Chris Smither in Whelan’s, Dublin, on May 14th 2015
After fifty years in the business Chris Smither isn’t short of a bit of self-awareness. Now seventy and with a ten year old daughter, his reflection on how perfectly good songwriters who become parents spend the rest of their careers “churning out maudlin crap about their kids” is the humorous precursor to his own ‘now having said that’ moment. I Don’t Know, though, is typical of Smithers’ wry observations and clever lyrical playfulness, and the grin he wears the whole way through the song says that his maudlin crap is streets ahead of everyone else’s.
Last year’s ‘Still On the Levee’ album was a fresh spin on the retrospective, with new takes on twenty-four songs from his long career, and tonight’s all-seated Whelan’s show is the first of his European tour. “You sound great” he offers as he takes a seat, armed only with an acoustic guitar. From Open Up onwards, Smither’s fleet-fingered fretwork is a thing of joy to see and hear; exploring the intricacies of a root chord one minute and climbing the fretboard the next.
It’s a bluesy set for the most part, and a mic angled to the bare wooden floor catches Smither tapping time with his boots. “Here’s one that my mother would have hated” he says before Don’t Call Me Stranger, and Lola is another later in the set that apparently would have earned her admonishment. His delivery – both in and between songs – raises frequent laughter, and the subject of parenthood comes up time and time again. Jokes about parents knowing how to push your buttons (“They installed ‘em”) temper the sentiment, but a more personal Father’s Day quietens the room to a respectful hush.
It’s not too often you see a classic interval at a gig – our last may even have been Kinky Friedman’s visit to the same venue – but it’s ample opportunity for discussion and merch hunting, both of which the crowd duly oblige in. The twenty-three year old Smither who wrote Love You Like A Man would no doubt be happy to hear that his song still retains its swagger, but the mischief is still alive and kicking in the man today. “Alright, here’s a miserable little blues…” he grins to a woman who gets Shillin’ For The Blues in return for a request for her fella. Some jibes at creationism and his home country precede Origin Of The Species (“Heavens, no!” being his reply to a woman who once asked him if he believed in evolution), but he doesn’t let himself off the hook either, telling us “It’s not a classic, I wrote it” before the traditional blues framework of What It Might Have Been.
No Love Today most overtly references Smither’s New Orleans upbringing, and it is the set’s bluesier numbers that seem freshest as his voice drops to a growl, countering the bright plucked notes. He defers to the Piedmont blues of Blind Willie McTell to round things off, and Statesboro Blues draws the set to a close. Smither’s mastery of acoustic blues is something the full Whelan’s room knows about only too well, and tonight’s selection saw the man in sparkling, nimble-fingered form. Maudlin crap it ain’t.