On Stage: Two legendary acts celebrate golden anniversary with local shows

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Chris Smither

A golden anniversary is always a big deal whether it’s a marriage, a business, an event or the life of a musical act.

A lot of rock and folk musicians have not been able to live for more than 50 years. Many, many rock and folk musicians have not been able to mount careers that have lasted for more than five years.

This weekend, there will be two acts playing in the area who have blown past the 50-year marker going faster-miles-an-hour – Chris Smither and Roomful Of Blues.

Smither, the veteran singer-songwriter who is headlining a show in Kennett Square on August 8 as part of Kennett Flash’s Rooftop Series (Kennett Square Parking Garage Rooftop, 100 East Linden Street., Kennett Square, 484-732-8295, http://www.kennettflash.org), has released more than 25 albums in his long career. His latest LP is the recently released “More From The Levee” album.

“It’s new to the world,” said Smither, during a phone interview Wednesday evening from his home in Amherst, Massachusetts.

“It’s not new to me. It’s what we had left from the retrospective album we made six years ago in New Orleans.”

In 2014, Smither marked 50 years of songwriting with the release of “Still on the Levee” — a double-CD retrospective. Recorded in New Orleans at the Music Shed, this career-spanning project featured fresh new takes on 24 iconic including the first song he penned on up to several of his most recent originals.

“When we were making the album, we went back to where I’m from,” said Smither. “I said — if we’re going to make a retrospective, let’s go back to where it started. Some of the songs I hadn’t touched in 30 or 40 years. I was gratified because the songs held up pretty well.

“It was interesting. The first song on the album was the first song I wrote back when I was 19. I’d sit there and listen to old recordings. There is sort of as muscle memory that kicks in when playing the old stuff. It was like looking at a box of old pictures. It was good for the most part. There was stuff I wrote over 30 years ago and it still sounds good.

“I think we recorded 42 songs and 39 or 40 have been released now. For the first release, it was a double CD. We could have released it as a triple CD, but we thought it would be overkill. We always knew the other songs would be released sometime. It’s comforting to have an album done.”

“More From The Levee” is the 18th album from Smither, who was deemed “one of the absolute best singer-songwriters in the world” by the Associated Press). The new album is a continuation of Smither’s 50-year retrospective album, “Still On The Levee.”

Smither recorded tracks on both albums with help from some very special guests including the legendary Allen Toussaint and Loudon Wainwright III.

Two weeks with longtime right-hand-man and producer David Goodrich at the helm of the sessions resulted in an over-abundance of songs in the can. “More From The Levee” contains 10 of these extra gems including fan favorites “Drive You Home Again” and “Caveman.”

“Last spring, I was approached by Record Store Day to do an album,” said Smither. “They were looking for something unreleased.

“It worked because we had those songs left over from the 2014 album. The Record Store Day release never happened. COVID killed that.”

The Record Store Day scheduled for April 2020 was cancelled.

“By the time we realized it wasn’t going to happen, we had the whole album already mastered for vinyl,” said Smither. “We even had a cover ready. So, we decided to go ahead with it as a vinyl release on Signature Sounds. It’s also available on other formats now.”

No new recorded material is on the horizon.

“Right now, I’m not in the studio,” said Smither. “I haven’t done any recording lately, but I think I have another album in me. I have five tunes almost done. I think within a year or two, I’ll have a bunch of material ready.

“Mostly, my songs start with guitar parts. I work around and get a progression. Once I get a harmonic rhythm, then I work on the melody. Usually, the lyrics grow organically out of the music.

“My philosophy is that when it’s time to make an album, then it’s time to book the studio and line up musicians. That way, you have a deadline to keep you on track.”

The writing of a song is just one part of the song’s evolution.

“Once you finish writing a song, you never know how it’s going to go until you play it for people,” said Smither. “Sometimes, it’s not until you perform live that you realize a line doesn’t work.”

Right now, Smither is just happy to be performing for live audiences again.

“For a long time in the pandemic, I was only doing Livestream shows – and three outdoor shows,” said Smither. “My first indoor show was three weeks ago in northern New Hampshire – in a barn and everyone was vaccinated.

“Playing for a live audiences is exhilarating.  It makes me feel young again.”

Video link for Chris Smither – https://youtu.be/oyoVP8dEnOo.

The Kennett Rooftop Series show will start at 7 p.m. Tickets are $45.

Other upcoming Kennett Flash Rooftop Series shows are John Byrne on August 6 and 33 1/3 Live’s Killer Queen Experience – A Tribute to Queen on August 7.

Roomful of Blues

On August 6, The Sellersville Theater (24 West Temple Avenue, Sellersville, 215-257-5808, www.st94.com) will welcome the return of Roomful of Blues, a Rhode Island-based band with a recording career that has lasted longer than 50 years and resulted in more than 20 albums.

The band has toured worldwide and has treated fans around the world to its unique blend of a variety of music genres including rock and roll, swing, R&B, boogie-woogie, soul and a number of different blues styles.

“We’ve played the Sellersville Theater every year since it started – except for last year,” said guitarist/bandleader Chris Vachon, during a phone interview Wednesday onboard a friend’s ship off the coast of Hyannis, Massachusetts.

“It’s always fun to play the Sellersville Theater. They make you feel comfortable and feed you great food. The people who run it are very friendly. And we always have great audiences there. We love playing Sellersville.”

Roomful of Blues has received five Grammy Award nominations and seven Blues Music Awards, including “Blues Band Of The Year” in 2005. The Down Beat International Critics Poll has twice selected Roomful of Blues as “Best Blues Band”.

Over the years, more than 50 different musicians have been part of Roomful of Blues’ line-up, including vocalist/guitarist Duke Robillard, vocalist Lou Ann Barton, keyboardist Junior Brantley and trumpeter Fred Jackson.

Roomful of Blues is currently an eight-piece unit featuring guitarist/bandleader Chris Vachon, Rich Lataille (tenor and alto sax player), Alek Razdan (baritone and tenor saxophone), Rusty Scott (piano, Hammond B-3 organ), Carl Gerhard (trumpet), John Turner (bass), Phil Pemberton (vocals) and Chris Anzalone (drums).

Roomful of Blues’ first album was an eponymous release in 1978 and the most recent is the “In A Roomful Of Blues” LP.

In A Roomful Of Blues,” the band’s sixth release on Alligator Records, features 13 wide-ranging songs, including 10 band-composed originals — more than on any previous Roomful album. Eight songs were written or co-written by Chris Vachon (including one authored with vocalist Phil Pemberton) plus one each by sax player Alek Razdan and keyboardist Rusty Scott.

The album features a real variety of music styles — soaring blues, zydeco twists, late-night ballads, Latin-tinged funk and a touch of vintage, fifth-gear rock ‘n’ roll.

“The album came out on March 13 last year – Friday the 13th – right when COVID hit,” said Vachon. “COVID was tough on us. Nobody in the band and its family got it but we were pretty much out of it for a year-and-a-half. We couldn’t have any gigs.

“We’ve always done a lot of weekend stuff – mainly because there’s not much going on during the week. Our shows are mostly Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I don’t know how many we do a year. It’s a pretty good amount. Half the guys in the band are from Boston and half are from Rhode Island. It’s also hard to get together because people have families and other responsibilities.”

Roomful of Blues is getting back in the groove of live performances this summer. This weekend, the band has a pair of New Jersey shows sandwiched around the Sellersville date followed by a close-to-home show in Norfolk, Connecticut. They finish the month with gigs in Maine and Boston.

“We’re playing half the new album in our current live show,” said Vachon. “We change it up every night. For example, we’re playing a blues cruise later this year. We have three shows so we can’t play the same stuff over again.

“We always mix it up. We’ve got a lot of stuff from over the years. We’ve got so many albums, it’s hard to just pull one out. We try to keep some variety there with tempos and beats — trying to mix it up.

“What I like to do is have a variety of stuff, so people aren’t listening to the same beat repeatedly. It’s more of a journey instead of 10 shuffles in a row. And we do a fair amount of covers — not familiar stuff but rather mostly obscure stuff that no-one knows.”

There likely won’t be any covers from the new LP this summer. “In A Roomful Of Blues” is almost completely originals.

“Bob Moulton and I wrote seven songs together and another where we texted back-and-forth,” said Vachon. “I brought the songs we worked on and the other guys played on it at my studio – which I just closed down.

“The rest was done in a studio in Connecticut – Power Station Northeast in Waterford. After that, I mixed it all at my place.”

Not many bands stay together for more than 10-15 years. Very few make it past 25 and passing a 40th anniversary is almost unheard of. Roomful of Blues celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017 and its roster has featured more than 55 members in 54 years.

The current line-up is the most stable. Pemberton has in the band for almost 15 years. Lataille is a founding member and has been in the band since 1970. Chris Vachon has been around since 1990. The “new kid on the block” is Razdan who joined between the last two albums.

“The reason for our longevity is the music we like to play,” said Vachon. “We’ve had our ups and downs. Some years we’ve toured more than others. We currently play about 150 shows a year. The band keeps getting new fans and there are a lot of older people who have been listening to us for years. For young people, their only exposure to us has been at festivals.

Video for Roomful of Blues — https://youtu.be/jx4Bd9FOrNc.

The show at the Sellersville Theater will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25.

Other upcoming shows at the Sellersville Theater are Journeyman – A Tribute To Eric Clapton (The Layla Tour) on August 5, The 5th Dimension on August 7, and Billy Bob Thornton & The Boxmasters on August 8,

There are many recording acts based in Nashville that have their roots in Chester County including Downingtown’s Liz Longley and Kate Klim (Downingtown High grads) and Chester Springs’ Anna Wilson (Villa Maria Academy alumna).

A.J. Croce

Chester County has also been home to the late singer/songwriter legend Jim Croce and his talented singer/songwriter son A.J. Croce.

A.J. Croce, who now lives in Nashville, will return to the area for a show on August 6 at the New Hope Winery (6123 Lower York Road, New Hope, http://newhopewinery.com).

“I’m doing well,” said Croce, during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon from Nashville.

“I just got back in Nashville after being down in Florida. I’m home for a day and tomorrow I’m flying to Philly for shows in New Hope and Bethesda, Maryland.”

at the World Café Live (3025 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 215-222-1400, www.worldcafelive.com).

A.J. Croce has been inextricably linked to a version of his own story by virtue of his name.

He’s experienced a lifetime of comparisons to a father he lost at age two, whose music bears little resemblance to his own output yet still serves as a reference point despite the years that have passed and the many iconic mentors who have stepped in to offer their counsel, creativity, and endorsement throughout his long career.

It’s curious that it now feels necessary to include the reference, as enough time has passed that a new generation of tastemakers and journalists might not know who Jim Croce was — that he was a golden-voiced everyman, a singer-songwriter-guitarist who died too soon, leaving one of pop music’s most beautiful and memorable ballads (written about a young A.J.) in his wake.

Over the past three decades, Croce has established his reputation as a piano player and serious vocal stylist who pulls from a host of musical traditions and anti-heroes — part New Orleans, part juke joint, part soul.

While his last album, “Just Like Medicine,” paired him with soul legend Dan Penn and an all-star cast of players, his new album, “By Request,” was born of memories — of favorite artists and shows, but mostly, of late-night gatherings with groups of friends, many of them fellow musicians, with Croce at the piano taking requests.

Croce revisits these musical evenings on “By Request” with 12 covers that traverse decades and genres.

“I cut the album at the end of 2019 and January 2020,” said Croce. “It was finished and was supposed to come out last spring. But, without being able to tour it because of COVID, it was pushed back a year. It came out in February on Compass Records.

“The concept behind it was that they were all songs I played for my friends at parties and gatherings. The choice of songs for the album was more about memories.”

It’s also the first album by Croce to feature his full touring band: Gary Mallaber on drums (Van Morrison, Steve Miller band), David Barard on bass (Allen Toussaint, Dr. John), and up-and-coming guitarist Garrett Stoner.

From sharing an obscure song by Motown artist Shorty Long, “Ain’t No Justice,” to his funky, dead-on version of Billy Preston’s “Nothing from Nothing,” Croce keeps the virtual party hopping. While he delivers faithful recreations of such nuggets as The Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child” and Allen Toussaint’s “Brickyard Blues,” he puts his own spin on piano-driven arrangements of songs by Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, The Faces and more.

“Growing up, I played jazz and blues and old rock-and-roll,” said Croce. “I had played those bars as a teenager, so it was all part of my repertoire. I’ve played covers most of my life in one form or another.”

But the songs on “By Request” weren’t just any covers.

“I think there were a number of factors,” said Croce. “It was a fun idea. I had never done an album of covers so it was fun. It was all about having a good time.

“The song selection was a little difficult. It was decided by parties with friends and other particular evenings.

“When I was recording it, I used two studios and most of it is all live – piano and guitar on the first track singing with the band. Depending on the arrangements, we did some overdubs at Compass Studios. It was a lot like the last album I did with Dan Penn – 16-track, two-inch tape recorded live. I wanted listeners to feel like they were hanging out over here.”

This weekend, Croce will be performing with is band on the Maryland date but just as a duo in New Hope.

“Usually, I play as a four-piece,” said Croce. “New Hope is a pretty intimate setting so it will just be a duo – bassist David Barard and me.”

Croce’s roots in Chester County can be traced back to when he was a young boy and his family lived in Lyndell near Marsh Creek State Park — on Highspire Road just up the hill from the Lyndell Country Store.

“I lived in Lyndell for a while until my mother took the family west to San Diego,” said Croce. “I still have family in the area and my godmother lives in Phoenixville.”

Video link for A.J. Croce – https://youtu.be/_w0oZVeyK-o.

The show at New Hope Winery will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $45.

Another upcoming show at the New Hope Winery will be on August 7 featuring “Laurel Canyon – The Music of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young”

The Ardmore Music Hall (23 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, 610-649-8389, www.ardmoremusic.com) is celebrating “Jerry Week” with Splintered Sunlight on August 5, “Everyone’s Dead” on August 6, Steve Kimock and Friends on August 7 and Music of the Grateful Dead for Kids on August 8.

The City Winery (990 Filbert Street, Philadelphia, citywinery.com/philadelphia) will present Dwele with Max Swan on August 6 and Paul Thorn with Jamie McLean on August 7.

On July 23, Jamey’s House of Music (32 South Lansdowne Avenue, Lansdowne, 215-477-9985, jameyshouseofmusic.com) will host Erin Coburn on August 6 and a twin-bill featuring Rebecca Lang Fiorentino and Emily Adams on August 7.

On August 7, the Mann Music Center (Mann Center, 5201 N. Parkside Avenue, Philadelphia, 215-566-7900, http://manncenter.org) will host HoagieNation 2021 presented by Daryl Hall & John Oates.

The line-up of music acts includes Daryl Hall & John Oates, Squeeze, Kool & The Gang, The Wailers, Craig Robinson & The Nasty Delicious, The Soul Survivors, and Down North!

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