Singer-Songwriters: Chris Smither and Gregg Allman

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I had resolved to blog with more regularity this year, promptly recording my impressions of at least all the paid entertainments we attend and most of the books I read. Well, I’m already behind schedule, so I’m collapsing two events into one post in an effort to get caught up.

Last Friday, January 11, we saw Chris Smither (http://smither.com/) in a record store. Seriously, that’s where the concert was held. It’s this warm, intimate storefront (the Record Collector, in Bordentown, NJ — www.the-record-collector.com/) with a homemade wooden plank stage, a curtain behind, and three semi-circle rings of 48 folding chairs in front and standing room behind. It’s very much like attending a concert in your living room — in fact, that’s what they call the series.

It was rather amazing to sit so close to the performer. Steve and I were right in the front center, because we’d bought our tickets in the early fall. There must have been about a hundred people in attendance on a bitterly cold, but clear, night in this quite charming little town and venue.

I’ve seen Chris Smither about a half-dozen times in concert, and as always I was struck by how the man is possessed, bewitched, held in thrall to the music. It’s a total oneness, an immersion with the sounds he is making with his voice, with his feet pounding on the wooden floor, with his guitar. And when he begins the song, before he begins to sing, he throws his head back or bends it down, eyes closed, lips, mouth, moving almost involuntarily, like a baby suckling.

And then, when he is done with a song, the song is not done with him. It holds him enrapt a few moments longer, during which he convulsively wrings the neck of the instrument as if to shake and twist the last possible sounds out of it. (The only other performers I have seen this transfixed and utterly in the musical moment are The Who’s Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry, as they move independently, obliviously, in their own worlds, Pete with his windmill and Roger with his whipcord of microphone, side by side like the parallel play of intensely concentrated children.)

Chris Smither’s music, Steve tells me, is primarily acoustic blues. But it’s also, he elaborates, a lot more and consequently is not played on the radio, which likes clean divisions. Very rarely, a Smither’s song will be played on Sirius’s Deep Tracks channel, and a few artists — notably Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall — have covered some of his music; Raitt recorded his “Love Me (You) Like a Man,” which is a thrillingly masterful song, with the well-stated exhortation “What you need is a man who can rock you like your backbone was their own.” But most of his material is unknown to the majority; it’s eclectic and wordy and bluesy. I love it for the words — they twist and scroll and spiral all over the place. Some of the songs are very sad, like his heartbreaking signature song “No Love Today” (http://ilike.myspacecdn.com/play#Chris+Smither:No+Love+Today:961428:m13896349). Others are she-done-me-wrong sad, but with a rueful twist, like “Get a Better One,” in which he relates his lousy experiences with Linda Lou, Betty Jean, and Billie Ray, and his subsequent resolution to get a better one, one with one name who’ll come when he calls her — and wag her tail when he brings home bones for her. Others are dark and sorrowful; still others are bright and funny and smart. Seemingly every topic is fodder for Smither: everything from losing his car in a parking lot to evolution and intelligent design. On Friday, we heard some new songs he’s written. One deals, poignantly, with the questions his six-year-old daughter asks, all too many of which he can only answer with “I don’t know”; another deals, equally poignantly, equally wisely, with his father’s death. His covers are also brilliant and far-ranging; I like in particular his “Tulane” (Chuck Berry) and “Crocodile Man” (Dave Carter) (btw, there are two videos of him doing that last on YouTube; I can’t testify to the legality of those recordings and so won’t link to them).

He has a devoted audience, and the group last Friday was respectful and appreciative and warm. He had a slight cold, and audience members rushed to get him a bottle of water and to make sure it didn’t get knocked over by his spirited foot drumming. (In larger venues, he mikes his feet as a kind of percussion section.) A lovely concert, and a pleasure and privilege to see this man do what he does best. And to hear his latest, which seems every bit as good as his past work. We look forward to seeing him next year, hopefully at an equally personal venue. (Jersey seems to be full of this kind of upclose and intimate concert space.)

Last night, we saw Gregg Allman in concert at the Count Basie in Red Bank. This is a lovely venue, although not an intimate one, with comfortable seats, nice rake, and overall attractive appearance. The sound, last night at least, was not as wonderful as we had hoped it would be. It sounded muddy, and words were hard to distinguish whether spoken or sung.

Allman received a liver transplant just seven months ago; he releases a new album next week — that’s quite a lot of action. Although in good voice, he was obviously pacing himself (probably under doctor’s orders), mostly singing from the piano while seated and, when playing guitar, standing relatively still. He let his band shine, with soloist Floyd Miles singing several songs, keyboardist Bruce Katz and horn player Jay Collins really tearing it up, as Steve says, and his son Devon and lead guitarist Scott Sharrard extremely impressive as well. Allman played several new songs, and they sound quite interesting, with intriguing rhythms; we’ll definitely get the CD.

During the show, I found myself wondering about the lot of the singer-songwriter. The audience — and here’s something I just don’t understand, maybe I’m too old — paid a lot of money to come out on a snowy night. They promptly got themselves cup after cup after cup after cup of beer and sat and drank and talked and socialized and grooved to the music. Much like they would at home; this is all part of the new solipsistic lack of courtesy engendered by personal electronic devices and fed by an unswerving sense of entitlement. At least a couple of women were dancing in front of their seats. And a lot of the men were yelling out suggestions between songs as to what should come next. (I always like David Bromberg’s response to these requests; he tartly points out that the audience member has no idea of how to build a set and thanks but he’ll just stick to the playlist he’s come with.) I wondered why they felt this was necessary. Allman has a huge crew and a massive band; I’m pretty sure they know what they’re going to play next.

But after singing several new songs, Gregg Allman reached back to “Melissa.” And the audience went, predictably, nuts. Singing along on the chorus, whooping and hollering and clapping here and there throughout.

I don’t know much about Gregg Allman, but I do know that his songs tend to be dark and sad and troubled. At best, wistful. And I thought last night, that had to come from a place of a lot of pain. And what does it feel like when you’ve pulled out this music from that place of pain and an audience is humming along? Are you gratified that you’ve reached them? Repelled that they don’t get it? How does that all work? With Chris Smither, as he makes clear in his introductions to his songs in concert, he has processed this material. The song for his father has come three years after the man’s death; he is working through his feelings and bringing to us something that explains and elucidates — something that unburdens him and talks to us. I cannot know if that same sort of thing is happening for Gregg Allman, or if he cares. It might be that it’s all about the process and what an audience gets or doesn’t get isn’t the point. I don’t know; the band, at least, seems to be very in synch with him, and he seemed to be very pleased with them and happy to let them do their thing.

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One thought on “Singer-Songwriters: Chris Smither and Gregg Allman

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