We rarely expect tribute albums to be solid throughout. Instead we look for the rare artists who take an inventive, interpretive approach to the given material.
Chris Smither is difficult to cover straight up, so, on Link of Chain, we actually get some tasteful variety. That said, while this tribute album is more consistent than most, some of the performances are standouts, some are merely respectful, and a few fall short.
Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds, produced this project himself, naturally assembling many of his own artists for this generous 14-song set in celebration of Smither’s 70th birthday. Given Smither’s unique style, Olsen knew it would be a challenge: “Musically he’s Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt and lyrically he’s Leonard Cohen.”
Dave Alvin, a close friend, kicks off the album with a take of the title track that is more relaxed than Smither’s driving version. Mary Gauthier (“I Feel the Same”), Eilen Jewell (“Can’t Shake These Blues”) and Patty Larkin (“Train Home”) dig deep for that bluesy feeling. Bonnie Raitt performs a live version of one of her staples, “Love Me Like a Man”. Jorma Kaukonen, one of the few that can match Smither’s finger picking style, offers “Leave the Light On.” The clear standouts though are Paul Cebar’s “No Love Today” with a jazzy, Louis Prima-like arrangement accented by baritone sax, Tim O’Brien’s “Origin of Species” with Jim Hoke on clarinet, and Peter Mulvey’s “Time to Spend.” Listening to these performances will undoubtedly give you more appreciation for Smither’s songwriting, especially his lyrics.
– Jim Hynes