I’m a writer and I love words. I savor the well-strung phrase wherever I find it – a book, stage patter, a movie, an ad, a blog. Song lyrics shape and define me. Early Springsteen’s meandering stage monologues could be my version of a religious experience.
Given all that, you’d think I’d be crazy for singer-songwriters, but I’m usually not. I typically prefer their songs when covered by others. As Noam Pikelny said, introducing a Gillian Welch cover at a Punch Brothers show, “We can’t play it better but we can play it faster.”
I knew Elliott Smith would be an exception. I knew I would love him but despite years of this awareness I still don’t really know his music. A couple people who serve as music gurus to me have long been Smith fanatics. They told me. I heard them but didn’t act. It can take me a long time to get around to what matters. And I confess I was intimidated by the manner of his suicide, ten years ago. He stabbed himself in the heart. Or anyway that was the way I heard the story.
Couple weeks ago, I went to one of four U.S. concerts, organized by his sister and many musicians who knew and loved him. The concerts were in Portland, Los Angeles, Austin, and Manhattan. I attended the show in LA on August 6. It would have been his 44th birthday. The show occurred at my favorite ever venue, the Largo at the Coronet. Smith was a regular performer at an earlier incarnation of the Largo (which I completely missed: I was not in LA and anyway not going out to hear music at that dark time in my life).
The four No Name Celebration shows have already sprouted lots of YouTube clips. Each show had maybe a dozen performers who each sang a couple of Smith’s songs. There were anecdotes about Smith, lots of laughs. It was an intensely emotional night. I like intense emotions, so that was okay for me. And I didn’t even know the songs. I went to learn some Smith. Most of the people in the room knew every song on the first chord. For my son, a Smith fanatic, hearing the songs in that setting was one of those life-altering events that only live music can give us.
Turns out the shows were called No Name #1 because the organizers hope to make this a recurring event, and because Elliott Smith used to name his songs like that. In fact, the first Smith song to become permanently stuck in my head is called No Name #1. To publicize the Austin show, David Garza performed the song at a radio station. It breaks my heart. Amazing how great music can do that and still be uplifting.
If you want to check out Smith performing this instead of Garza, there is an audio-only clip on YouTube, just released by the Largo owner right after this show. It’s from one of Elliott’s old Largo performances.
Garza performed at the LA show also. He was one of the highlights for me. Another standout was Aaron Espinoza, who turns out to be in a band called Earlimart which cites Elliott Smith as one of its major influences. Most of the LA performers were Largo regulars, including Jon Brion and Sean Watkins. (Over the last couple years I have come to love those guys by attending Largo shows. Most Largo shows feature Largo regulars. It’s a place where certain musicians hang out.)
There are beaucoup Elliott Smith clips on YouTube. Here is an oddball one, his performance at the Academy Awards the year Miss Misery was nominated from “Good Will Hunting”. (Director Gus van Sant was the emcee of the Portland No Name Celebration.) We live in a peculiar world where competitions try to compare Elliott Smith with Celine Dion, whose song from “Titanic” won the Oscar that year.
At the Largo No Name Celebration, initially I thought Jack Black (with his partner in Tenacious D) was out of place when he closed the show. But my kids explained it to me. His goofiness returned us to the world in just the right mood.
On the one hand, I wish you all could have been there; on the other hand that would have made it frigging impossible to get tickets.