SAN FRANCISCO Getting ready to select a song
Monday at the Fillmore, Elliott
Smith stepped up to the mic and posed a simple
question to the crowd: "Happy or sad?"
The words were met with waves of laughter. It was an inside
joke, a wry comment on his reputation as a bittersweet
But there was nothing discontented about Smith's presence or
performance that night, the second-to-last stop of his North
American tour (Smith heads to Europe at the end of this
Ambling onto the stage without comment, he warmed up with a
simple version of "Cupid's Trick" (from 1997's
either/or) before jumping into "Son of Sam" (
href="http://media.addict.com/music/Smith,_Elliott/Son_Of_Sam .ram">RealAudio excerpt
.ram">RealAudio excerpt), the opening track from his
latest album, Figure 8.
The song's gentle piano shuffle and snappy drums got a few
bodies swaying in the sold-out crowd. By the time the song
built to its wild, roaring guitar crescendo, hands were
stretched toward the stage and heads were thrown back in
ecstasy. The music seemed to bring out an emotional abandon
in some of the crowd. Each song was greeted with shouts of
recognition, though many in the audience stood still, with
their arms folded and eyes closed.
"I don't care what I look like; I have to dance," said Lilly
Shund, 32, of Berkeley, Calif., standing off to the side for
more room. "This isn't about looking cool, this is about me
and Elliott Smith."
Drawing heavily from his last three albums, Smith showcased
his specialty of lush, artfully arranged songs with wickedly
emotional lyrics. Though he plays almost all the instruments
on his albums, his live band on this tour includes
COLOR="#003163">Sam Coomes COLOR="#003163">Quasi COLOR="#003163">Scott McPherson
COLOR="#003163">Quasi) on bass,
COLOR="#003163">Scott McPhersonon drums and
Aaron Embry alternating
between second guitar and keyboard. All three support players
tackled difficult material, such as the harmonies on
href="http://media.addict.com/music/Smith,_Elliott/Alameda.ra m">RealAudio excerpt
m">RealAudio excerpt) and the cakewalk piano style on
"Son of Sam," with nearly spot-on precision.
A banter-free show with few onstage high jinks might not
ordinarily be such an intensely satisfying experience, but
the entire focus for the band and the audience
was on the music. Smith's infectious pop-rock songs are full
of turns and shifts that held the attention of everyone in
the room. The complicated orchestrations on Smith's records
were reproduced surprisingly well with only four musicians at
Smith inexplicably brought two men onstage to dance during
the joyous crowd-pleasers "Independence Day" and "Ballad of
Big Nothing." The men, grooving earnestly on either side of
the stage, got part of the crowd moving as well.
Many of Smith's fans have intensely personal associations
with his music, with some devotees finding deep layers of
meaning in his lyrics and themes.
"He writes so many relationship songs, life songs," Jamie
Brearsly, 29, of San Francisco, said. "He describes all the
challenges and joys and
heartbreaks of being alive so perfectly. I know that sounds
corny, but it's true. When he says, 'Happy or sad?' ... it's
both at the same time."
Smith strapped on an acoustic guitar for his encore and
performed a short, simple set. The crowd knew the evening was
nearing an end, and emotions were running high. During a
quiet, intense guitar break in "Color Bars," a few people
began to cheer. Smith cracked a tiny smile, and the crowd
went mad. He smiled more, and they screamed more.
Smith closed the show with "Say Yes," one of his few
straightforward love songs, followed by one of his earlier,
straightforward grief songs, "The White Lady Loves You More"
(from his 1995 self-titled album).
He took off his guitar, carefully placed it on the stage,
waved to the
crowd, shook a few hands up front, shyly blew two kisses and
left. After he was gone, the crowd lingered for a few
moments, not applauding, but not leaving sad that it
was over, but happy to have been there.