One of my personal favourites, "Crocodile Man" by the late Dave Carter, followed. Tangled with a barker / ran off with the kitty / crawled to Mississippi and I got away clean; this song represents the New Orleans-born Smither in his most natural element.
The most moving song of the show was "Fathers Day", a dedication to his soon-to-be 90-year old father and surprisingly, the first of its kind in Smithers lengthy repertoire. Times slow too but it gets you there / See whats become of me before youre gone / Still afraid Ive found a way to let you down / Small time left to make small things right. Well all heard these familial tributes come out trite and clichéd before, but in Smithers hands and vocal chords it was a lesson in grace, forgiveness and love that almost every man in the audience could relate to on some level.
He rounded out the first set with "Diplomacy", a brief overview of the U.S. State Department that had the crowd howling with laughter; a song about cake and ice cream whose title escapes me; "Link of Chain" from 1995s Up on the Lowdown with its bass shuffle groove. And finally, he introduced the New Orleans-inspired folk rag "No Love Today" with a tribute to his 2-year old daughter (more evidence that Smither may in fact just be getting started!). The song is a simple yet profound plea that the city of his birth is not what we see on sanitized TV and simply needs people; and a tale of coming across a kid in Hawaii playing that very song and reacting in disbelief to Smithers introducing himself as the man who wrote it.
After a short break to sign CDs at the front of the house, Smither returned with another rootsy favourite from Up On The Lowdown called "Cant Shake These Blues". He then delivered "Drive You Home Again" with a particularly haunting style that evoked J.J. Cale. On "Shillin for the Blues" he reminded the fool in all of us that, Its never nice to hear advice you know youll never use. Next was one of his classics "Love You Like a Man" written when he was 23. He observed with typically dry wit that the artists who cover it are always women. What you need is a man to hold you / not a fool to ask you why. That line alone would certainly explain the songs resonance with women!
"Cave Man" from 1997s Small Revelations spoke to the Neanderthal in every man, followed ironically by a cover of "Floatin The Blues" by the sensitive womanizing folk great Jesse Winchester. Then came a 3/4 version of Bob Dylans "Visions of Johanna"; conceptualized with his British folk and bluesman friend Steve Tilston and which Smither prefaced with a good-natured dig at Dylans ability to remember his own lyrics. Surely this is a sign of a man confident in his own place in the pantheon of singer/songwriters.
Back to the blues it was, with another selection from Small Revelations entitled "Hold On" with its memorable chorus, The only thing thats truly free is this little voice thats tellin me / to hold on; followed by the slowly lilting "Killin The Blues", which appears on his only live album to date (Live As Ill Ever Be, 2000) and if I recall correctly is a collaboration with Steve Tilston.
Smither closed the second set with the Celtic-infused folk number "Leave The Light On"; a meditation on life on the road and the family waiting at home with lyrics that progressed as a time signature: For years when we were single / for years we sang in couplets / for years we lived in waltz time, with the refrain, Dont wait up / leave the light on / Ill be home soon. Blind Willie McTells all-time classic "Statesboro Blues", another staple of Smithers live show, was the aptly chosen encore, delivered as always with no-holds-barred lyrical energy and flawless guitar work.
It is rare that one can experience a singer/songwriters performance where not a single note or word feels wasted or out of place. On this night, Chris Smither was, as he always is, one of the exceptions. Keep your ear to the ground for his next Toronto show or nearby festival performance, because he is one of the essentials of our times.