Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of songwriter Elliott Smith’s death by his own hand, a still-painful moment for both Gen-Xers and twentysomethings alike. It was primarily the latter that packed into last night’s Elliott Smith Tribute Show — both in the crowd and onstage. Much like the four tributes that preceded it this past August, the proceeds from their performances went to the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund for homeless at-risk teens. Last night’s show featured the likes of Why?, DIIV’s Zachary Cole with Sky Ferreira, Here We Go Magic’s Luke Temple, and even Smith’s ’90s peer Chan Marshall of Cat Power approaching the man’s devastating songbook.
“I’m already overwhelmed and happy at the enthusiasm,” said show organizer Jen Brown as the line stretched around the block outside and the show began inside. Kicking off the night, Ryan Little of Tereu Tereu did an acoustic guitar duet take of early Smith song “St. Ides Heaven,” capturing the man’s nihilism (this song mixed amphetamines and Crooked I from 7-Eleven) as delivered in that distilled choirboy falsetto.
Monstrous human pain conveyed in the most angelic voice of his generation —as anyone who has attempted Elliott Smith’s songs will know — his tunes are tricky terrains, full of idiosyncratic chords, shifting meters, and sung in a high register that few throats can reach. So the Perennials tackled “Between the Bars” and “Waltz #1” one octave lower while singer Marissa Nadler admitted the difficulty of playing Smith’s songs on acoustic guitar before doing lovely finger-picked renderings of “Pitseleh” and “White Lady.” Yoni Wolf of Why? called Smith a “chord guy.” He then mangled both the chords and register for “Angeles,” “Say Yes,” and “The Biggest Lie,” delivering them in a flattened voice with “piano man” accompaniment.
DIIV’s Zachary Cole and girlfriend Sky Ferreira wore matching black leather caps, sharing cherry lollipop between them. Cole recalled being a little kid listening to Smith in 2001 before picking out the tricky figures of “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free.” Ferreira’s range was limited, her lines sometimes delivered at a whisper, yet she easily tapped the bile and pain of “Last Call.”
Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz came out with a two-guitar trio for a decidedly grungy take on “Cupid’s Trick” and “Abused,” while former Chairlift member Aaron Pfennig rendered Smith as an early 80’s nu-romantic, sleek and sultry, even throwing in a cover of the Church for good measure. A few other performers also covered songs that hailed from beyond Smith’s oeuvre: The Low Anthem — originally slated to tackle the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown” (as name-checked on “Waltz #2”) — instead did Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” And Luke Temple of Here We Go Magic did dead-on acoustic reads of both “Needle in the Hay” and Big Star’s “13.”
The latter brought to mind seeing Elliott Smith perform on the Figure 8 Tour in 2000. Of the 30-odd performers who appeared on the Glasslands stage over the course of four hours, they all differed from Smith in one crucial aspect: No one was as rigor mortised with stage fright as the man himself was. With all of his gifts and talent, Smith was as stiff and petrified as any mortal performer I’ve seen in 22 years, yet he played a crystalline, heart-stopping cover of “13” that remains one of the most beautiful live moments ever witnessed.
The night ended with the second most-awkward performer I’ve ever seen, Chan Marshall of Cat Power, who took the stage in beanie and hoodie as if she just came off the streets in Portland. She sat at the piano for “Names,” the maudlin number off of her own You Are Free, shaking her head as she forgot the chord change again and again. “I’m back,” she murmured to the crowd, no doubt meaning back to her ways of disintegrating onstage. Joined by drummer Jim White and a few others, Cat Power then did shambolic versions of “Between the Bars” and stumbled through a duet with Ferreira on “Pretty (Ugly Before).”
The night’s most stirring moment came earlier in the night. While his band was slated to play a few blocks north that night, Man Man’s Adam Schatz hopped up onstage with a bevy of horns and street drummers to do a New Orleans-style take on “In the Lost and Found,” drunken yet elegant. Schatz then did a solo read of “Waltz #2” as a free jazz player like Joe McPhee or Albert Ayler might, moving from human plaint to horn shriek. With a circling of his hands, the whole room sang the chorus: “I’m never going to know you now / But I’m going to love you anyhow.” It was a sentiment that resonated through a crowd too young to have ever known the man in the flesh, yet their love was evident.