It goes without saying that Elliott Smith cannot be replaced. He was a one of a kind talent, a songwriter whose gift for melody often served as the vessel for his often harrowing narratives and disclosures. In the wake of his tragic death at 34, his reputation for intimately capturing deathly stark moments of isolation and failed romance has only grown, and has influenced an entire generation of songwriters. Two of those countless artists are Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield, a pair of fine songwriters in their own right who opted to document their reverence for Smith's work in a tribute album and an accompanying tour. And that's what their show at the Neptune Theatre was: reverent. Playing straightforward renditions of Smith alongside a few choice covers of artists who influenced Smith, Avett and Mayfield (along with bassist Paul DeFiglia) paid their respects to the Portland legend with a performance that deviated from the typical tribute show format by doing away with an sense of celebration, replacing it with a solemn gravity fitting for the occasion.
Part of what made Smith's songs so brilliant is that their melodic strength could singlehandedly carry the entire song, regardless of the arrangement or instrument it was being played on. Accordingly, Avett and Mayfield chose to keep their interpretations stripped down, typically arranging the songs for either a piano or guitar, bass, and two voices. Although many of Smith's songs were recorded in a similar format – meaning "Between The Bars", "Let's Get Lost", and many more of the night's songs were performed in fashions virtually unchanged from their recorded versions – the choice to perform the songs that were recorded with a band in a manner so spartan gave them an additional weight. Considering that the night's setlist consisted of some of Smith's beloved tunes, many of which are already sad to begin with, this made the night's performance seem nearly funereal at times, in a way that only an Elliott Smith tribute show should be: a celebration of the man's work via a lament that he's no longer alive. Compounding this was the staging, a replica of an American kitchen, supposedly not unlike the one that Smith would write songs in. The '70s wallpaper and crayon drawings displayed on the refrigerator set an eerie, Stepford-like tone to the show, mirroring the facade of stability that often followed the troubled songwriter in his own life. Not only did the staging differentiate the show from being just another concert where two people stood and played guitar, but it augmented the haunting atmosphere that fell over the night. During the highlight of the night, a performance of "Angeles" solely featuring Avett on guitar and vocals, DeFiglia moved into the background and Mayfield sat on the counter and drank a cup of tea as Avett played the song. It was the closest they would come to capturing Smith's trembling intensity all night.
But replicating Smith's performance style was never on the books. There's no way that Avett, Mayfield, or anyone else, for that matter, could replicate Smith's soul-bearing onstage persona. This show was always designated as a tribute, not an attempt to fill a role someone else vacated, and a unique and fitting one at that. In a world of multi-artist tributes, ranging from star-studded affairs to any of the sporadic local tributes at the Crocodile or Fremont Abbey, Avett and Mayfield's performances stands out as a singular, fully realized performance. Never aiming to be anything more than two fans paying tribute, it eschewed any sense of grandiosity or towering legacy and approached Smith's catalog with an assumed respect, treating it like an old friend that had traveled with them through all kinds of life experiences. Of course, that is what Smith's work means to Avett, Mayfield, and so many others. Smith's is a songbook that can be practically lived in, spanning an incredible amount of emotional and musical depth. It's why he meant so much to listeners in his lifetime, and as Avett and Mayfield recently reaffirmed, why he still does.
Last week, three generations of Northwest rock converged to shake the dust off the walls of Seattle's venerable Moore Theatre. Headlining the night, Tacoma band The Sonics, celebrated the release of their first album in 48 years, which, if you've been hearing us spin it regularly on KEXP, sounds li…