Saturday, March 28, 2015
Johnson Hall, Gardiner, Maine
This was a perfect Gardiner evening. I love my sweet little town, and living a quarter of a mile from downtown is the best. My dear friend Dot came up to join me and we had a delicious dinner at the incomparable A1 Diner, joined a handful of Gardiner friends for a glass of wine at Vintage Wine Bar, and made our way over to Johnson Hall to grab seats for the sold out Chris Smither show just before show time at 7:30.
Johnson Hall’s director Mike Miclon took the stage and welcomed us warmly. He let the crowd know that this is Johnson Hall’s 150th year and there’s an active capital campaign to renovate the beautiful 400-seat opera house on the top floor of the building. Mike would love Lyle Lovett to be the first to perform in the renovated space in 2019 when the space is complete. I’m enthusiastic about this project and know it will happen thanks to Mike’s leadership and the dedication of a loyal board of directors.
Mike explained that he’d stumbled across a CD of Chris Smither’s years ago at his former arts venue and has booked him time and again. Chris Smither took the stage solo and charmed us immediately. I was taken by his distinctive, raspy voice, toe tapping percussion, and impressive command of the guitar. I am not a huge fan of the blues (sorry, but true), but Chris Smither does it right. He was notably unassuming on stage and made me feel a bit like I was in his living room. Chris engaged the crowd throughout the night. He joked with us before playing “Origin of Species” that “evolution’s not something you believe in—you either know about it or you don’t.”
Dot, Clare (of Monkitree), and I took a tour of the beautiful upstairs of Johnson Hall during intermission. It’s going to be amazing when it’s renovated. It’s pretty phenomenal already, but probably not up to code.
Chris took the stage after intermission and told us about the first time he met fellow singer-songwriter Dave Carter at a music festival in Oregon. Chris said he rushed off stage after playing a set hoping to make it over to Dave Carter’s tent elsewhere with time to meet and talk before Dave’s set. As he ran, someone behind him called his name and it was Dave Carter—who’d gone to Chris’ set. Dave told Chris “you sure have a lot of words in your songs,” which Chris said was like the pot calling the kettle black. He covered Dave Carter’s “Crocodile Man” and showed us just what he meant. They both sure can fit a lot of words in one breath.
Chris Smither is a storyteller. I particularly enjoyed the funny stories he told in song—especially “Get A Better One.” We laughed a lot throughout the night. Chris talked about his family a lot during the show and wrote “I Don’t Know” using phrases his then four or five year old daughter said that he jotted down. He adopted a baby from China when he was 60 years old. She’s ten now, and even though he said his friends joked with him that parenthood would change his songwriting forever (and for the worse), but he feels like he hasn’t lost it. “No Love Today” is inspired by the roving produce seller (Mr. Okra’s dad, maybe?) who came down the street Chris grew up on in New Orleans singing about his fruits and vegetables twice a week.
I’m glad I had the chance to see Chris Smither live. He is an American classic who has been writing music and performing for 50 years. His newest recording (his sixteenth), Still on the Levee, is a compilation of songs from Chris’ impressive career. He joked with us that he used to think he had to put new music out every three or so years or people would think he’d died, but now he’s not so worried about that.
Chris wrapped his set with “Leave the Light On,” which he recorded with Rusty Belle on Still on the Levee. I really enjoyed Rusty Belle when I saw them live with two of my favorites Caitlin Canty and Darlingside back in 2013 and am delighted that this intergenerational team is making music together. The engrossed crowd was on their feet after the last song, and Chris treated us to one more song before sending us on our way.
Thanks for hosting, Johnson Hall. I love seeing shows in this intimate space!