Chris Smither has a weatherbeaten mien that’s completely in sync with his workingman’s wisdom. His songs can be funny, profound and humble all at the same time, delivered with the efficiency and understatement of a shrug. He’s a master of the punchline couplet, sung with the slightest curl at the edge of his deadpan. There’s a little bit of a burr in his tone and a little bit of mumble in his enunciation, yet somehow the listener still catches most every word.
Smither and Bonnie Raitt were part of the same folk music scene in Cambridge, Mass., as I was growing up near there in the early ’70s. I heard Raitt sing Smither’s “Love Me Like a Man” and then, as she always has, prominently mention and endorse the songwriter. So I checked him out at a little place called Jack’s Bar a few months later, and have been hooked ever since.
Like Raitt, Smither smoothly incorporates both timeless blues and topical politics into his repertoire. There is a cover of the self-explanatory “Miner’s Blues” by Frank Hutchison on his latest CD, “Time Stands Still,” from 2009, along with his own jaundiced take on the bank bailouts, entitled “Surprise Surprise.” The last time I saw him in concert, at the Cedar alongside fellow songwriters Dave Alvin and Tim O’Brien in the tongue-in-cheek supergroup Monsters of Folk, he had the audience rolling in the aisles with the anti-creationist ditty “Origin of the Species.” And he inevitably tips his hat to his mentor with a Bob Dylan song or two.
On the title song for “Time Stands Still,” Smither sings, “I move so slow/My shadow often kicks me from behind.” But this steady-as-she-goes approach will bring him to his 66th birthday Thursday night back at the Cedar — something the hard-drinking performer from the ’70s might not have imagined he’d see. But Smither got the upper hand on his battle with the bottle decades ago, and has become more prolific — three records in the past five years compared to 10 in the previous 30 — without a drop in quality. Some of those sly punchlines are imbued with a jolting, trenchant comedy that will make you laugh out loud, then a minute later, a turn of phrase about a lost love — or, as in the wonderful “Leave the Light On,” a stubbornly enduring love — will give you goosebumps, and hope. It contains this chorus: “I’ve been left for dead before/But I still fight on/Don’t wait up leave the light on/I’ll be home soon.”
Here is Smither singing “Leave The Light On” in concert last year.
Here is the Biblical comedy “Origin of the Species,” replete with Smither’s glorious guitar picking.
Chris Smither at the Cedar Cultural Center, Thursday, Nov. 11, at 8 p.m.; tickets are $15 today and $18 Thursday, the day of the show. Ellis opens.