Music is probably the topic I write about the most on this blog. I can’t help it; I’m a music geek. I spend a ton of time writing those posts, even though I know they typically get fewer page views than a lot of my other subjects. But there are exceptions to the low-traffic rule, and one of those is Elliott Smith.
October 21 of this year will mark the ten-year anniversary of Elliott’s untimely, controversial death. Despite the passing of those ten years, there are few artists who maintain as loving and devoted a following as Elliott. Out of all my write ups of my Desert Island Albums, the post about Elliott Smith has gotten by far the most hits. Elliott’s combination of intense creative musicality and deeply personal, melancholy lyrics puts a hold on his fans that we can’t shake loose.
Elliott’s forty-fourth birthday would have been last Tuesday. In a celebration of his life and music, Elliott’s sister put together four tribute shows, one each in Portland, Los Angeles, Austin, and New York, with the proceeds going to New Alternatives, a charity that helps homeless LGBT youth. With there being so few shows, I know there are a lot of Elliott fans out there who didn’t get to see one (like my buddy Brian, who gave me my first Elliott Smith CD, a mix that contained Roman Candle, Elliott Smith (with The Biggest Lie accidentally included twice), and Some Song, and my sister, who had a mix of live performances, covers, and bootlegs that I pretty much wore out), so I thought I’d do a recap of the New York show, the final of the four performances, which I attended on Saturday.
The show was at the Bowery Ballroom, a small theater that was packed to the gills with fans. I try to avoid being too hyperbolic, but the word that keeps coming to mind to describe the night is “magical.” The show opened with a screening of Lucky 3, a short film Jem Cohen made about Elliott in 1996, before he became famous.
The crowd applauded loudly after each of the songs in Lucky 3, and once the film was over, host Rhett Miller began to bring out the musicians. Miller, the frontman of the Old 97s, is one of those people who’s so talented and good-looking that it makes you kind of sick to be in the same room with him; on the flipside, it’s kinda nice to know that people like that can relate to Elliott’s music in the same way that normal human beings do.
Anyway, Miller opened with a cover of Baby Britain, and then introduced a band called Meat Industry, which was a collection of women from Girls Rock Campaign Boston fronted by JJ Gonson (thanks to the reader who gave me her name), the onetime manager of Elliott’s original Portland band, Heatmiser (the band also featured her twelve year old son, who was hilarious in all the ways that you’d expect a twelve year old who’s playing guitar on the stage of the fucking Bowery Ballroom to be). She told stories about some of Elliott’s early songs, including the germination of No Name #1 and Half Right, both of which the band played.
The musicians came out in flurries after that, with the lineups changing quickly and fluidly over the course of the thirty songs, so I won’t go through every single one. But here are the highlights:
- Mary Lou Lord, a friend of Elliott’s from the early days who was best known as a popular busker on the T in Boston, brought her fourteen year old daughter on stage for her set. They played Thirteen, the Big Star song Elliott covered so beautifully, I Figured You Out, and St. Ides Heaven. That last one has always been my favorite Elliott song, and it got one of the loudest responses of the evening, especially because Lord’s daughter was the one singing (I haven’t seen many things that amused me as much as a fourteen year old girl singing “Everything is exactly right/When I walk around here drunk every night/With an open container from 7-11/In St. Ides heaven). The performance was a little rough around the edges, as Lord clearly hadn’t played in a while, and her daughter occasionally forgot the words to the songs, but it was very sweet. I heard a couple of guys after the show bitching about how a few of the early acts weren’t professional enough, and all I have to say is that those guys missed the point of the whole thing.
- Chris Thile, who is on the very short list of best mandolin players in the world (seriously, last year he got a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant) bounded in and out of different performances kind of whenever he felt like it. The version of Southern Belle he did with Austin songwriter David Garza (who much like Thile was all over the stage all night) was seriously impressive, as was the Easy Way Out he did with Jerry Fuentes. But the best Thile moment came when he described how he discovered Elliott’s music by accident, listening to Figure 8 on a listening station at Tower Records. (For the kids out there, that was a record store. Back in the stone age, you used to have to pay for music, and you had to go to a store to do so.) He then played a solo version of that album’s opening track, Son of Sam. Now, understand, Son of Sam is one of Elliott’s more complex arrangements, and Thile played it solo on a mandolin. At one point, while he was picking the intro, Thile smiled almost narcotically and whispered, “Oh, it’s so good,” and he played an instrumental break that was so mind-blowing I really don’t even know how I’d begin to describe it. One cool aspect of this show was seeing that the musicians (who all played for free) hold Elliot in the same esteem that us regular folks do.
- Christina Courtin, a young singer and violinist I’d never heard of, played a set with Thile and guitarist Ryan Scott that included Speed Trials, Angeles, and Rose Parade. She had a wonderful voice, but my favorite part was probably the melodic, slightly distorted violin intro she played on Angeles.
- In an amusing interlude, Bob Dorough, a jazz musician who wrote the original songs for Schoolhouse Rock, played his song Figure 8 as an Elliott tribute.
- The gorgeous Katarina Guerra, who wore a sparkly gilded skirt and bright red lipstick, sang a chanteuse sort of version of Between the Bars.
- Young Hines, who apparently drove all night from Nashville to make the gig, played an impressive, high octane Needle in the Hay.
- Pat Sansone of Wilco played Waltz #2 solo on guitar, although to call it solo doesn’t really do it justice, because the crowd sang along with every word. He then led another sing-along tune, Say Yes. One of the great things about this show was the musical aptitude of the crowd. Everyone knew all the words to all the songs, and what’s more, most of the audience could actually sing them in key–which never happens–including the harmony part on Thile’s rendition of Son of Sam.
- A non-musical moment: They were raffling off a large, framed print of an Autumn de Wilde portrait of Elliott. The raffle tickets were five bucks, and some guy bought sixty of them. Of course, he didn’t win.
- All of the musicians came back out on the stage for the grand finale, with Miller leading them, and the crowd, through Happiness (a song I wrote about in depth here). I can’t think of a better way to end a tribute to Elliott Smith than with hundreds of people singing, “What I used to be/Will pass away/And then you’ll see/That all I want now/Is happiness for you and me.”
What a magical night. I’m so glad I got to be a part of it, and I hope this gives those of you who couldn’t be there a sense of how great it was.