Appreciating Chris Smither at 70

DSC_9209An old college friend introduced me to Chris Smither more than two decades ago. At first, I thought he was mostly a fine interpreter, a unique fingerpicker, and a compelling performer.

Sometimes, that first impression sticks with you for a long time, too long.

Over the years, I bought every Smither recording and hosted him twice at my series, North Shore Point House Concerts. He’s about as genuine and unassuming a guy as you’d find, especially given his considerable career.

But I confess it wasn’t until his third appearance at the series this summer that I fully realized the genius of his writing. I was standing in the back, working the camera as I always do, and it struck me. He’s smartly philosophical. He’s emotional. He’s funny, and self deprecating. These songs stick longer after his fingers stop picking, his feet stop tapping the groove, and his voice fades away.

In the last decade and a half, he’s been prolific, releasing one fine album after another. I’m convinced many of his songs will endure as classics. He deserves to be in the same conversation as our finest writers, artists like John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt, David Olney,and maybe even the great Randy Newman (and just a notch below Springsteen and Dylan).

“Lyrics are the part I work the hardest on, and that love of language and poetry came naturally,” Smither says. “I grew up with language professor parents and I can’t begin to tell you how many times around the dinner table discussion I would be sent to grab a dictionary or a thesaurus to check something. The fact is most people take language for granted and some of us have an obsession with it. I do.”

Smither is thoughtful, insightful, tackling the mystical. He’s particularly poignant about the passage of time.

Take “Leave the Light On:”
If I were young again, I’d pay attention – To that
little-known dimension
A taste of endless time
It’s just like water – it runs right through our fingers
But the flavor of it lingers – Like a rich, red wine
In those days we were single – we lived them one by one
Now we hardly see ‘em – they don’t walk – they run
But I’ve got plenty left I’ve set my sight on
Don’t wait up – Leave the light on – I’ll be – home – soon

DSC_9218Or “Link of Chain,” another favorite:

Can’t you see…I can’t explain.
I’m a little like a link of chain
Just a ring around another.
Runnin’ in and out again.

And then there’s “Small Revelations:

Simple to see where we come from
Harder is where we are
That’s the core of the treason
The promise is never the answer
Well, why do you need to know?
There ain’t a rhyme or a reason
Try to stay in the season.

Passion is feeling in motion
Compassion is standing still
This isn’t just a vocation
Hearing is letting it happen
But to listen’s a work of will
Beware of cheap imitations
Thankful for small revelations.

He’s also funny and self deprecating. As in “Lola:”

Lookin’ for my Lola, she’s drinkin’ rum and Coca Cola,
Smokes big cigars,
she drives big cars around.
Folks say she’s gonna reach the top,
but she says that’s just her first stop.

DSC_9198And then there’s Smither on relationships in “Winsome Smile:”

Well it’s hard to believe
But I’m telling you your heart would soon recover
But you don’t want it to, you love this aching agony
‘Cause it’s noble, but it’s true
You won’t forsake this pain for other lovers
Happiness would fill your mind with misery
Time will wound all heels, and it ain’t pretty
With any luck at all, she’ll find some dope that you can pity
Your loss is measured in illusions
And your gain is all in bittersweet intelligence
And your winsome smile will lose some of its innocence
Your winsome smile
Your winsome smile will lose some of its innocence.

Finally, there’s his classic “Love You Like a Man:”

All these men I’ve been seein’ they’ve got their balls up on the shelf
You know they could never love you baby, They can’t even love themselves.
You know if you need someone who can. Well, I could be, you know, I could be your lover man.
You better believe me when I tell you I could love you like a man.

Smither turns 70 today, though he looks and acts far younger. He’s still out there on the road alone, driving to one gig after another. Each night, his words resonate long after his departure.

 

Gretchen Peters House Concert, April 27

Eliza Gilkyson, Tara Nevins (of Donna the Buffalo), and Kim Richey each put on one of the best shows over the years peters_hcw_02at my house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts.

This weekend’s show features Gretchen Peters, another songwriter who promises to make an equally memorable impression stops by the backyard for an evening of community and song (and a little food and drink).

Her songs have been turned into country hits by artsts like Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Nanci Griffith, Trisha Yearwood and Rodney Crowell, but Peters is more of a folkie in the Joni Mitchell mode, albeit one for a newer generation of strong women.

She started performing in the Boulder, Colorado folk circuit as a teenager. Inspired by Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and a new generation of songwriters rising out of Nashville that included Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and Rodney Crowell, Peters relocated to Music City in the late 1980s.

Martina McBride’s 1995 recording of Peters’ “Independence Day,” the gritty story of an abused woman’s revenge, made her a songwriting sensation. The performance received a “Best Country Song” Grammy nomination and won the Country Music Association’s “Song of the Year” title. After that a string of great vocalists – Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Neil Diamond, George Strait, Etta James – began to record Peters’ songs. Peters also signed her own record deal, yielding her 1996 debut album The Secret of Life. The title track was cut by Faith Hill in 1999 and hit number five on the country charts.

Her most recent album, “Hello Cruel World” made any number of Top 10 lists. Miley Cyrus created a sensation when she tweeted that “The Matador,” a song off the album, was something she was listening to again and again.

If you want seats to the show, which is be outside under a big tent, email jim@northshorepoint.com.

Check out some videos from Gretchen at

“Independence Day”

“The Matador”

“On a Bus to St. Cloud”

Bill Morrissey’s Passing

Bill Morrissey, the New Hampshire-based songwriter, died in his sleep over the weekend. He was in a hotel in Georgia on his way from visiting friends and performing a house concert to see his mother in Philadelphia. He was 59.

Bill was a character who wrote great characters in his songs and his fiction (he published two novels). His voice, both on the page and coming out of speakers, was an instantly recognizable corduroy croak. He battled the demons over the years, something he documented in a 2009 post on his web site, but the word was he was feeling better lately.

On his site, the announcement of his death included a description of the last week that says he’d found some peace:  “It is fitting, though, that this last week he was staying with his dear friend, Fred Koller and his wife and he had chosen to stay in their airstream. He loved it.  And, he spent a day or two admiring Fred’s bookstores and the incredible used books and first and second editions of books that Bill has admired for years.  He also performed at a lovely house concert and had a great time playing.  He was at the motel as a stop before driving up to the Philadelphia area to visit his Mom. And he was happy and upbeat about all of these things.  “

He played North Shore Point House Concerts in 2002 . He put on a great show and was a gracious, funny, guest.  I’d fallen hard for him a year earlier, when I purchased “Something I Saw or Thought I Saw.” The album made my best of 2001 list.  “Rightly compared to Richard and Linda Thompson’s classic, “Shoot Out the Lights,” Morrissey has captured a romance fracturing, ” I wrote then. “He remains one of the best storytellers in song, portraying a lonely night at the Chelsea Hotel perfectly in “23rd Street,” the sadness of old age in “Traveling by Cab” and offering just a bit of hope with “Will You Be My Rose.”

I quickly caught up with his career and learned what I’d been missing. He could — and did — bring me to tears with his songs.  His “Birches,” about a longtime marriage, is about as perfectly written a song as you will find. Listening to his music over the past couple of days has been the saddest of pleasures.

The Boston Globe has a fine obituary.

Magic Moments: A Decade of House Concerts

It was the nightmare I’d feared for over a decade of hosting 60 house concerts: a rogue storm, threatening almost from the time Tara Nevins and Carol Elizabeth Jones took the stage, finally unleashed a torrent about an hour into the show.

Oh, it had rained before on nights I’d hosted shows at my series, North Shore Point House Concerts, but we always either had rented a tent or put the performers in the spacious wood garage. Hours earlier, my sound man and I, coddled by the clear forecast, had decided to set up outside under blue skies.

By the time the sheet of water descended, we’d covered the stage with one canopy and the sound board with another. People raced to shelter onstage, in the garage, and in the house. “We should go inside and just play acoustic,” Tara said, huddling onstage as people retrieved garbage bags to cover the instruments.

Fans with umbrellas and garbage bags ferried others inside during the deluge. There was food. There was drink. I shared bottles of Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek that I’d stashed away for the after-show. The air conditioning couldn’t keep pace; makeshift fans were fashioned.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth fixed themselves a fresh drink and sat in front of the living room fireplace. Furniture was pushed to the walls and people crowded in, many settling on the floor at their feet, a new fashioned bluegrass sit-in. Others crammed the entryway and the nearby dining room, some talking, others jockeying for a spot closer.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth played, and played, and then, when they wanted to finish, the crowd begged for one more, an old fiddle tune. A couple who attends nearly every show sat cross-legged right in front, fanning them as the music got hotter and hotter. A Donna the Buffalo fan, at his first North Shore Point show, swayed against the rear wall, occasionally singing along, encouraged by the Woodford Reserve and the moment. A daughter, up from Durham with her father, mouthed the lyrics to every song (Here is a link to their review of the evening).

They played everything they knew, outlasting the storm. With every song, every laugh or bit of applause, every shared nod, the evening became symbolic of the magic that’s happened time and again on these nights.

House concerts are many things. They’re about exploration, the thrill of discovery, of finding a new voice worth hearing. They’re about intimacy, a chance to break down the barrier between artist and audience. They’re often the only chance to get a coveted songwriter to play in this town (or many other towns, apparently; we’ve had fans travel from Nashville, Durham, D.C. and other far-flung locales for shows).

They’re about becoming a part of a community, meeting people with a shared interest in music — and maybe beer and wine and conversation. No doubt, dozens of those connections have been made at my house over the past decade. They’re about people like Bill, Mary, Mike, Wendy, Marc, Lou, Minnie, Gail, Sid, Ron, Gayle, Pat, Kelly, Russ, Barry, Charlie, Lisa, Ray, Sound Man Jim, and others who attend show after show, probably almost as much for the community as the music.
To me, house concerts, at least, my house concerts, ultimately are about these shared moments, moments created by the performer, but enabled by the setting and the community.

In the early days, artists and particularly their agents had to be convinced to book a house concert. Because of our attendance — we’ve had up 205 people at a show although a usual crowd is 80 to 100 — I’ve been able to make guarantees that made them easier to convince. Now, there are hundreds of house concert series, large and small, regularly and irregularly scheduled, across the country. They’re a part of the business plan for songwriters new and old. For every show we host, I could book five more.

At our series, all the donations at the door go to the artist. We front the money for sound, lights, chairs, when necessary, and a small stage when necessary. We do shows in three formats, outside, inside our spacious old garage, and in our living room, depending on the season and the demand for seats. Only a couple of times has the door failed to meet my guarantees and the one time the shortfall was serious happened to be the night a couple of regulars decided (not knowing) that they’d make a huge donation to help cover our costs. So, yes, each show is a nervy game of “will I cover the guarantee?,” but as host it’s my job to get the artists a decent payday.

The reward, of course, is being the maestro of those magic moments, so many over roughly 60 shows. We had a successful free trial run with Michael Lille, a superb songwriter native to Nofolk. The first show we booked asking for a donation came six months later and featured Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, a duo I’d heard on NPR. True to the shows that would follow, the informal setting encouraged them to try a song so new that Tracy read the lyrics from a notebook page. What I called the “dark womb” song appeared years later after Dave’s tragically early death on Tracy’s solo album as “Mother, I Climbed,” a haunting meditation on faith.

Indulge me looking back over a decade of the moments since that first show. Garland Jeffreys saying he didn’t need an introduction, then walking among the milling crowd, singing “Moonshine in the Cornfield” a cappella winding his way to the stage. Greg Trooper, master storyteller, mesmerizing on a chilly October night with a tale about a guy in a bar in Oklahoma, who during the break, told him he sounded just like one of his favorite songwriters, Greg Trooper.

Jeff Black bringing men to tears closing his first set with “Sunday Best” and “Gold Heart Locket. ” Jim Lauderdale saying the house had a “great vibe,” writing a song between sound check and the show, and then enduring an evening during which the electricity flickered during the first set until we realized the line into the house was literally burning out and ran extension cords to the side with good juice. Eliza Gilkyson‘s delight at returning — and then returning again. Kim Richey enchanted by her first house concert such that she sang until her voice surrendered (and then enchanted my children the next morning). She wasn’t the only first-timer. Garland Jeffreys, Dave Alvin, Steve Forbert, Marshall Crenshaw, Tom Russell, Tara Nevins, and others were house concert virgins who left converts.

There was Jason Ringenberg swinging his guitar and narrowly missing decapitating a front row fan and stomping the hardwood so hard with his boot heel that people checked for dents during halftime. Jimmy LaFave and band (a rare band show) coming into the garage on a threatening night and openly wondering if it could hold 90 people (including some outside space) and whether it was a good idea, then blowing the roof off during a summer shower and raving about the vibe and the community after the show. Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell and band hitting on all cylinders on a raucous and sweltering night. Don Dixon and Marti Jones, together again, leading the audience singing “Praying Mantis” as a round. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s very young daughter singing on stage for the first time. Sam Baker showing up with John Fullbright and Natalia Zukerman, two artists I didn’t know well, and deciding it would be cool to sit in the round with Kevin Welch and play songs all night, which the four of them made memorable. Amy Rigby making some of the men in attendance noticeably uncomfortable with songs like “Balls,” “Cynically Yours,” and “Beer and Kisses.”

The guys in Jimmy LaFave’s band lingered after the show to talk with fans. “You’ve got a special thing going on here,” one veteran of the road said. We hear that a lot, and, like hearing a regular has discovered a new favorite artist, it never gets old.

There are the before show dinners, at their best a respite for good food and conversation (at their worst, when musicians are late, a rushed feast as fans file in). Peter Case remembered the seared salmon with champagne vinegar potato sauce and requested it the next time. Mary Gauthier, once a chef, offered a bow to the honey gingered pork tenderloin. Eliza Gilkyson gobbled up the black bean and rice salad. Madison Violet squirreled away the leftovers for the long, after-show road trip to Toronto.

After the show, there’s often bourbon and BS. Welch, Baker, and Fullbright sipping bourbon and discussing an artist’s responsibility to his audience. David Olney debating racism in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” firing bourbon-laced ice at his antagonist. Trooper telling tales about Dan Penn, finishing songs for Aretha by writing in a studio closet. Martin Stephenson and his dobro player sitting out back, joining with a few regulars with guitar to play until 3 a.m. 

Performers often suggest artists to book. Welch and Richey recommended David Olney, a songwriter I didn’t know Months later at the show, a regular sitting in the back stopped me to whisper: “This guy is **&^* incredible. Where did you find him?”

Those moments are why I’m still excited before every show, why I’ve already booked shows into 2012 with artists like Steve Forbert, Garland Jeffreys, Kim Richey who’ve been here before, and artists new to North Shore like Nora Jane Struthers, Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin, Peter Cooper and Eric Brace and the legendary folk/blues master, Eric Andersen.

So I’m pouring two fingers of Knob Creek and raising a toast, not to the past,  but to the future and another decade of magic moments.

Madision Violet at North Shore Point House Concerts

I’m taking reservations for the next show at North Shore Point House Concerts in Norfolk on May 7 featuring the stunning harmonies of Canadian folk rock group, Madison Violet.

No doubt, you’ve never heard of Madison Violet. But that’s one of the reasons the series exists — to bring in great artists you’d never otherwise see. They are stars north of the border (just check the videos on the North Shore site or Youtube).

They’ve won the John Lennon International Songwriting Competition, been nominated for numerous awards, including a Juno, the Canadian Grammy. Listen and you will be convinced.



The donation is $20.  As always, you may arrive as early as 7 p.m. and share snacks.

Go to the web site or email jim@northshorepoint.com for reservations. You’re free to bring friends. We will reply with directions.

For more on them, go to the web site, www.madisonviolet.com or just go to the North Shore Point web site and check out the videos.

The rest of the schedule (this far):

Sept. 10, Kevin Welch with special guest Dustin Welch.
Sept. 23 Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers.
Oct. 23, Steve Forbert.
April 14, 2012 Kim Richey.
May 19, 2012, Eric Brace and Peter Cooper.

Past shows include Marshall Crenshaw, Dave Alvin, Jimmy LaFave, Peter Case, Don Dixon and Marti Jones and dozens of others.

Please forward this to friends and share the special experience of a house concert.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/celticconnections/2011/artists/madison_violet/

Robbie Fulks at North Shore Point House Concerts, Jan. 29

Robbie Fulks played to a packed garage — yes, we heated the garage to accommodate the overflow of fans who wanted to see the show — on January 29 for the first show of the 2011 season, the tenth anniversary of the first North Shore Point House Concert (actually June 2001 was the first with the late Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer).

Robbie was better than fine, joined by guitarist extraordinaire Robbie Gjersoe, who has played with Jerry Jeff Walker and Joe Ely. Here are a few videos from the show.

Next up for North Shore Point is John Fullbright on March 26.

For the full schedule (and it’s changing as I book more acts for 2011), go to North Shore Point House Concerts.

The Susan Cowsill Band at North Shore Point House Concerts

The final North Shore Point House Concerts show of 2010 features The Susan Cowsill Band in what should be a fun night of folk/rock music in Norfolk.  If you’re interested in attending email jim@northshorepoint.com or northshorepoint@aol.com.  The show is at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16. For more on the series, go to www.northshorepoint.com Feel free to tell friends and share links to this blog and the site.

House concerts are special evenings, laidback events shared by fans who come to listen, talk, and enjoy the community experience.

It’s interesting how Susan Cowsill spans generations. To some, she’s the youngest member of the singing family of the 1960s.

To others, she’s one of the principals in a superb band, The Continental Drifters, based in New Orleans during the 1990s.  The Drifters put out two superb albums of power pop/rock highlighted by the songwriting of Cowsill, VIcki Peterson, late of The Bangles, and Peter Holsapple,  who plays with R.E.M, has released two fine albums with Chris Stamey, and was in the pioneering alt pop North Carolina group, the dBs.

And to a third group, she’s the front woman of a band that has released two critically-acclaimed albums around being flooded out of her New Orleans home (after Katrina, she spent four months living out of her car and staying with friends).

Wrote Eric Feber in The Virginian-Pilot earlier this year:
“With help from Jackson Browne and her remaining brothers on harmonies, Cowsill eloquently and passionately sings of her personal losses and the struggles and triumphs of the Crescent City. Her accessibly melodic songs are delivered in folk-rock, Celtic and country-pop arrangements, ranging from spirited full-band rockers to melancholy ballads illuminated by strings and acoustic backing.

On “Lighthouse,” Cowsill steps out of the shadows of her family’s band and tragedies to deliver a triumphant record of sweet and bittersweet music.”

Rolling Stone writes: “From Katrina to Super Bowl champs, this is our story,” singer-songwriter and proud New Orleans resident Susan Cowsill writes in the credits, and she repeatedly veers between drowning and daylight, exile and homecoming, on Lighthouse, an earthy, often crunchy folk-pop gem. But Cowsill has a supple survivor’s alto, and it runs like a sturdy lifeline through the silken dreaming in “Dragon Flys,” her hard-soul resolve of “Could This Be Home” and especially the gospel-rock liftoff in “River of Love,” written by her brother Barry, who perished in Katrina, and sung by Susan with a heavy heart and sweet memory in the same deep breaths.”