Vinyl release to support Record Store Day

  • Chris Smither’s album cover. Contributed photo

For the Recorder
Published: 9/28/2020 3:22:52 PM

Labor Day is supposed to be a day of rest, but this year it was a working day for Chris Smither and he couldn’t have been happier. The internationally known Amherst-based singer-songwriter spent the holiday playing two sold-out shows at the Black Birch Vineyard in Hatfield as part of a late summer concert series that Northampton-based Signature Sounds Presents hosted. It was one of a couple of socially distanced shows he had played since February and he was thrilled to be in front of an audience again.

Smither treated the crowd to a set of his blues-infused folk music that featured plenty of his trademark feet tapping, fluid guitar picking and lyrics that range from the profound to the hilarious. He also used the opportunity to play some material off his upcoming release “More From the Levee,” a collection of songs that were recorded for his 2014 career retrospective “Still on the Levee,” which were not released at the time due to the volume of material recorded for the project.

“More From the Levee” will have a vinyl-only release on Record Store Day, held annually Saturday, Sept. 26 and will be available on CD and all streaming services on Friday, Oct. 2. The local label Signature Sounds is releasing this recording.

Every year, the organizers of Record Store Day, an annual event that celebrates independent record stores, commemorate the event by releasing previously unreleased material by specially chosen artists. This year, they reached out to Smither.

“Six years ago, I released the double album career retrospective ‘Still on the Levee’ and we recorded like 40 or 50 songs,” Smither said in a recent phone interview. “It was enough to release a three-CD album, but we didn’t want to do that. We were left with this extra material, so when I was asked to participate in Record Store Day, I had this whole record ready to go.”

“More From the Levee” is Smither’s 18th album and features 10 career-spanning tracks that range from the heartfelt “Father’s Day” to the bluesy love song “Lonely Time,” which originally appeared on Smither’s 1970 debut “I’m a Stranger Too!” There is a new track, “What I Do,” alongside fan favorites “Caveman” and “Drive You Home Again.”

The material on “More From the Levee” was recorded in 2013 at the Music Shed in Smither’s hometown of New Orleans. When it came time to do a 50-year retrospective Smither decided he would re-record the songs and he wanted to do it in New Orleans where he grew up. He worked with his longtime producer, former Pioneer Valley resident David “Goody” Goodrich and also brought along the band Rusty Belle, the local trio of Zak Trojano, Kate Lorenz and Matt Lorenz (The Suitcase Junket), all of whom have since launched solo careers.

Considering Smither’s amazingly extensive catalog, it is no surprise the sessions generated a surplus of material. He recalled that deciding what to put on the album and what to leave off was a delicate balancing act. While “Still on the Levee” ended up with 24 songs, there were still some treasures left off. Fortunately, we get to hear them now.

“When I went back and heard ‘Drive You Home Again,’ I was like, ‘How did we leave that off?’” Smither wondered. “I think this is one of the most powerful versions of ‘Drive You Home Again,’ that I’ve ever heard and I’ve heard a lot because people record me all the time. And this was so good.”

Revisiting these recordings and working on “More from the Levee” brought back memories of the great time Smither had working in New Orleans. 

“It was so much fun, it was a once in a lifetime thing to go back to your hometown and get people together. People were coming in and out all the time, playing little parts,” Smither recalled. “We were there for three weeks and it was the longest I’ve spent in New Orleans since I left,” added Smither, who launched his career in Boston in the late 1960s.

Some of the people coming in to play were members of the band Morphine, Loudon Wainwright III and the late New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, who lent his piano skills to the track “Let It Go.” 

“It was a big day when he showed up and we were all sitting around like little bunny rabbits with our paws up to our months, waiting for the man himself — and then in he comes,” recalled Smither on working with Toussaint. “And he did not disappoint. He was wonderful.”

The release of a new album usually means a tour will follow, but that’s not happening now. Instead, Smither will celebrate the release with a show at Club Passim in Cambridge. Smither will play an acoustic live set in an empty Club Passim, the music venue that hosted his very first gig when he arrived in Cambridge in his early 20s.

The performance will be streamed on passim.org as well as Passim’s Facebook and YouTube pages on Saturday, Oct. 3 at 8 p.m. The stream is free, but viewers are asked to make a contribution to Club Passim.

“Chris Smither is one of the most beloved folk and blues artists of the last 50 years,” said Matt Smith, managing director of Club Passim, in a press statement. “His style is immediately recognizable, both as a guitar player and a lyricist. He has inspired and influenced generations who have come through Club Passim.”

“You are actually seeing a show from Passim,” said Smither of the event. “It’s a benefit for them, and like every small business, they are struggling. The idea is to keep the image of the place in people’s minds."

Smither stressed that it’s important to keep places like Passim in the forefront of people’s minds because, as time goes on, they could easily forget about them. And while Smither says he is looking forward to this show, he’d prefer to be playing in front of an actual audience.

“In over 50 years, this is by far the longest I have ever spent at home,” said Smither about his pandemic experience. “It’s like a rehearsal for retirement — if I ever do such an inconceivable thing,” he added with a laugh. 

Smither has put the time to good use. He has streamed a series of shows from his home and also started writing material for his next album. Smither said he has been doing fine being off the road, but he sure does miss it.

“When I played that show in Hatfield, I realized after playing it how much better I felt,” Smither said. “I mean, it’s what I do. My whole psychic well being is tied to doing something that I’ve done my whole life.”

For more information, visit smither.com.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com.


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