HOLLYWOOD — With tears in their eyes, friends and fans of Elliott Smith sang along to some of the troubadour's most poignant material on Monday at a memorial concert a few miles from where he took his life less than two weeks ago.
Beck, Beth Orton, Lou Barlow and others performed at the Music Box at the Fonda Theater, although it was Smith's tender melodies and anguished lyrics that took center stage.
"For us, Elliott is one of the great pillars to the kind of music we try to contribute to," Rilo Kiley singer/guitarist Blake Sennet said backstage. "And for a moment we felt like one of the pillars had fallen, but later you realize the pillar is his music, and that's what he left behind. Ultimately, he tried to make his misery into a positive thing."
Most of the artists who took part in Monday's concert played only Smith songs, although some performers tossed in a song or two that they knew Smith liked or that they felt were appropriate. Some were stripped down to nothing but a voice. Others were dolled up with as many as eight musicians. And while the Smith songs spanned from his first solo album to his last, and even included music from his early band Heatmiser, all of them had a similar, somber tone.
"This is really a memorial for his fans, but also for his friends," Beck said backstage. "He had a lot of friends in L.A. and in these parts, and this is our chance to say goodbye and thanks" (see "Singer/Songwriter Elliott Smith Dead; Friends, Fellow Musicians Pay Tribute").
Beck ended his solo set with exactly those words, after strumming through "Ballad of Big Nothing," "Clementine" and "Alameda" — the first and last from 1997's Either/Or and the second from 1995's Elliott Smith, the album that turned Beck on to Smith.
"The good thing about his songs is they're so well made, they're so crafted and meticulous, they can weather even the most feeble rendition," Beck said. "I've been working on them pretty hard the last two days."
Beck's set was flawless in delivery, but others found Smith's songs more challenging. Some admitted to giving up on learning more songs, while others stopped halfway through versions, noting that it was an Elliott trademark.
"His music is so incredible on so many levels, a lot of the musicians playing here tonight have commented on how difficult it is to learn it," said Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis, who stunned the capacity crowd with an a cappella rendition of "I Didn't Understand" from 1998's XO. "He was such an amazing guitar player and incredible lyricist and beautiful voice. For this generation of songwriters, he was incredibly important and timeless."
Rilo Kiley also played "The Biggest Lie," with Lewis releasing her pain by stomping her foot to the beat, and two of their own songs, which they said Elliott heavily inspired.
Orton, who performed just before a screening of the experimental documentary "Strange Parallel" ended the night, played "No Name #3" from 1994's Roman Candle as well as one of her own songs, "What We Begin."
"I wrote this song about one of my best friends growing up who hanged himself last year," Orton said, her voice trembling as she sang the opening line, "You're never comin' back, and we can't change that."
Orton told the audience she did not know Smith well but wanted to perform because it was a benefit for the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund, which will support groups for abused children.
"If any good can come out of this, it's that perhaps he wasn't lucky enough to overcome what he suffered, but through his organization, he can help other people to overcome what they suffer," she said of Smith, who was abused. Orton paused, then added, "This is such a headf---."
Barlow, the Folk Implosion singer who toured with Smith when Barlow was in Sebadoh in the mid-'90s, also played a song he wrote for a friend who had passed. "I know you've given all you can give to me," he sang. "I know there'll come a day I'll understand/ Until then I'll be trying to solve your mystery/ Wonder why I couldn't make you stay."
Barlow also played Smith's "Division Day," with the help of a crowd member who yelled out a line the singer forgot. "Elliott would stop [shows] like that," Barlow said. "I loved it when that happened. It showed humanity, and that was something Elliott brought to his music, and we all loved him for that."
Monday's show opened with Los Angeles buzz band the 88, who performed spot-on versions of "King's Crossing," "Can't Make a Sound" and "Stupidity Tries," the latter two from 2000's Figure 8, Smith's final album.
Other highlights included Papa M's "Half Right" (the hidden track on Heatmiser's Mic City Sons), Radar Brothers' "Between the Bars" from Either/Or and Future Pigeon's almost reggae version of "Waltz #2 (XO)."
John Doe performed "Rose Parade" from Either/Or as well as a new song and a favorite X song of Smith's. "Elliott influenced a lot of people," the X singer/bassist said. "He appealed to the underdog in everybody. So everybody related to him on a pretty deep level. It's like, 'Yeah, I'm that underdog, he's talking for me.' And he talked the talk and walked the walk."
The sold-out show, which also featured Alaska! and Tito Larriva, was recorded for a live album that will also benefit the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund.
For more on Smith and his music, check out the feature "One Of Us Is On The Moon."