Chris Smither got his start in Boston in the mid-60s, as part of the acoustic blues revival, and it shows: he seasons his guitar playing with string bends, flatted fifths, and major-minor harmonic tension between his simultaneous lead and bass lines; his willowy picking is strongly influenced by Piedmont bluesmen like the Reverend Gary Davis, and the raw-nerved vulnerability of his lyrics recalls the work of Robert Johnson. But there's more to Smither than the blues: his playing also borrows from Appalachian folk music, country pickers like Merle Travis and Doc Watson, and contemporary country and folk pop. His latest disc, a collection of solo concert recordings called Live as I'll Ever Be (Hightone), consists of a dozen originals and two covers, including a roiling fingerpicked version of Johnson's "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." The notes are so dense in Smither's arrangement that they almost sound like a single solid mass; with just his guitar and his thumping feet, he generates such a propulsive rhythm that I never missed the fiercely strummed triplets and walking-bass turnaround that usually drive the tune. Smither's own "Winsome Smile" lays a hard-eyed message to a heartbroken man over a carnivalesque ragtime rhythm: "Lose these blues and screw your head on tight again," he instructs, then adds sardonically, "You love this achin' agony...your loss is measured in illusions." Another original, "Slow Surprise," is at one level just another song about the inevitability of heartache and the determination to carry on, but Smither colors it with a series of rippling minor-key guitar swells, pushed by a gentle, insistent figure on the low strings. "Help Me Now" combines sharp self-awareness ("I've been a fool of singular cool"), wry self-pity ("Lonesome is as lonesome does, and I do it"), and heartfelt yearning ("Tell me how to see outside of me"), its lyrics underscored ironically by a pumping, festive line. But if there's one song that expresses the heart of Smither's worldview, it's "The Devil's Real." In his universe, heaven and hell are both in the mind, so that people bear the responsibility for envisioning one or the other: "Now I dream about the good times," he sings, after describing a dark period in his life, "and they all come true." Friday, April 27, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc Norberg.