Chris Smither fans fondly recall the 24-song 2014 release Still on the Levee, billed as a ‘retrospective’ even though it was filled with plenty of new songs. The now-iconic five decades-long singer-songwriter, together with producer David Goodrich, has now unearthed more tracks from those two-week long 2013 sessions that yielded the double CD, offered here as More From the Levee. Some of these songs are so good that it’s remarkable they didn’t appear the first time through, especially “Drive You Home Again,” “Caveman,” and the brand new “What I Do.” The first two have since become fan favorites, understandably so. The album features the late piano great Allen Toussaint and Morphine drummer Billy Conway. Additionally, members of Morphine and the Motivators are aboard. Smither performs five of these ten tracks just with Conway who appears on every track, serving as a valued sideman much like Conway does for Jeffrey Foucault.
Smither has a signature effortless style, primarily based in acoustic blues that serve as the musical backdrop to a range of clever or complex or highly philosophical lyrics. Here’s the last chorus from the new song “What I Do” with clever ones – “…Fish don’t understand the water/They just do the things they oughta,/Birds don’t understand he air,/They don’t even know it’s there,/They don’t have a clue,/But just like me/They do the things they do,/It’s what I do/It’s what I do…” The great Toussaint appears only on “Let It Go,” a humorous story song about his car being stolen and getting over it. Smither takes a talking blues approach as Toussaint adds some interesting notes to the banter, as if the tune were made up on the spot. (and maybe it was). Philosophical reflections on life and mortality course through “Hey Hey Hey,” “Caveman,” and “Old Man Down” while “Father’s Day” seems to be a personal ode to his own dad in his later years with this touching last verse – “But I took all you gave, or ever wanted to,/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.” It’s the perfect closer.
Smither describes his guitar style as “one-third John Hurt, one-third Lightnin’ Hopkins and one-third me.” It’s rarely flashy, or in a solo spotlight, yet brilliant, technically sharp, and ever conducive to his lyrical gems that draw from blues and folk, writers and poets. Producer David Goodrich recalls, “Last summer, I received a call from Chris’ manager about unreleased tracks…Even with that double album clocking in at 24 songs, we still had extraordinary performances left in the vault. Returning to these tracks was like finding a roll of film (remember that?) for a legendary vacation: you know you had a great time but you’re not sure what you’re going to find captured there. Well, what we found another irreducible collection of Chris Smither songs full of great performances, intimate and immediate…”
This is not an album of outtakes even though it is drawn from those sessions. Some of these songs, especially those mentioned in the first paragraph are as good as any in Smither’s storied catalog. Pull up a chair and listen closely to these well-crafted songs.