Interesting. In the last month, I've reviewed Steve Richman & Harmonie Ensemble New York's near entire re-do of Henry Mancini's Music from Peter Gunn (here) and then came Orbert Davis' near entire re-do of Gil Evans & Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain. Therein, I commented upon the growing trend of musicians to, on the one hand, re-present their own complete classic albums in concert, and then, on the other hand, cover other composers' masterworks in almost complete interpretations. Once in a while, bands will cover fully intact past masterworks, as when The Chrysanthemums tackled the Zombie's Odessey and Oracle and Mary Lee's Corvette took on Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.
Oh yeah, there was also that ribtickling faux country cover of Pink Floyd's The Wall by…well, I forget who 'cause some bastard copped my copy, and I long ago gave up trying to find another, but Chris Smither is taking an entirely new tack on the whole revisitation theme, in this lush twofer re-covering, re-imagining, and re-recording 24 favorites culled from within his own oeuvre. It's not just a bold move but a much needed one, something I hope a hell of a lot more artists will soon sign on to, 'cause there's world of difference between any musician's or group's early and late periods, a sphere of experience and thought that can only be had over decades.
First of all, this is indeed a two-disc set, but it's in what's usually called 'long-form', dimensionally akin to a DVD's packaging in order to accommodate a large book carrying the lyrics to every cut, photos and line drawings accompanying, with even more photography, this time of Chris and band members, on the interior of the tri-fold cover, everything very nicely designed by Meghan Dewar. The music of the package is provided first with Smither front and center, then his Motivators band, and then sit-ins Allen Toussaint, Loudon Wainwright III, members of Morphine, and others, even young violinist Robin Smither (and is it age-ist gender-ist sex-ist if I say the young lady is cute as bug on bougainvillea? IT IS?!?! Well, I'm sayin' it anyhow).
Yep, it's been 50 years that Chris Smither has been bringing the bacon home to we aficionados, and Still on the Levee is a one-of-a-kind retrospective with a passel of resuscitated old and recent faves of his and everyone's, this time delivered with the ilk of deeper rusticities that only so lengthy an immersion in one's art can bring. Smithers' love of Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, and old blues comes through more strongly than ever, always unafraid of the rough and tumble but here even more convicted and earthy. After all, the first stanza to Love You Like a Man used to be:
The men that I've been seeing
…but now it's:
The men you've been seeing
…and my, my, my, what a difference a few words can make. That's only one of a multitude of surprises lurking quite pointedly everywhere in this package. Smither's fingerpickin', poetics, and vocals are, as said, the point of everything, but his choice of back-up is as exquisite as any other part of his craftwork and history, everyone playing in complete sympatico, as though the writer were able to split himself off into multiple bodies. One of the Smither's old managers, Charlie Hunter, rendered a striking reversal of an old saw in the book notes, averring that this musician's work is a body revealing that "even as we are together, we are alone".
That's indeed the zen of Chris Smither and what makes his oeuvre so compelling. To quote Hunter again, Chris "stares into that absolute abyss and does not lie…locks [his] gaze with life and death and does not look away". This society has a number of truthtellers in its midst, and we gain ourselves back by listening to them. Many take us places we never foresaw, even when those locales were within ourselves, but Smither goes the few extra steps that the lion's share of his compeers, flinching, prefer to leave untrod, and thus the two factions separate themselves by miles. That's what you really get when you listen to his work.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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