By Glenn Rifkin
With the Covid-19 pandemic decimating entertainment venues around the country, artists like Smither are doing everything they can to help these vital music emporiums survive.
About a year ago, I went to Club Passim to hear Chris Smither, the remarkable folk and blues singer/songwriter, do a show before a packed house of devoted fans in the legendary folk club in Cambridge. An evening with Smither is energizing and captivating, especially in a small venue where an artist of his talent and virtuosity is up close and on his game. Smither, with his unique guitar work, gravelly voice, toe-tapping rhythm, and amazing collection of material written and recorded over five decades, is a dish best served hot and face to face. When you exit a Smither show, you always feel satiated and satisfied.
A year later, Smither is returning to Passim, but under extraordinarily different circumstances. The affable, (soon to be) 76-year old Smither will take to the tiny stage under the spotlight but the room will be empty and the audience will be linked via live streaming. The October 3 show is, in fact, a special concert to celebrate the release of Smither’s 18th album, More From the Levee, and, at the same time, an effort to raise money, through donations, for Club Passim. With the Covid-19 pandemic decimating entertainment venues around the country, artists like Smither are doing everything they can to help these vital music emporiums survive.
“I’m trying to support the venues, to help them maintain their existence in the public mind,” Smither told me in a phone interview. “The pandemic is affecting small businesses of all kinds, but I’m not sure if people really realize how much entertainment is in the hands of small independent companies and organizations. Anything I can do to keep it in the forefront of people’s mind, because if it goes on too long, people forget about them.”
A Passim performance is always special for Smither. He got his career started on this same stage in the ’60s, when it was still called Club 47 and he was in his early twenties. It remains an iconic venue in his career memories.
The “new” album is actually an “old, new album,” as he puts it. The songs were recorded in 2014 during a two-week studio session in New Orleans, and all were part of a 50-year retrospective where he re-recorded songs from his vast catalogue. The two-CD recording, Still on the Levee, was released in 2014 but Smither and his longtime producer David Goodrich, were left with a number of songs that didn’t make the album. They were worthy but left in the vault. “We didn’t want to put out a 3-CD set,” Smither says. So the new release features 10 of these songs, including such gems as “Caveman,” “Hey, Hey, Hey,” and “Drive You Home Again.” As a bonus, there’s one new tune, “What I Do,” which has never been released.
“When we got down to New Orleans, David Goodrich said, `Chris, write a new song for this.’” Smither recalled. “I said `No, I don’t want to work.’ We were down there to have fun. But I sat down and wrote the song in about a week.” Smither always made a habit of road-testing new songs before including them on his albums, so this one was omitted from the double-CD set. When he heard it recently while going over material for the new album, he thought, “This is a good song.”
Like his fellow troubadours, Smither is trying to find ways to stay connected to his audience. For an artist who used to be on the road 200 nights a year, the home quarantine can be stressful. “I love to perform,” he said. “It’s necessary for my mental health. But this is experiment in what retirement might be like.” Performing live, at this stage of his life, is not required for his financial well-being. That’s what 50 years on the road can do if you’re willing to save a bit along the way. “I would be happier if I was out there. But I’m more worried about my friends,” he said, “the younger guys and gals trying to make a living at this. I hope it comes back for them.”
The performance will be streamed on Passim.org as well as Passim’s Facebook and YouTube pages, Saturday, October 3 at 8 p.m.. The stream is free, but viewers are asked to make a contribution to Club Passim.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including the New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for the Arts Fuse. His new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was recently published by McGraw-Hill.