March 25, 1999 |
I spoke with my mother earlier on tonight. She asked what I was up to. I told her I was going out to a show. I always feel a bit strange telling my parents I'm going out to a show, because I suspect they think I'm heading up to the Great White Way for Les Mis. Perhaps I don't give her enough credit. She immediately responds "So who are you seeing?" I tell her Elliott Smith. She pauses. I think quickly and know that he's not a stranger to her. "He's the guy who did that song from Good Will Hunting. He performed at the Oscars lastů" She cuts me off, "The little guy who was singing next to Celine. He was great." "Yes he was," I said with a smile. Like I said, I don't give Mom the credit she deserves.
I assume that lots of people who normally wouldn't know Elliott Smith can remember the image: The awkward, shy singer-songwriter snatched from the small clubs and placed in front of billions to perform his nominated "Sweet Misery" on last year's Oscars. How can you not smile at the thought of Smith on that stage? After rising through the indie ranks with Heatmiser and then his own solo career, he suddenly has the fortune of becoming the center of attention during the biggest show-business moment on the planet. And the beauty is that he never even asked for it. People think that Britney Spears came from
nowhere. But judging by her Star Search appearances when she was 10 years old, the girl was calculating a Rolling Stone cover before she could have legally been bat mitzvahed. Smith, on the other hand, never asked for the spotlight and somehow got it to shine on him anyway. It's one of those moments that anyone who deeply loves an indie artist both craves and prays against at the same time: That their hero(es) get their time to play to the world so that everyone can see their greatness, but that they don't do it at the cost of selling out.
Smith did not. He followed up his brilliantly shy Academy Award appearance with XO, a major label debut that carried through on his previous pop promise. There was no hit single, drastic style change or cool Sugar Ray hair dye job to help sell his image. Instead, there was only the maturation of Smith's personal, nuanced songwriting. Well deserved accolades followed and the Elliott cult grew.
With this week's Oscar ceremony still ringing quite loudly in my head (I blame it on that horrendous Whoopi), I found myself thinking about how Smith and his fans were settling down after the most successful career year of his life. My friend Mike and I get to Irving Plaza and find ourselves actually happy with the crowd: mostly behaved, polite professionals who could care less about raising hell. No one's shoving, screaming or even sucking face. And I personally look to the sky and thank God that there's no sixteen-year-old boys running around sweaty and topless as if they've just discovered the joy of baring their nipples.
Mike's dying to see the opening band, Jr. High, a pop act out of Portland. Bassist looks like Andy Richter from the Conan O'Brien show, the lead singer like a thrift shop version of Live's Ed Kowalcyzk. From the sounds of them, I assume they spend all their spare time in a tour van listening to Elvis Costello's "Armed Forces" and "My Aim Is True." No one minds the walk down retro lane and for 50 minutes, Jr. High keeps everyone happy. Little do we know that most of the dynamic energy for the rest of the evening leaves the stage with them.
During the layover before Smith, Mike and I search for famous faces in the crowd... any sign of carryover buzz from last year. It was just 12 months ago when Hollywood started paying attention to Smith, making getting into his shows a near impossible task. With such big talk around him, everyone wanted to see if Smith would bring out the Young Hollywood crowd. You could just imagine Matt and Winona, Ben and Gwyneth in the corner, with the rest of their posse gathering around. But the only person I think I keep seeing tonight is Mr. Smith himself. It's just that half of the men in the club have their hair pasted on their head in the exact same "either they just woke up or paid $125 dollars for the messy style" Smith look. After combing the place with no success, I figure that with Oscar far behind him, the stars have moved onto Moomba, making it the perfect time for the common folk to enjoy their Smith moment.
Suddenly, the lights go down and Smith, dressed in a faded Rolling Stones "lips" T, walks out with a lone guitar and no brouhaha. While no one's going to be bum rushing the stage to his lullaby melodies, he manages to get the room into a trance in a matter of moments. Soon, a bassist and drummer come on and he begins to turn up the sound, as much as he can, that is. The most energized he gets is the chorus break of XOs "Sweet Adeline." Anyone who knows the song realizes that this burst of sound lasts 30 seconds (okay, so I counted back home). It allows for a little bit of head-swaying, including my own. But just as quickly as it begins, it ends and the crowd falls back into a polite stupor. Smith keeps on going, coasting through the tight, Beatlesque "Baby Britain" and Either/Or's "Speed Trials" with the same midtempo swing. I look up
at the balcony and no one seems to be moving. Before I know it (ten songs later) Smith sings "Independence Day," thanks everyone quietly, and quickly walks offstage. The place goes nuts, but it seems to be less because of his charisma and more because he's only played for 40 minutes. Within about 30 seconds not even enough time for a bathroom break he comes back out alone and goes right into "Say Yes." Two more songs and he leaves again. Sure enough, the people still haven't had their fill. They cheer out of encore obligation and he comes out with the full band for one more tune.
There's not much to say about it, I realize. I won't talk about the band dynamics since there really weren't any. Smith was standing so far away from his backup boys that if you drew lines to connect them, you'd have a super obtuse triangle on your hands. Smith sounded fine, but there wasn't any surge of energy that was lacking from any of his recorded work. If anything, the full band on his last record did more to bring him out of his shell than a worshipping Irving Plaza audience did. Smith can't really work a crowd. During a moment between songs, people began screaming every title they could think of, from "Sweet Misery" to some older Roman Candle material, and Smith just
seemed to listen, rather than urge them to go on further. It seemed as if Smith would rather just get the gig done and move on. He's not interested in pulling a Duncan Sheik, coming out dressed to kill and vogueing like a hopeful Calvin Klein model. No, he just plays a few songs, accepts a bit of applause, and goes on his way. As I walk home realizing that I got just as much opening band as main act, I think back to that talk with my mom. While she hasn't laid eyes on Smith since that Oscar broadcast, she would have had no problem recognizing him tonight. He's still the shy boy who will never feel completely comfortable on the world's stage. Somehow, his music seems the better for it.
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