Guest post: A.J. Santini of Geekscape.net
Wednesday August 21, 2013
“Some guy in the back said, ‘This is gonna be a depressing night,’” mused Lennon Cantwell of Burned Out Still Glowing from dead center on a desolate stage. “They’re gonna be playing a bunch of Elliott Smith songs… but we can relate to them. They make us happy.” – The night’s first performer, Christian Bitto
This captured the dichotomy that is being a Smith fan. Personally, I found it weird to be in a room full of people listening to Elliott’s music. Normally, if I’m listening to “Needle in the Hay,” I’m alone, intoxicated and curled in a ball on my bathroom floor after my OCD has led me to over-analyzeeric some aspect of a relationship to its inevitable doom. Or I’m listening to “Say Yes” or “Thirteen” the morning after the most unbelievable night with a young lady I just met, still pinching myself that something that amazing could have just happened to me. Either/Or… That’s how I envision listening to Elliott Smith.
Being that almost a decade has passed since Smith died of knife wounds to the chest, No Name tribute concerts have been held all over the country. Not to be outdone, Philadelphia rounded up some of its local artists and paid tribute to the singer/songwriter with proceeds benefiting Horizon House, a resource in the West Philadelphia community to adults with psychiatric or developmental disabilities, drug and alcohol addictions, and/or homelessness by providing a continuum of services and supports and community resource coordination. We were also encouraged to bring non-perishable food items to benefit Philabundance, a hunger relief organization in the Delaware Valley.
Hosted by Tri State Indie and Eric Shuman of WXPN in Philadelphia, the night began with Christian Bitto of September Call-Up tackling “Pitseleh” and “Angel in the Snow.” He sat, played acoustically and then thanked the crowd and walked off quickly. I assumed the rest of the night would progress similarly, which at this rate would make the evening last about an hour before I hopped the train out of the city and went home to start typing this here review. But I noticed a full drum set and many amps were already on stage. That’s when punky power-pop trio took the stage, plugged in and sped through “Speed Trials” and “Bled White.”
Next up, left-handed Angel Ocana took center stage with an acoustic almost as large as his suspender-wearing frame and skinny jeans covering hot dog legs. Clearly, he connected deeply with the songs he chose, because he stopped in the middle of “Rose Parade” – “I’m sorry… this is emotional for me right now…” His minimalist approach, which was even more stripped than original Elliott recordings, worked well, especially with his cover of Smith’s cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen” (you know, the song from the two-minute date sequence of “How I Met Your Mother”).
Dan Collins also played acoustic, but was joined by two friends on electric bass and wooden cajón. A little more talkative than previous acts, he felt comfortable breaking the ice with a stoically, mostly seated crowd by saying “I never got to see Elliott play… This may be as close as we’ll ever get,” after playing fan favorite “Angeles.” Touché, Dan. Touché. I also never got to see Smith live, which was my exact argument with a former radio colleague who, when asked if she was attending, quipped, “I thought about it but I think Elliott is too precious for me to hear a cover. Translation: I’m a snob.” I think she would’ve been impressed with Dan’s other tribute, “Clementine” off E.S.’s self-titled record.
Lennon Cantwell of Burned Out Still Glowing had quite a lot to say about his enthusiasm for our late friend in memoriam, bragging even of Elliott Smith tattoos. Since the night was, in fact, running quite ahead of schedule, Lennon took on three tracks with just his voice and an electric guitar: “A Fond Farewell,” “King’s Crossing” and “Happiness,” the latter of which he encouraged the crowd to sing along to an a capella rendering of the final chorus – What I used to be will pass away and then you’ll see/That all I want now is happiness for you and me.
Electric quartet Our Griffins were the shocker of the evening. During a stage break, they sound checked with the opening chords of “Needle in the Hay,” so we knew it was coming. What we didn’t know was that after the first chorus, it was going to be blown out into a full-on angst rocker that not only redefined the song for me (I’ve heard it a bajillion times since seeing Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”), but also would’ve made Smith proud. My only critique was that I couldn’t hear my favorite line at the end: I’m taking the cure so I can be quiet whenever I want/So leave me alone, you oughta be proud that I’m getting good marks
But, I don’t know if that was the singer’s intonation or a sound guy issue or where I was sitting, so I’ll choose to blame no one and just commend them on a well-interpreted reworking of that and their other choice, “Roman Candle.”
Our benevolent host joked that the next performer, Matt Chylak, who is a research assistant at WXPN, could he heard serenading the office with many a Smith song and his performance proved it on his rendition of “Twilight.” Like many people of a certain generation, he got into Elliott through the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck Oscar winner “Good Will Hunting,” and much else of what he said was muffled, because at this point some half-inebriated ass hats at the other end of the bar decided this would be the perfect time to loudly discuss leasing options, insurance deposits and their wives being “so full of shit.” Which is a great loud conversation to have at a tribute concert for an artist known to be much more pianissimo than fortissimo. After discussing the addiction angle behind “Between the Bars,” he launched into it like an N.A. member remembering less-sober times. Truly stirring.
Finally, after a quick stage break, Jonah Delso discussed stealing his sister’s CDs and discovering the “Thumbsucker” soundtrack, which contained Elliott’s cover of Cat Steven’s “Trouble,” which he performed solo acoustic. Then he was joined by Philly indie rock quintet Goodnight Lights for the finale, a B-side off the Baby Britain single, “Some Song,” which is about struggling with addiction as well.
All in all, as skeptical as I could have been, or as critical as some might have been (anal retentive bastard I am, I was really disappointed at the lack of sliding noise this night… you know that screeching noise your fingers make on guitar strings when you slide up or down the neck that are so prevalent on Elliott Smith tunes? Yeah, they weren’t there…) , this was a night to celebrate the works, impact and mental scarring that Elliott Smith has left on his fans. He may bring joy to some, sadness to others, both to many… Either/Or it was a fond farewell to a friend.
FULL TSI GALLERY