Chris Smither plays a mean foot. He also sings well, plays some pretty good guitar, and writes some fine songs. He does many things well, even effortlessly; but the greatest of these, is foot. (Incidentally, they’ll be appearing together again locally this Saturday the eleventh, at the First Encounter Coffeehouse in Eastham.)
His most recent CD, 2000’s “Live As I’ll Ever Be”, was recorded live with no overdubs, and really kind of features his foot, which more than rises to the challenge, giving a performance of majesty, precision, and personality in a situation that anyone with half a shoe might find pretty darn uncomfortable. After all, when the other elements are Smither’s widely acclaimed guitar playing and his relaxed, soulful singing, it might be hard for a single one of the artist’s justly revered dogs to make much of an impression.
Ah, but this is no ordinary toe-tapping. For one thing, Chris goes that extra mile. He recently confided to this reporter that for each performance he sets up a special piece of particle board, carefully selected for its complete lack of a musical tone, so that he doesn’t have to rely on what can sometimes turn out to be bad-sounding floors. He transports this piece of particle board in a specially constructed Anvil case (actually, no, he doesn’t; that last part isn’t true, but it’s a nice idea, isn’t it?)
He also doesn’t use a unique microphone that was manufactured by an obscure German company specifically to get a nice sound out of a boot -but he does mike his foot. Some would say that made him a loony, but they’d be the ones who had never heard this pulverizing pup.
Because Chris Smither’s foot rocks! You really couldn’t ask for a better percussionist: always tasteful, always understated, always laying that beat right on the floor where it belongs. His tempos always cozy, his drummer impeccable -and any good musician will tell you that having a great drummer is half the battle with a band. He gets a great sound, he stomps with a great feel, and not since the golden days of Mungo Jerry has there been a foot artist like him.
When I interviewed Chris a few days ago, he talked about his feet for hours, succumbing to my relentless probing; he even divulged that the shoes have to be “expensive, thin-soled, Italian shoes.”
He also confided that he was well into the recording of a new album, working at Signature Sounds in Palmer on, among other things, a cover of Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” Needless to say, I immediately accused him of using a twelve minute song to disguise a lack of new material, but he said he had cut “Desolation Row” down to a more manageable 8 minutes, and that it would be one of eleven songs, seven of which were originals (the remainder being covers of Mississippi John Hurt, Dave Carter, and Buffalo Springfield); so I slunk back to my little hole.
Chris has a very relaxed, engaging presence, understated but firm, that lets you know you’re in good hands, and he’s a good enough solo performer that his fans sometimes complain when he adds other musicians for his recordings. It is true that the intimacy of his live shows seems to be the best setting for a lot of his material, but he enjoys the opportunity to use other musicians when it comes up, saying that “the albums needn’t be a reflection of the live situation; I just can’t always afford a band.” Still, he makes it obvious that he still enjoys the solo stuff just as much.
His voice is interesting, too, because in an idiom (white acoustic folkie/blues) that is ruled by over-singing, Smither usually undersells. It’s not a lack of intensity, because he’s got that, but he’s also got a certain patient grace, a vaguely southern (he grew up in New Orleans) sense of dignity.
And a darn fine right foot, that’s never on 1 and 3 when it’s supposed to be on 2 and 4, thank god!