As I waited for Elliott Smith to appear onstage for his sold-out performance at Washington D.C.‘s 9:30 Club, I happened to overhear the tail-end of a conversation between a young lady who had seen Smith in concert before, and a young man who was about to see the Portland native for the first time.
“When you hear him out on stage when it’s just him and his guitar, you’re going to want to bear his children,” the young lady said to the young man, and the statement sparked a laugh from those around, myself included. As the lights went down, and Smith and company took the stage, I forgot about the comment, and listened as the band launched into “Ballad of Big Nothing,” from Smith’s pre-Dreamworks release Either/Or (1997).
As the show progressed, I couldn’t help but notice that the set list consisted almost entirely of tracks from Figure 8, Smith’s latest offering, and XO, his other Dreamworks release. The lack of material performed from Smith’s earlier albums didn’t hinder either the show’s intensity or diversity—Figure 8 is a solid recording that lends itself well to performance, and Smith and the band were musically sound and energetic, but the audience’s desire for “the old stuff” was made clear when Smith asked “old or new?”, and the audience, as if on cue, cried “Old!”
Smith listened politely as the fans yelled for such favorites as “Say Yes” and “Miss Misery,” but opted to stick with newer material such as “Stupidity Tries,” a song with near-perfect construction which starts of with a bluesy riff and then climbs upwards toward an anthem-like chorus, and “Happiness,” which effectively outros with the repetition of the line: “All I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see, that all I want now is happiness for you and me.” The crowd responded with enthusiastic appreciation after each tune, and Smith thanked everyone graciously. He performed one encore with his band, and then a solo encore, during which Smith faltered on the chords of what was meant to be his final song, and ended up calling the band back for a rendition of The Beatle’s “I Me Mine” that was so dead-on, you could close your eyes and almost convince yourself that the Fab Four was onstage.
As I left the venue as part of the satisfied crowd, I remembered the comment which the anonymous young lady made before the show. I can’t imagine myself wanting to bear Elliott Smith’s children, nor anyone else’s, for that matter, but there is an undeniable power to his solo, acoustic work that wasn’t exhibited in his 9:30 club performance. Smith is fine as a rock star, but he is just as effective, if not more so, when he is just a guy with a guitar who is up onstage sharing a sparse, moving melody. His soft, fragile voice and quiet authority is somewhat lost amidst the chaos of drums, bass, and electric guitar, and it would have been nice to have seen Smith at his most vulnerable, with nothing but his guitar to protect him.