Inside New York City's Highline Ballroom, a gaggle of musicians and techies throng around a folding table stacked with cold beer and sandwiches. Most wear loose-fitting traveling clothes; they've just gotten off the road from home base in Boston, finishing the first leg of a tour that will stretch well into next year. A tall figure in black pushes back his mane of hair, more grey than the room's average, and cuts a path through the crowd to a side room.
"Usually I play solo, so I'm not used to taking care of everybody," he says, closing the door behind us.
Chris Smither has been in and out of rooms like this for nearly half a century, but he's still getting used to bringing a band this size along with him. A singer-songwriter who points to the stripped-down styles of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt as major influences, Smither says it's taken until recently to feel comfortable touring with a full backing band like the one on his twelfth studio album, last month's Hundred Dollar Valentine.
Smither, now 68, rose to prominence in the early '70s as a solo artist with an ear for a unique interweaving of Cambridge folk sensibilities with Delta blues technique, thumping bass lines on the low strings while plucking melodies on the high strings, tapping time with his foot, and singing in a voice with a low end that cuts like the edge of a broken whiskey bottle. He was never one to shun a little good sonic company, forging lifelong partnerships with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Dr. John, but the arrangements on Hundred Dollar Valentine are thicker than usual, with a full complement of electric guitar, backing vocals, harmonica, bass, and drums on nearly every tune.
"I've found sympathetic ears" in this band, he says. "People who like my music for the right reasons, by which I mean my reasons." He laughs, as he does between nearly every sentence, and the creases in his face seem to make his eyes sink even farther back in his head. He's relaxed and comfortable, and still is an hour later in the spotlight. On stage he seems hardly to notice the musicians behind him. There's no conducting; they can keep up with the train or fall off. Smither's foot will still be tapping either way.