Sunday, 8 February 2015

Rich picking (Joe Brown and Chris Smither)

In the last week or so I've been listening a lot to a recording made of a Joe Brown concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic. I think this was the same show I saw, and briefly wrote up here, at the Millfield Theatre in Edmonton, although a few of the song choices are different. But there is still that same sense of the performers' enjoyment, that this is rather more than a greatest hits package, so I thought I'd share a couple of those video clips here.

The first is a rendition of Mystery Train, sung by drummer Phil Capaldi with an effect on the mike which really does suggest an Elvis Sun-era voice, along with a nice guitar solo by Brown. But the key thing is that the overall effect is of everyone, as they say, gettin' it on, and it's sheer pleasure to watch and listen. It's not a carbon copy of the famous recording but it seems to capture its spirit.

The other piece is a song which Joe says was passed onto him by his friend Alvin Lee: Chris Smithers' Leave the Light On, hitherto unknown to me. It's delivered at a steady pace, rather slower (as I subsequently found) than the versions to be found on youtube by its composer. 

Both approaches work, I think, but the less tentative online performances by Smithers certainly correspond to what he says about his work in an interview to be found on youtube. The song is about a dawning sense of the imminence of death, but the briskness of Smithers' guitar (and the foot tapping in one video) suggests a no-nonsense attitude on the part of the narrator. 

In the (presumably intended for radio) interview Smithers talks about how, for him, the guitar part comes first when trying to write, then a bit of scat singing ultimately followed by a line or two which then suggests the rest of the lyrics.


I recently heard John Kander say in an interview that the best ideas often come remarkably quickly, and those which didn't often sounded as though a lot of work had gone into them. For all its complexity - and I make no pretence that I have figured out the lyrics line by line yet - Leave the Light On sounds like one of the former: that title, assuming it was indeed the first line which came to Smithers, seems to anchor the song, determining its content. 

I have now found another online interview, viewable here, which puts the apparent ease of songwriting in context. Smither says that he shares with all the other songwriters he's talked to a sense of the mystery of the process: he can't ultimately work out why or how it's coming out, although he seems to have learnt to trust that most times it will.

Anyway, I look forward to exploring Chris Smither's work more fully, and if you wish to hear more of that Joe Brown concert, here is a link to the youtube playlist to hear the songs in order. The concert is also available on DVD.

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