Downpatrick Folk Club, Northern Ireland
Published: The Independent, 6 June 1997
Music is a big deal in Ireland. The place may be renowned for foisting its own folk music on everybody else in the world but such is the discerning population’s thirst for quality in music period that over the recent years it’s all but adopted as its own a handful of great acoustic troubadours from overseas, and king among them all is Chris Smither from New Orleans.
Now effectively in his second career, after a ten year spell of floundering in alcoholism between his early ‘70s output and the stream of records he’s produced since 1985, Smither’s reputation has never been higher and yet his perspective on life remains hallmarked with the kind of humility and stoicism brought through years of hard times and hurt. Still revelling in the influences of his early heroes Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt, Smither has expanded, with his own writing, the straight blues form to something entirely unique. The most remarkable thing is not so much that his material can explore the darker fears and emotions in life with an everyman relevance, but that essentially the man remains an entertainer – a fun guy with a not so fun past, who can confidently work a crowd through foot-stomping medley’s of ‘Hi Heel Sneakers/Big Boss Man’ to some of the most heart-breaking, profound songs they’re ever likely to hear.
Tonight’s show is a weird one – the only English-style ‘best of order’ folk club in the north, and yet Smither’s most boistrous crowd on this particular trip. Half the 28 song set are well chosen covers – from John Hiatt, Lowell George, J.J. Cale and a blistering resurrection of Robert Johnson’s old warhorse ‘Dust My Broom’ – all scattered around the unwritten set list to hold people’s attention with feisty guitar work, amplified double-foot percussion and something even the more casual punters would know. The barnstorming ‘Love You Like A Man’, memorably covered by Bonnie Raitt and “written when I was 21, young enough to think I knew about women – now it’s just a nostalgia piece…” commands attention, but it’s the more serious material that singles Smither out from his peers.
Surely nothing more insightful about the processes of fame has been written than ‘The Devil’s Real’, while ‘Cave Man’ from the brand new Small Revelations remains a work of overwhelming profundity on the human condition, clothed in the simplest and gentlest of melodies. His writing gets better and better, and while it has long outgrown the confines of twelve bars there is no-one truer to the spirit of the blues, or more attuned to the struggles of the soul in the modern world than Chris Smither. He ends the noisiest of gigs with the noisiest of encores, shakes hands, signs records and looks forward, the following night, to playing support to a partial reformation of The Yardbirds in a small town to the west of the island. Apparently it’s a good payer. And life goes on.