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