Chris Smither / Downpatrick Folk Club

Music is a big deal in Ireland. The place may be renowned for foisting its own folk music on everybody else in the world but such is the discerning population's thirst for quality in music period that over recent years it's all but adopted as its own a handful of great acoustic troubadours from overseas, and king among them all is Chris Smither from New Orleans.

Now effectively in his second career, after a 10-year spell of floundering in alcoholism between his early 1970s output and the stream of records he's produced since 1985, Smither's reputation has never been higher and yet his perspective on life remains hallmarked with the kind of humility and stoicism brought through years of hard times and hurt. Still revelling in the influences of his early heroes, Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt, Smither has expanded, with his own writing, the straight blues form to something entirely unique. The most remarkable thing is not that his material can explore the darkeremotions in life with an everyman relevance, but that essentially the man remains an entertainer - a fun guy with a not-so-fun past, who can confidently work a crowd through foot- stomping medleys of "Hi Heel Sneakers / Big Boss Man" to some of the most heart-breaking, profound songs they're ever likely to hear.

Tonight's show is a weird one - the only English-style "best of order" folk club in the North, and yet Smither's most boisterous crowd on this particular trip. Half of the 28 song set are well chosen covers - from John Hiatt, Lowell George, JJ Cale and a blistering resurrection of Robert Johnson's old warhorse "Dust My Broom" - all scattered around the unwritten set list to hold people's attention with feisty guitar work, amplified doublefoot percussion and something even the more casual punters would know. The barnstorming "Love You Like a Man", memorably covered by Bonnie Raitt, and "written when I was 21, young enough to think I knew about women - now it's just a nostalgia piece..." commands attention, but it's the more serious material that singles Smither out from his peers.

Surely nothing more insightful about the processes of fame has been written than "The Devil's Real", while "Cave Man", from the brand new Small Revelations, remains a work of overwhelming profundity on the human condition, clothed in the simplest and gentlest of melodies. His writing gets better and better, and while it has long outgrown the confines of 12 bars there is no one truer to the spirit of the blues, or more attuned to the struggles of the soul in the modem world, than Chris Smither. He ends the noisiest of gigs with the noisiest of encores, shakes hands, signs records, and looks forward to playing support to a partial reformation of The Yardbirds in a small town to the west of the island. Apparently it's a good payer. And life goes on.

Colin Harper

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