Life is a careful balance between joy and melancholy, and we are always one tremble from slipping into the abyss. This is the lesson Elliott Smith taught through his music.
Despite this, Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield were in good spirits as they took the stage of the Fitzgerald Sunday night. The two were in town as part of their 13-stop tour promoting Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. Dressed in drab -- Mayfield sporting a drooping funeral gown and Avett looking like a bullied academic -- they smiled and saluted the crowd, an apt metaphor for the night ahead.
Along with them to pay tribute to the late master of misery was standup bassist Paul Defiglia, resident keyboardist for the Avett Brothers, whose plucky, deep tones added a foreboding, straight-from-the-washtub tone to the Avett-ized Smith covers. Though Mayfield's airy, downtrodden Jenny Lewis impression was a fitting anagram of Smith's own, Avett's voice is far too mellifluous to be an exact homage. In essence, this was the point of the evening -- not to recreate Smith's heartbreaking body of work, but to interpret it in a way that helps you better digest the pain.[jump]
The performance opened with a pair of Smith covers ("Baby Britain" and "A Fond Farewell") before Avett and Mayfield transitioned into a bittersweet rendition of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman." Throughout the night, they'd go back to others like Dylan who influenced Smith -- even playing Neil Young's "Out on the Weekend," which Smith has covered himself in concert -- drawing a common thread between the singers and their muse. By doing this, Avett and Mayfield contextualize Smith's work in their own lives.
Though Avett's vocals are much more refined, he is still able to capture the duality of pain and exalt like Smith. His North Carolina tone is mournful in the pedigreed, sexy misery of the South, and when songs like "Somebody That I Used to Know" are juxtaposed with Avett's downhome twang, it becomes clear how much the Trash Treasurer drew from this region in his own songwriting. On "Pitseleh," Avett dredged the depths of his soul, coming up with equal parts tar and sunshine.
Mayfield's solo work is even more obviously influenced by Smith. An undiscerning ear could've easily mistaken "For Today" and "Our Hearts Are Wrong" for Smith covers, and both had a darkly sardonic stripe clearly stained by the erstwhile Heatmiser frontman.
There was a permeating sense of dread that, through all their Beatles shake-ups and sweeping Smith overtures, Avett and Mayfield were powerless to suppress. Though they kept up a bubbly facade, Smith taught us that facades always fail. Their cover of "Settin' the Woods on Fire" was a lively square dance that merely sidestepped the sadness. The stage banter always faded into a reflective despair, as typified by their performance of "Angeles."
Avett took "Angeles" solo, pinching his voice down to a whisper over an acoustic guitar. At this point, the dramaturgy became noticeably important. Avett and Mayfield performed in a rundown kitchen, complete with a fridge decorated with fading children's drawings. While Avett emoted in the spotlight during "Angeles," Mayfield retreated into a sea of blue light, fussing around the sink and pouring tea while Defiglia cradled his bass silently.
The two appeared to be acting out a loveless marriage -- the wife performing domestic minutiae to distract herself while the husband withdrew into a sulk, both of them ignoring the obvious beam of malaise standing between them, giving a soliloquy. The dingy kitchen, perhaps meant to embody the one from the house mentioned in "Memory Lane," was lousy with forgotten plastic pitchers and coffee mugs, and big, jagged pieces of wallpaper were torn from the walls as if to represent the way that misery seeps slowly into our everyday lives.
Smith will forever be revered for his ability to universalize this idea, and it's something that's made him an icon to the tortured and inaccessible to the everyman. By emphasizing the cyclical nature of bliss and despair -- as Avett sings in his solo song "The Beginning," "sadness and romance arrive hand in hand" -- Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield have actually increased the tragedy of Smith's music. They've made the upside -- the zenith of the fall -- more visible than Smith ever could have in his basement milieu.
As the two reappeared for their encore, closing out with "Miss Misery" and "Twilight", two seminal Smith tunes, it was simple to see what their intention was with the evening. The blithe synchronicity of their collaboration stems from a common root -- a universality -- not solely the influence of Elliott Smith, but the mutual recognition of the persistence of melancholy.
Critic's bias: I like Elliott Smith as much as any Millennial, which is to say I saw Good Will Hunting and The Royal Tenenbaums at a particularly tender point in my life and used to quote "Say Yes" in my AIM profiles. That being said, I'm not particularly purist about Smith's music and whether or not processing his delicate odes to depression through a twangy honky tonk filter constitutes a sacrilege, but I could certainly see that argument being made.
That being said, Scott was always my preferred Avett.
The crowd: Fewer flannels than I anticipated. Mostly a mid-60s cool grandpa/Mr. Feeny vibe. Lots of MPR donors in the house.
Random notebook dump: Jessica Lea Mayfield looks like Alexis Arquette cosplaying Anne Heche.
"Baby Britain" (Elliott Smith)
"A Fond Farewell" (Elliott Smith)
"Just Like a Woman" (Bob Dylan)
"Pitseleh" (Elliott Smith)
"Ballad of Big Nothing" (Elliott Smith)
"Rain on My Tin Roof" (Seth Avett)
"Settin' the Woods on Fire" (Hank Williams Sr.)
"Out on the Weekend" (Neil Young)
"Somebody That I Used to Know" (Elliott Smith)
"Angel in the Snow" (Elliott Smith)
"For Today" (Jessica Lea Mayfield)
"Angeles" (Elliott Smith)
"The Beginning" (Seth Avett)
"Standing in the Sun" (Jessica Lea Mayfield)
"Memory Lane" (Elliott Smith)
"I Will" (The Beatles)
"Our Hearts Are Wrong" (Jessica Lea Mayfield)
"Let's Get Lost" (Elliott Smith)
"I Me Mine" (The Beatles)
"Miss Misery" (Elliott Smith)
"Twilight" (Elliott Smith)
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