Elliott Smith Holds Audience Rapt

With a full band, singer/songwriter re-creates some of his more complicated songs onstage.

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

malcontent.

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

month).

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), 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 (of

COLOR="#003163">Quasi) on bass,

COLOR="#003163">Scott McPherson on drums and

Aaron Embry alternating

between second guitar and keyboard. All three support players

tackled difficult material, such as the harmonies on

"Alameda" (

href="http://media.addict.com/music/Smith,_Elliott/Alameda.ra

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

work.

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.