Chris Smither has played countless shows in his lengthy career, but none quite like this one at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts. This show was a night of celebration as it honored the blues-influenced singer-songwriter’s recent 70th birthday and his 50-year career making music. But that wasn’t all – this evening also kicked off a weekend of shows celebrating the 20th anniversary of the record label Signature Sounds Recordings of Northampton, Massachusetts, the label Smither records for. Signature Sounds, which launched the careers of artists like Josh Ritter and Erin McKeown, is currently home to some of the finest folk and Americana musicians working today including Eilen Jewell, Crooked Still, and Lake Street Dive.
The evening kicked off with brief sets by four singer-songwriters on the Signature Sounds roster: Mark Erelli, Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault and Peter Mulvey. All four are accomplished artists who have been influenced by, and are great admirers of, Smither’s work. They are all friends (Delmhorst and Foucault are married) who have collaborated in the past. So it wasn’t long before they were sitting in during each other’s sets, lending their voices and guitar work to whoever was center stage. This portion of the evening ended with all four of them coming together to sing Mulvey’s rocking song “Sympathies.”
Then it was time for the guest of honor. Smither thanked the crowd for being there to celebrate his “leap into geezerdom,” and backed by his band, The Motivators, launched into “Open Up,” an upbeat and slightly countryish tune that benefitted from the full band treatment. Brief solos by guitarist David “Goody” Goodrich and harp player Jim Fitting brought cheers from the crowd and served as an indicator of what listeners were in store for this night. It was the perfect start to a near perfect evening.
Smither then welcomed singer Laurie Sargent on stage to lend her voice to “Make Room For Me,” and she would later rejoin him at various points in the set. Smither usually performs solo, so it was a treat for both him and the audience to hear him with such a fine group of players. The Motivators, which also included drummer Billy Conway (Morphine), provided just the right support for his trademark acoustic picking and warm vocals, fleshing out the songs and giving then a new sense of vitality.
The band also appears on Smither’s “Still on the Levee,” a collection of some of his best known songs that he re-recorded last year in his hometown of New Orleans. This past year Signature Sounds released the two disc set along with a Smither Tribute album called “Link of Chain.” Smither played many of the songs off this career retrospective during his almost two-hour set. Having performed for some 50 years he brings a sense of humility, humor, and warmth to the stage.
Smither’s intricate finger picking, which he has said was influenced by Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins, informs all of his work – from the quieter numbers like “Shillin’ For the Blues” to more straight up folk-blues tunes like “Train Home”. But we can’t overlook Smither’s lyrics, which range from the gritty social commentary of “Surprise, Surprise” to the poignant “Father’s Day” with lines like “Ain’t I done good? I needed that from you/And all I’ve got to say is, by the way, you done good too,” reminds us what a gifted lyricist he is.
Smither brought his twin sister, Catherine Norr, on stage to lend her vocals on the pensive “’Deed I Do,” then had Kris Delmhorst join him to sing the chorus on “No Love Today” which was inspired by the chanting street vendors Smither heard while growing up in New Orleans. Smither and the band then tore through his most famous song, “Love Me Like a Man,” which has been covered by both Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall.
Erelli, Foucault and Mulvey returned to the stage to sing on “Caveman” followed by Smither gathering all the musicians who had played that night for a massive sing-a-long on “Seems So Real.” The festivities ended with a giant cake and the entire audience singing “Happy Birthday.” Smither wrapped the night up with “Leave the Light On,” and as he sang the line “I’ll Live to be hundred, I was born in forty-four,” the crowd roared in appreciation and in anticipation of hearing a lot more from this artist in the years to come.