Rhythm and percussive style are so basic to Chris Smither's contemporary blues singing and songwriting that when producer Darleen Wilson was recording the tracks for Smither's Live As I'll Ever Be (Hightone), due Tuesday, she dedicated a separate mic to catch the tapping of his feet.
"Once I was having trouble figuring out why a set didn't go down as well as I thought it would," Smither said, "and I realized it was because there was carpeting on the stage. I couldn't hear myself I couldn't hear the rhythm."
The 14-track Live As I'll Ever Be recorded on stages in Northern California, the East Coast and Ireland takes up where the veteran bluesman's previous live recording, 1991's Another Way To Find You (Hightone) left off, showcasing songs he's released in the past decade.
These include "Slow Surprise" (RealAudio excerpt), which Emmylou Harris recorded for the gold-record "Horse Whisperer" film soundtrack, and "I Am the Ride" (RealAudio excerpt), which itself inspired a movie, the independent film "The Ride."
"I've never had a song come to me quite the way that one did," Smither said of that insightful, rhythm-driven ballad of self-discovery.
"The lyrics happened in three separate bursts, and in each case I wrote the verse so quickly it was as though I was taking dictation from some other side of my brain.
"The song means a great deal to me but when I was through I thought, I'll play this and nobody's gonna get it. And yet it's turned out to be one of everybody's favorite songs!"
Friends And Neighbors
Smither, now in his mid-50s, began playing folk music, and then Delta blues, in his native New Orleans in the late '60s. Encouraged by Eric von Schmidt, he moved to Cambridge, Mass., where he still lives.
Soon he was playing regular gigs on the northeast folk circuit. Smither's deft, inventive guitar playing, his low-key intensity, his ability to move among darker and lighter sides of the blues and his gift for incisive lyrics attracted the attention of audiences and fellow performers alike among them his around-the-corner neighbor, Radcliffe undergrad Bonnie Raitt.
To this day Raitt performs two Smither compositions, "Love Me Like a Man" (RealAudio excerpt of Raitt version) and "I Feel the Same," in almost every concert she does. Von Schmidt remains a friend, and he drew a haunting portrait of Smither for the cover of Live As I'll Ever Be.
The picture shows Smither in front of a tree that hints at the knowledge of good and evil, with a large, possibly menacing raven on its branches. "Eric sort of nailed it with that one," Smither said, laughing.
Lightnin' Hopkins and Bob Dylan were two of Smither's early influences. "I first heard a Lightnin' Hopkins record when I was about 17 it was called Blues in My Bottle. I knew there was just one guy playin' guitar on that, but he sounded like a whole band one-man rock 'n' roll! I think I learned every song on that album."
The Dylan influence was more indirect. "Hearing Dylan made me realize that you didn't have to dig through books to find songs to sing you could make them up. Not that I wanted to write like Dylan, but it was that idea that you could write your own songs."
Return To Joy
Smither took that idea through two well-received albums in the early '70s Don't It Drag On (Poppy, 1972) and I'm a Stranger Too (Poppy, 1970) both reissued together in 1997 on the Collectables label. But a slow slide into the bottle derailed his career.
While he never entirely put his guitar away, he made his living as a carpenter for more than a decade. "I was a drunk alcohol is an addictive drug and addictive drugs will tend to mess up people's lives," he said.
Recovering, he began to record again, at first with Flying Fish and then with Hightone, and began to get back his joy in performing. In fact, he's been known to say that he writes songs so he can play them live.
"Man, I wanted to do this project so bad," he said of Live As I'll Ever Be. "These are the songs I've written since my return to full-time music making. This is the way I play, the way I interact with the audience.
"What I like is to get people to take my trip," Smither said. "I love to be able to create an environment in which people get lost. ... It's a contract between audience and performer it's there, and then it's gone, but we can all say, 'Yep, it happened and we all shared the experience.' "