BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
After some 50 years of plying his craft as a singer, songwriter and purveyor of folk, blues and practically every idiom in between, it’s long past time Chris Smither got his due. Appropriately, the kudos coincide with the simultaneous release of two albums that celebrate Smither’s bountiful half century. Still on the Levee takes a direct approach — well, sort of — by retracing the more significant songs from Smither’s bountiful catalog courtesy of fresh takes and special guests, among them Loudon Wainwright III, Kris Delmhorst, members of Rusty Belle and Morphine, along with select members of Smither’s familial offspring. Nevertheless, it’s the master’s rich, molasses-stirred vocals that rise to the fore, an ideal complement to the blues-based deliberations that have always been Smither’s stock in trade. Likewise, the most affecting of these offerings consist of keynote ballads “Devil Got Your Man,” “Lonesome Georgia Brown” and “Song for Susan,” as well as the furious shuffle “Winsome Smile,” in which he tears the foundation off the tune with a riposte that’s both stark and sizzling. Suffice it to say, Still on the Levee is mandatory listening, particularly for those whose familiarity is still next to none.
Many of the same songs are revisited on the companion compilation Link of Chain, which finds several of Smither’s Signature Sounds label mates offering their kudos with fresh interpretations of their own. Despite an all-star cast — Dave Alvin, Loudon Wainwright III, Bonnie Raitt, Patty Larkin and Tim O’Brien included — none of the participants take excessive liberties with the material and for good reason. That’s due not so much to their own reticence but rather because Smither’s songs are seemingly so diverse to begin with. Not that some don’t try — Mary Gauthier’s take on “I Feel the Same” is as maudlin as her trademark approach demands, while O’Brien’s jaunty “Origin of Species” adds some jaunty frivolity to the proceedings. Likewise, Raitt’s live take on “Love Me Like a Man” sounds unexceptional on the surface, but proves why Smither’s bluesier material qualifies as the stuff of standards. Nevertheless, the best of the batch comes with Josh Ritter’s touching “Rosalie,” Jorma Kaukonen’s affecting “Leave the Light On” and the Mark Mulvey/Jeffrey Foucault duet on “Song for Susan.” Given the fact that all the tracks are plucked from the same fertile source, it stands to reason that Link of Chain connects solidly throughout.
DOWNLOAD: “Devil Got Your Man” (Smither) “Lonesome Georgia Brown” (Smither), “Leave the Light On” (Jorma Kaukonen), “Song for Susan” (Mark Mulvey/Jeffrey Foucault)