Michael Peter Smith

The following is distilled from several WELL posts by my friend and musical buddy Rik Elswit (and posted here with his permission, of course). It concerns a house concert by Michael Smith that we both attended on February 26:

Listened to Michael Smith, a wonderful veteran singer-songwriter from Chicago, at a house party yesterday. The party was a gift to our friend Drew from [his partner Jen], and a bunch of us chipped in in secret to get Smith, Drew’s favorite singer-songwriter, for it – but it wound up being a gift to us all. It was an absolutely superb afternoon of music and story, and it was a pleasure watching a man who has spent his life mastering his craft.

I’ve known of the guy by word of mouth for over 30 years, but this was the first time I’d actually heard him, and I was just floored by the quality of his songs and his low-key, deceptively simple, delivery. The songs are rich, complex, melodic, and dripping with great lines, with an incredibly diverse set of references. You have to bring some awareness and a college education to the party to catch them all. In fact, I felt flattered that he assumed I’d done the required reading. He has a novelist’s ear for character and nuance, and all of it is backed up by a very subtle, simple-sounding, but actually quite complex guitar style rooted in swing, blues, and urban folk.

Mike Smith, like his pals John Prine and the late Steve Goodman, comes from a school of early-’70s singer-songwriter craft that was a huge influence on me. One of its most important features is the ability go go from hilarious to poignant to stunningly sweet all in the space of three songs. Not a speck of cereal in that show.

It’s rare to be as captivated as I was by that performance. But I shouldn’t be surprised: Mike Smith, Steve Goodman, John Prine et al. pretty much established the paradigm of singer-songwriterdom for me when I was a pup in he early ’70s, although Smith did so indirectly via Goodman (who recorded “The Dutchman” and “Spoon River,” and played other Smith songs in concert). But I hear a lot of Goodman in his sound and manner, which is to say there was a lot of Smith in Steve, too.

Noting that Smith used nothing but the standard guitar tuning in the performance we saw, Rik added:
“I learned a lot watching him. He had this great way of moving up the neck using open E, A, and D strings as pedal tones to hold it together. I do this a lot in E and A. He taught me how to do it in G, using A and D as pedal tones when he’d be playing V chord (D) forms up the neck on the high strings.

I bought both of the CDs Smith had for sale, and I guess Rik did, too:

The more you listen to it, the more you hear. At first I was lulled by the apparent simplicity and it took me a bit of time to hear the musical, lyrical, and rhythmic complexity and the stylistic variety. My current fave (they change with the time of day) is “The Ballad of Elizabeth Dark” which sounds to me like what you’d get if Springsteen went to college in the late ’50s-early ’50s. And my language maven wife just loves his wordplay.

Listening to that album after having seen the show underlines, for me, the level of craft involved. Michael Smith has a well-honed act based on a character he’s invented and inhabited, also named Michael Smith. It’s like watching Leo Kottke. The first time I saw him I just enjoyed the show. But after having seen him several times I could see the structure of what he was doing and I developed a new appreciation of just how much work was involved in crafting the artifice. And I liked him even more.

It’s nice, getting a present for somebody else’s birthday.

The two CDs I bought have some overlapping content, but both are entirely worthwhile. I guess if you’re only going to get one, I’d start with Live at Dark-Thirty. But Such Things Are Finely Done is well worth the money, too.
Here’s a sample of the lyrics of “Zippy” (which is on both CDs):

Sun zips up sun zips down
Zippy little clouds zipping over Zippytown
Palm pilots pagers beepers
Faxes and such
Folks in Zippytown are down with
Keeping in touch
Barreling in their SUVs passing on the right
Zipping through the zippy day
Zipping through the night
Zippety-zip they get the jobs and money
Zip they have the kids
Zip they in the coffin
Folks is zipping up the lids
And speaking of lids man

Life gets pretty zippy
When you quit doing weed

9 Responses to “Michael Peter Smith”

  1. Paul Dirks says:

    The Dutchman always was one of my favorite songs.

  2. peter smith says:

    always glad to hear about somebody discovering michael. i’m his brother peter, a journalist and songwriter in florida, and i found your article when i was wandering. enjoyed the writing here, and could be back again.

  3. Rik Elswit says:

    Please do. I would imagine that we have a lot in common.

  4. Jim Archer says:

    I’m an old fan of MPS from the Detroit area, and a friend of one of his old collaboraters,Phil Marcus Esser. I would give anything, within my retiree limits, to obtain a recording of MPS’s dinner theatre production of “Personals”, which was a long running, huge success here in Detroit in the 70’s. His production of Jaques Brel was great but “Personals” was for lack of a better term, more personal. Phil, Charlie Lattimer, Barbra Braddius, et al did great justice to Michael’s songs. If you still have a connection, could you respond or forward this request? Please let me know and thank you so much…Jim Archer…6/10/06

  5. Kit says:

    I first heard Michael Smith at the No Exit Coffee House in the 1970s in Chicago. He mesmerized me with his lyrics and style.
    The Dutchman is most finely crafted song I’ve ever heard.
    I listened to his self-titled album coming to work today. A mundane grey experience full of human greed and boredom was transformed into a series of magical moods led by the songs.

  6. Maggie Rogers says:

    I can tell you without a doubt that Gamble thought Mike Smith was the greatest musician he knew. I remember going to Chicago to sing at the Earle of Old Town. I think Mike got Gamble that gig. I was just a backup singer. Mike had an apartment fairly close to the Earle, where we stayed. The Earle had very worn floors, with peanut shells all over them. I fixated on those old beautiful (to me) floors so much, I cant really remember what the rest of the place looked like, except for a very long bar. But what did I know.? I was Ms Green Grass from Tallahassee Florida and didn’t know squat. But then, Barbara Barrow. Mike’s wife, was also from Tallahassee. What a voice. That album they made, Zen, cant be beat. At the time I never even thought about how unusual that these two gals, from Leon High School, Leon County, Tallahassee, Florida should be congregating in Chicago with their exceptionally talented husbands. God Bless us one and all!!!!

  7. What a delightful letter from the fellow in Holland and likewise, Michael’s reply. I just love listenning to the way Michael strings words together, whether in his songs or his musings on his webpage.

    Living a distance from Michael, it is amazing how many miles I have travelled for the privilege of attending one of his concerts. And I am never distappointed feeling euphoria throughout. I am not a guitar player but I do know a bit about music. I don’t have the language to describe his guitar playing; I just kow it is great.

    My last performance of Michael’s was in Hugh’s room in Toronto where once again, he was just simply great. I had a chance to chat with him for a couple of minutes and it was a thrill.

    Why isn’t he rich and famous? I just think that the average taste and mentality is not sufficiently intelligent to recognize that this man is a genius.

    So, Michael, just another chance to say hello from “your most ardent fan.”

  8. David Child says:

    I was looking for Michael’s e-mail address because I wanted to talk with him after his Lake County Folk Club (El Barrio Restaurant, Mundelein, IL, Sunday May 16, 2010 at 7 p.m.; Make Reservations!) about becoming birds after we die and a classical Egyptian belief, when I read the story about The Dutchman at Michael’s Web page and thence was directed here.

    Kat Eggleston also sings Michael’s song about the Princess and the Frog with one variation: After the first chorus she shouts, Everybody! She was in the first two years of The Snow Queen at the Victory Gardens. If you’re in Chicago between Thanksgiving and Christmas, plan to spend a few hours in the Lincoln Park area on the North Side of Chicago watching Michael’s adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story.

    For more about the relationships of Steve Goodman, Michael Smith, and John Prine, take a look at Clay Eals’s book, Facing the Music, about Steve.

    See in Mundelein, Michael!

  9. David Child says:

    Oops. “See you in Mundelein.”

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