NEW YORK At first blush, Elliott Smith's solo show at the off-Broadway Town Hall theater Tuesday night presented the former Heatmiser punk rocker in incongruously formal surroundings.
But the enthusiasm of the sold-out crowd quickly banished any sense of restraint as the scruffy, understated singer, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, played a 20-song set that offered his audience a preview of his soon-to-be-released fifth solo album, Figure 8, due in April on DreamWorks.
Smith, dressed in a ratty blue T-shirt and tan corduroy slacks, opened with two new cuts, "Son of Sam" and "Happiness" (RealAudio excerpt), the latter expected to be Figure 8's first single, before dipping into his back catalog of thoughtfully written material.
"Southern Belle," off Elliott Smith and Either/Or's "Between the Bars" followed, but then it was back to the new stuff, namely "L.A." and "Pretty Mary K," sandwiched around "Rose Parade," again from Either/Or, his 1997 Kill Rock Stars release.
"So ... do you want to hear old songs or new songs?" he asked at one point.
The crowd apparently didn't care. It seemingly hung on Smith's every word, greeting familiar songs with grateful cheers just a few bars in, appreciatively applauding the unfamiliar numbers and barraging the singer with requests in between.
"Every song is something special," Bob Hillman, 28, of Brooklyn, said. "His melodies are unstoppable and lyrically he's always surprising me."
Along with the adoring attitude of the audience, Smith's easygoing demeanor worked to lighten the potentially stiff and recital-like atmosphere.
"It feels kind of formal in here. ... Not bad, just formal," he said.
Singing and finger-picking his way through the set, almost as if he
were back in Park Slope, Brooklyn, playing another coffeehouse, he touched on material from throughout his four-album solo oeuvre.
After "Needle in the Hay," "Say Yes," "Waltz #2" and "St. Ides Heaven," Smith did one more new number, "Easy Way Out," before casually leaving the stage for the first time after XO's "Independence Day."
A standing ovation brought him back for the first of two sets of encores. "Ballad of Big Nothing," followed by a cover of Big Star's "Nighttime" and two from Elliott Smith produced another standing O, which he rewarded with "Pitseleh," from XO and, appropriately enough, "Last Call," from 1994's Roman Candle.
He bowed, blew a few awkward kisses and left the stage.
"Seeing him play solo is special," Jane Worley, a 27-year-old New Yorker said. "The sit-down format was odd, but he seemed very comfortable and the songs were wonderful, as always. I've seen him with a band and I really enjoy it either way."
Opening the show was Kingsbury Manx, who played a short set of layered, ethereal songs, fully electric and topped with harmonizing vocals. As they left the stage, they were obliged to answer the audience's persistent calls of "Who are you?"