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200 State Street Binghamton, NY (607) 217-7334
The Darden Smith is coming to the Night Eagle for a special Sunday night show on September 28th. This Austin native is a product of the independent, eclectic Texas musical scene which produces musicians who regularly defy categorization. As stated in the Los Angeles Times, "to Smith, the song is all." Darden has released six albums in 11 years, the last three of which, Evidence, Little Victories, and Deep Fantastic Blue, have garnered emphatic critical attention. His shows are the perfect setting with which to get up close and personal with his nuance-filled acoustic guitar work, distinctive earthy vocals, catchy hooks, and wry humor.
Always a songwriter's songwriter, Darden's intimate and intensely honest compositions cut to the core without becoming maudlin. He closed his performance at The Bottom Line in New York City with "Broken Branches," one of his most requested songs from the newest Deep Fantastic Blue release. Darden described how the song was inspired by an unexpected encounter with a homeless man. "I was driving with my kid one day and this guy came up to ask for some money. I instinctively got defensive of my kid. But then, at a certain point, I had an image of this guy as an innocent kid, just like my boy. It clicked that he was somebody's son, and it really affected me. That's where the idea of a broken branch off the family tree came from." It is this clear view coupled with chorus-driven, contemporary-folk acoustic sound that is making Darden one of the must-see performances in the area.
Darden Smith looks like a man who comes from Texas. He is tall and lean, with angular features that may have been carved out of a sandstone cliff, and eyes that appear accustomed to looking very far. At his Night Eagle performance on Sept. 28, the desert sunset was there in the red shirt and single gold earring glowing under the Night Eagle's low lights. When he began to sing and play for Night Eagle's relaxed and informal audience, the strength and sound that is uniquely his made it seem as if he could come from no other place than the severe and beautiful American West. Life comes with a fair share of blows and painful detours, he explained to the audience, then you have to bounce. Darden does better than bounce, I think. Here is a man who will survive and either find beauty or make it himself. I confess that I had not heard Darden perform before, but was intrigued by the reams of good press he received and the reviews of his shows in some powerhouse venues. When he opened for breakout star and Grammy winner Shawn Colvin, his own reviews were past glowing. I walked in prepared to enjoy, and walked out humbled by what I heard.
Darden had the PA system turned off, and played two entirely unplugged sets. Between the low stage, oriental rug, and close, wrap-around seating, we could have been in his living room. Many of the songs he chose came from the most recent Deep Fantastic Blue release, but others were picked from his extensive discography or from his new, still unrecorded songs. All of them were fresh and immediate, and we were given the rare opportunity to see these carefully crafted songs at their core.
Delicate fingerpicking in "Swept Away" and freight-train energy in "Talk to Me"'s guitar playing were the only backdrop required for a voice that rang clear, or fell into a haunting, whispered proclamation. "I knew what I was doing and I'd do it all over again," evoked a determined passion that was altogether believable. But "Hunger", which he cowrote with Gary Nicholson, resulted in some audible sighs from the audience when his last chord and sung prayer faded away. Equally strong were "Little Victories," "Frankie and Sue," "First Day of the Sun," "Broken Branch," "Running Kind," and "Drowning Man."
Particularly notable were the sheer number of melodies and tuneful hooks so sweet and accessible that they were as comfortable to hear as it is easy to take a step around a corner. "Skin" is just one of the tunes that gave us yearning in both words and sound. "Skin/love is the one true skin/We all want to walk around in/Oh, skin/Yeah, without it I'm nothing/Worse than naked in the wind/Love is the one true skin" comes out in musical phrases that feel like soft cloth being draped on bare shoulders. Pull it closer and tuck inside.
The hard times described in these compositions never settle into backwash or self-pity, however. "Lying in bed listening to the big highway/Thinking of all the times I've run away/Was I running from love or just trying to get free/From something dark down inside of me/I'm the running kind/Yeah the running kind," provides a glimpse of a realist. In "Drowning Man" we see the survivor: "Lost at sea/I want to believe/There's a place for me/In eternity/As long as there's hope/It's like a rope/Thrown into the hand/Of a drowning man/As long as there's hope/It's a beautiful rope/Thrown into the hand/Of a drowning man."
Simple but witty storytelling between songs helped narrow the space between audience and performer as we got a snapshot-sized picture of who Darden is. He talked about river trips on the Rio Grande, fondness for guitars, the suddenness of nightfall in the desert and its canopy of stars, smalltown Texas life, and the small epiphany that comes from seeing in a homeless man, the child that he used to be. And when Darden grins, the stark profile softens and we see a brief glimpse of the child that Darden was.
I expect that the Night Eagle audience will wear out their Darden Smith CDs till he comes again, then beat a path to the door.