Chris Smither / Alvin Youngblood Hart

Southern Fried Festival:
Salutation Hotel, Perth
2nd August 2015

Salutation Hotel publicity photo

This is my third and final review from Southern Fried this year. Maybe this wasn’t the last concert I went to or the last event I saw, but the thing about the festival is that it packs so much into three days – concert hall performances, small venue gigs, outdoor stages, late night sessions, peripheral events, too much to write about with a quick turnaround – that it’s a wonder how folk keep going. And yet they do. I see the same people turning up to see Rhiannon Giddens and the Punch Brothers, the Songs of Dolly Parton, Chris Smither, and Alvin Youngblood Hart. And I see those same people hanging round the open-air stage, the soul food servery, and the bars. Southern Fried is something you can immerse yourself in wholeheartedly from lunchtime until the small hours, for an entire long weekend, leaving little time for sleep and food. Not everyone does; there are some people who are blind to anything that doesn’t happen on the main stage of Perth Concert Hall, and those are the people who miss out. The rest of us put up with exhaustion and carry silly smiles around on our faces.

The little ballroom at the back of the Salutation Hotel may not have been there since 1699 – that’s when the hotel is said to date from – but it’s a good place to go and see solo artists. It’s smaller and more intimate that the Concert Hall, you can feel more engaged, and the artists can give a more intimate performance. “Come and take pictures round the front,” said Alvin Youngblood Hart to me, as I tried to get a from-behind shot. “Why’s that guy taking pictures of my ass?” General laughter, it’s that kind of venue.

Alvin Youngblood Hart

Alvin Youngblood Hart

*

My visits to Southern Fried this year have been to see artists who, apart from Rhiannon Giddens, I don’t know very well. This means I can appreciate their performances with fresh senses, and the artists can draw me in. Messrs Smither and Hart were no exception to this. Chris Smither… Chris Smither… wasn’t he the guy who wrote ‘Killing The Blues’? No, actually, Rowland Salley wrote it, but it’s just one of those songs that has stuck to Chris Smither’s name, become a part of his repertoire that people call out for from the audience. He grew up in New Orleans and has actually been performing for the best part of half a century, releasing his first album in 1970. And he’s a joy to watch and to listen to – straight picking, helping the music along with a tapping foot, making vibrato by shaking the neck of the guitar, a gentle performance, a man whose face never loses a natural smile.

Chris Smither

Chris Smither

Chris brings his parents alive for us, telling us all about a conversation with his mother:

“Can’t you just play me something sweet? Play me a love song.”

“Momma, that was a love song.”

Or treating us to ‘Father’s Day’, a remarkably tender song written for and to his aging father when Chris himself was no longer young. Chris has some brilliant lyrics:

“I’m so slow my shadow kicks me from behind…”

“A heart that’s beating like a hundred dollar Valentine…”

“It ain’t what I lost that makes me sad,
It’s what I thought I had…
It ain’t what it is that’s such a sin,
It’s what it might have been…”

What can you say! For me, the song of the afternoon from Chris was ‘Leave the Light On’. It summed up what was a near-perfect gig from him.

Alvin Youngblood Hart is from California, but spent enough time with his relatives in Carroll County, Mississipi, to have absorbed something of the country blues of an earlier generation. He plays blues of the kind that you’re glad someone is still playing, linking back to Charley Patton whom an old uncle of Alvin’s heard playing. There is a modal quality to his music, with the steady tread of the bottom string moving it along. He has been playing long enough to make it seem easy – or rather he has been playing long enough to make it seem lazy, there is that much of a laid-back quality to it.

Along with traditional tunes, you can hear – and he admits to – influences of Patton, Memphis Minnie, Skip James, J B Lenoir, and others. His song about ‘Bloody Bill Anderson’ the Confederate guerrillero and mentor of Jesse James seems to have echoes of Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’; but that only shows how musical ideas flow this way and that in American roots traditions, as Dylan worked and Hart works in the same chantier, so to speak, and there’s no telling who hears what, and what music is playing in someone else’s head. ‘Bloody Bill Anderson’ is a fine song about murder and mayhem, “two great American traditions we excel at,” as Alivin puts it.

Other stand-out numbers included Skip James’ ‘Illinois Blues’, the traditional ‘I Wonder Will I Ever Get Back Home’, and his own version of Bukka White’s ‘How Long Before I Change My Clothes’ complete with cow-calling holler. For his take on the Flaming Groovies’ ‘City Lights’, his tribute to 1970s Rock, Alvin strapped on a mouth organ, which he dubbed his “German Misery Whistle”.

It was Alvin Youngblood Hart I came to see, and he was damn good, but if I’m honest I think Chris Smither edged slightly ahead on the day. Nevertheless, well done both, and well done the folks at Southern Fried. Next year I’ll be certain not to ignore the festival’s smaller venues.

Review by Paul Thompson

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