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Live Review: Chris Smither w/ Peter Mulvey @ The Hamilton Live — 5/29/24

Chris Smither’s masterful songwriting, anchored in the folk and blues traditions of his hometown, New Orleans, has been attracting discerning music fans for more than five decades. Bonnie Raitt, an accomplished songwriter in her own right, has called him her Dylan, and his songs have been covered by Emmylou Harris and Diana Krall.

In a recent show at DC’s The Hamilton Live, touring behind his latest album, All About The Bones, Smither showed exactly why.

As one of his songs references, Smither was born in 1944, the child of academics who worked in Romance Languages.  His family settled in the Big Easy when he was three. Though he long ago left Louisiana for Massachusetts, where he joined a burgeoning folk scene in Boston (and met Raitt, also the child of an academic), the unique spirit and culture of that city still finds its way to his compositions, even now, decades later.

“I think about southern Louisiana a lot,” Chris told the audience at The Hamilton Live on May 29. One of the tracks on the new album, “Down In Thibodeaux,” was inspired by a neighbor from his childhood, a a telegraph operator with the surname of Boudreaux — and Chris only ever him referred to by his last name — who hailed from that town. “That’s the only part of this song that’s true,” he said.

One of his most loved songs, “No Love Today,” which came toward the end of set, is similarly inspired by childhood memories. A fruit and vegetable vendor would make his down the street, calling out his wares to the people who lived there.

Watch Chris Smither perform “No Love Today” live at WFUV on YouTube:

Chris started his set with two of his older songs, “Open Up” and “Time Stands Still.” “The older I get,” he said, “the more I find that my songs are falling into some well-defined categories. A lot of them are pretty morbid. I’m going to start you off with a shot of morbidity.” He then played the title cut from the new album, which features the Grim Reaper. But not all the songs are morbid. “This is a sweet one,” he said, introducing the love song “I Still Believe In You.” 

“Digging the Hole” is influenced by Smither’s recovery from alcoholism. “You ever meet someone that doesn’t have bad luck, but does it on purpose?” I am that guy: I walked away from a scholarship at the University of Texas Law School 20 years ago, for reasons that must’ve made sense to me at the time, but which I am now at a loss to explain. “I meet them in programs designed to help these people,” Chris said.

Literature also influences Chris’s songwriting. “In The Bardo,” about the liminal space space between life and death in Buddhist thought, was somewhat inspired by the George Saunders novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, which he called “terrifying” and admitted he didn’t entirely get through. I managed to finish the book, but I’m not sure I totally got it. I am somewhat encouraged to know that someone else — and Chris is a sharp guy — didn’t, either. (It’s an experimental novel, which Saunders admits is more a series of vignettes.)

Though it’s not something he does frequently, Chris is not afraid to get political, as he did with “Close The Deal.” This is the kind of song you write when you’ve been reading too many newspapers,” he said.

Throughout the set, Chris was accompanied by David Goodrich, his longtime producer. His performance included many of his most beloved songs: “Don’t Call Me Stranger,” “Small Revelations,” “Train Home,” and “Up On The Lowdown.” There were two covers, both drawn from the new album. The first was Tom Petty’s “Time To Move On.” Smither praised Petty for his way of “writing hits that don’t sound like hits. Why can’t that happen to me?” The other was “The Calm Before The Storm,” written by second-generation songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, who Chris confessed to having had a crush on for the last 20 years. “She makes me feel like I’m in short pants,” he said. (What’s wrong with short pants, anyway? To be fair, Boston gets milder summers. I know people in Maine who don’t even have air conditioning.)

After the covers, the evening wrapped up with a medley of a very old song — more than 100 years old — about a dreaded Louisiana prison farm and Smither’s “Seems So Real,” followed by “Leave The Light On.” After a standing ovation, he agreed to do one more, sending the crowd home with “Sittin’ On Top of the World.”

Watch Chris Smither perform “Leave the Light On” live from Norfolk Street via YouTube:

The evening began with a set by Peter Mulvey, a native of Milwaukee whose history with Chris goes back decades. Peter credited Chris for giving him his career by taking him on tour when he was starting out in the ’90s.

When Peter took the stage, he said that he’d ridden down on the Amtrak, which was “full of businesspeople and the Amish” and other assorted colorful characters. He kicked things off with “Knuckleball Suite,” followed by a song from his album Kitchen Radio, which he noted is 20 years old. The next song, the funny, biting “Asshole In Space,” he described as “a hymn to bring this country together.” Throughout his set, he was accompanied by Goodrich as well, who he mentioned he met when he and Chris contributed to a tribute album for Mississippi John Hurt. Together, they covered one of Chris’s songs. Things got serious with the next number, which was “about a flag that got flown here, in the capital of my country.” He finished his set with the traditional “Shenandoah,” which really highlighted how powerful his singing is.

Watch Peter Mulvey perform “The Knuckleball Suite” live at City Winery New York on YouTube:

The audience really liked and really responded to Peter. I’d not seen him live before, and I was really impressed. He was a nice complement to Chris, playing in a similar genre and style but with a unique and distinctive voice. And, of course, Chris was fantastic, as he always is, with his delivery matching the power of his material.

Here are some photos of Chris Smither performing at The Hamilton Live on May 29, 2024. All pictures copyright and courtesy of James Todd Miller.


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Here are some photos of Peter Mulvey opening Chris Smither at The Hamilton Live. All pictures again copyright and courtesy of James Todd Miller.

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