC 8120
Released: 2000

by Gile Downes

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]Chris Smither has been plying his craft with his trusty blue guitar for nearly 40 years. I am heretofore unfamiliar, and certainly a cynic, but I can’t deny that this guy’s got talent, and what a pleasure is this late realization.

Smither here releases his second live collection (the first one being 1991’s Another Way to Find You). Live as I’ll Ever Be was culled from performances recorded between 1996 and 1999, from concerts in the U.S. and Ireland. All taping was done on four tracks (vocals, guitar, feet and audience) direct to ADAT by producer Darleen Wilson. As noted in the press materials that accompany the disc, the careful attention paid to the recording and production has indeed yielded a "front-row seat" perspective. Smither’s rich, gravelly voice, which at times recalls a little bit of Eric Clapton, floats out front between the speakers as if he’s set up his chair somewhere between the speakers and the sweet spot and right above his guitar. His guitar provides beautiful accompaniments, just intricate enough to be interesting while remaining deferent to his voice, preserving the clarity of his thoughtful, world-wise lyrics. 

Beneath all this are Smither’s feet, steadily grounding it all. His feet are worth pointing out because both artist and producer considered them so integral as to merit their own track on the recording. The result is that we hear Smither give a complex and multifaceted accompaniment of himself.

Despite the fact that live recordings can be sonically inferior on multiple levels -- muddy mixes, whacked levels, and generally unfocussed production -- in this case, we have few such problems; we hear everything about as close to ‘live’ as we can hope to get.

Likewise, while most lyrical music, especially folk and blues, deals with the same batch of narrative themes, Smither is nevertheless a pleasurable discovery. What makes him so special is not what he has to say, but how he says it. Know what I’m saying? Smither has a singular, intelligent, and witty grasp of traditional lyrical themes, making the re-visitation of themes like loves, regrets, pleasures and losses a worthwhile endeavor.

Though I could pick any of the songs on this record to discuss with admiration, there are two in particular that are worth noting. "Caveman" stands out in this high-quality collection partly because it departs somewhat from the more traditionally arranged, shuffling, chugging folk-blues numbers. Instead, it motions towards the melancholy, introspective realm of folk music. One line perfectly summarizes this song’s theme of lost simplicity and elemental connectedness: "When I was a caveman, I had it all/ I had it all." Full of melancholy and wistfulness, this song is beautifully rendered with a simple formula of tasteful guitar and foot-tapping accompaniment. "Winsome Smile" takes us on another journey through troubled-relationship territory, but with an entirely different language. It’s refreshing to hear the attitude that comes through here. All of this material is written, played and sung with passion, emotion and intelligence.

Although I came to this record with skepticism (I’m not a folkie and am frequently put off by much of what comes from the province of the guitar-toting troubadour), I am happy to report that Chris Smither has rescued me from this close-mindedness. While I remain suspicious of this kind of music, as do many of you perhaps, I recommend you give Smither a chance to change your mind, at least a chance to define himself apart from the crowd. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.