Wednesday, August 7, 2013

No Name #1: Elliott Smith Tribute at the Largo – Los Angeles – 8/6/2013



About 8 years ago, I was introduced to Elliott Smith and soon after became a big fan.  Listen to two seconds of any song I’ve made since and the influence is easily apparent.  I still listen to his music frequently (almost on a daily basis), have two of his records hanging on my wall, and have a dog named after one of his songs.  Basically, I am somewhat of a fan.  The problem with being an Elliott Smith fan is that, well, he’s dead.  This means I’ll never get to see him play live.  This also means that there’s a finite amount of youtube videos and recordings that can be found.  And since I worked a really boring job with internet access while in college, I’ve seen every single clip of him playing live that is currently on the internet (I’m not kidding).

Imagine my excitement when I heard that a group of Elliott’s friends were putting on a tribute concert to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his death.  I immediately bought tickets and counted down the days to the concert.



Last night, Elliott’s birthday, was the night of the show.  We showed up to the Largo three hours early to line up for seat assignments.  When you buy a ticket from this venue, you don’t have a seat.  You have to show up an hour before the doors open to check in and get a stamp-sized piece of paper with your seat number on it.  We got there early and were fairly close to the front.  After getting our seats we walked down the street to get a few happy hour beers before the show.

We returned and realized that waiting in line for our seats was a waste of time.  The theater is small.  About half of the size of the theater at my high school.  It’s always cooler to be as close to the stage as possible, but you would still be able to see everything perfectly fine from the very back of the theater.  Also, we saw people sitting in the rows in front of us that we had seen behind us in the line to get our seats.  I guess the seating might just be a raffle, but that’s fucking stupid.  Either way, we were pretty close so it didn’t really matter.  Eventually, a theater guy came out and told everyone the show was about to start so turn off your cell phones, no pictures, blah blah blah.  This was interesting because the website said they would not allow cell phones in the theater at all.  As did a sign by the front door.  But the guys at the door not only didn’t check our pockets/bags for cell phones or cameras, they didn’t check our IDs or even our tickets.  We just held up our hands which had a stamp from the original line (which was literally a faint, single, purple line) and walked right in.  Any 18-year-old kid could have walked in, went straight to the bar, and then walked into the theater after pounding as many ten-dollar beers as he could.  Or brought in a bomb/gun/knife/vial of ebola.  So that was kinda stupid.

The stage was set up with a piano sitting stage right, one of Elliott’s acoustic guitars sitting on a stand near the middle, and one of Elliott’s electric guitars sitting on a stand stage right.  A red curtain hung at the back of the stage which had a projected picture of Elliott playing the piano stretched across.  White Christmas lights hung above the curtain background.  A minimalist set up, but effective nonetheless.

The show started and we were first presented with a projected slide show backed with a live track of Elliott playing a couple songs at the old Largo Theater.  After that was a string quartet playing beautifully arranged versions of Speed Trials and Rose Parade.  Then Jon Brian, who would basically be the host for the night, came out, told some Elliott stories and played a couple songs.  Brian is an amazing musician but his voice seems to be deteriorating, which is a little depressing.  He seems to be a really nice guy and obviously has the equivalent of opera scores running through his blood stream, but the vocals just weren’t there.  Too bad.

The night followed a loose program of performers coming out and playing a couple songs before hiding behind the curtains and occasionally coming back to help another performer out.  The whole thing had a relaxed atmosphere akin to a group of friends passing around a guitar in a living room.  They joked with each other and added personal viewpoints to each other’s stories.

A couple favorite Elliott stories: 

Elliott once ate mushrooms and listened to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for eighteen hours straight.  The song, not the album.  Supposedly, Waltz #1 came out of this.

Elliott sat in a room upstairs at the Largo, as he frequently did, when Paul McCartney played downstairs.  The owner came up to Elliott to ask him to come downstairs to meet his idol, and Elliott responded with something like, “I’ll bolt this door shut before that guy comes in here.”  He was too nervous to meet him.

If my computer wasn’t such a pile of shit (it’s literally freezing while I write this, leaving a line blank as I type and then filling itself out in frenzied bursts of text) I would try to find a list of the performers to give a more thorough rundown.  But that is impossible at the moment so I’ll go like this:

There was a lady comedian that came out and told some Elliott stories before singing a song with Jon Brian accompanying on the piano.  This was my first taste of what I didn’t like in the show.  She was commenting while playing the song with stuff like “Ooh, that wasn’t high enough,” or “boy I screwed that up,” in an effort to get us to laugh.  I get that they were trying to make it down-to-earth and all of that, but that really threw me off.  I may be taking it too seriously, but I thought the tenth anniversary of such a great influence on these people’s lives stabbing himself in the chest and leaving behind a great wealth of superb, serious music would evoke a little more reverence.  Perhaps she was attempting levity in the face of such a daunting task, but I thought it was cheap. 

There was a fifteen-year-old intern at the theater that came out to sing Between the Bars with the string quartet backing him up.  He was obviously nervous as hell, which was endearing, but I’m not going to let this shit slide.  He was not bad.  Meaning he didn’t suck, but he also wasn’t good.  He walked out and picked up Elliott’s guitar which pissed me right the hell off.  What did this kid do to deserve the honor?  Then he played the song and fucked the lyrics up even though he had the lyric sheet on a music stand right in front of him.  “Hey Josh, lay off.  The kids only fifteen.”  I don’t give a shit.  He’s playing one of my favorite Elliott Smith songs at an Elliott Smith tribute concert on Elliott Smith’s birthday on Elliott Smith’s guitar.  You better be a fucking phenomenon to deserve this opportunity.  You sure as hell don’t go out there and fuck up the lyrics while only sounding decent. 

This was actually a problem with a lot of the performers.  They would bring out the lyric sheet and then fuck up the lyrics.  They’d say stuff like, “Earlier this week when I started learning the song,” which immediately made me think about how I bought the tickets two months earlier.  You waited until a few days before the show to learn a couple songs?  What the hell is your problem?  Now, as I’ve stated before, I’ve seen plenty of live Elliott videos and know that he frequently fucked up his own songs.  Frequently.  But he was also an alcoholic and drug addict and these fuck ups were a detriment to his career.  You don’t need to shoot a bunch of heroin into your arm to play a Nirvana song and you don’t need to fuck up a verse to play an Elliott Smith song.  Pay tribute to your friend by playing his songs correctly, please.

There was this other guy that sounded like Roy Orbison and he was fucking awesome.  I wish I could remember what songs he sang because they were great.  I want to figure out this dude’s name so I can go see him play his own songs, but as I said before, my computer barely works.  Sorry for the lack of information.

There was another guy that played Waltz #2 and some other shit and apparently opened for Elliott at a show at the Wiltern.  He went on to play a song of his own that apparently Elliott used to play once in a while.  It was the first song off of Grandaddy’s album The Sophtware Slump which got me all jazzed up because I love that album.  It wasn’t the lead singer of Grandaddy that was playing, though.  That confused me.

This brings me to another gripe with the show:  The abundance of non-Elliott Smith songs.  They mentioned at the start how fond Elliott was of cover songs.  They also said that if he had known they did a concert playing strictly his songs, he would be embarrassed/mad/whatever so they sprinkled cover songs in throughout the night.  What the fuck.  This is an Elliott Smith tribute concert and you’re going to play a Bob Dylan song?  Get that shit out of here.

Another dude played a couple songs on the piano that was a touring guitarist for one of Elliott’s last tours.  He told a funny story of how he was late to a connecting flight in Ireland and Elliott kept the plane from taking off by pretending to tie his shoes on the threshold of the loading dock and the plane.  He played Everything Means Nothing to Me, which was the closest I came to crying like a little bitch.  At the end, he asked the crowd to sing the repeating round that fades out the song and it was like a beautiful campfire sing-along.  He then played In the Lost and Found which was nice to have a major key follow up to the misery of the previous song.  It was also kinda funny because I have been trying to learn how to play both of these songs on the keyboard, and then this guy shows up and shows me exactly how difficult it will be to learn the whole song.

More performers came and went until near the end, the quartet took the stage again they start introducing the next performer.  A few confusing moments later, Jack Black stepped out from the side of the stage. 

“I know I’m not the perfect guy for the job,” he said, “but I’m here so let’s do it.”

He told us about the first time he saw Elliott play and how much it meant to him and then they started playing Say Yes.

“I’m love, with the girl— FUCK.  Stop.  Stop.  Start over.  I’ve been practicing this song all week and I knew I’d fuck it up.  I just didn’t think it would be the FIRST LINE.”

Everybody laughed and they started over.  It was funny.  The first time.  And the second.  But it took them four tries before they made it through the whole song.  It seemed like genuine mistakes to me, but there’s a part of me suspects it was just a comedic ploy.  I thought it was real, but he’s an actor so what the hell do I know.  He sang the song really well, I just didn’t think the trademark Jack Black grunts and pelvic thrusts were appropriate for such a great song.  After they finally made it through, the other half of Tenacious D came out and they did a Beatles medley (with Jack Black doing fake guitar solos on Elliott’s goddamn guitar).

They left and Jon Brian led the crowd on a sing-along of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  The lights went down, they played another live track of Elliott playing Jealous Guy by John Lennon and that was it.  Three hours later, the show was done.  We walked past the front of the stage and I reached up and touched the body of Elliott Smith’s electric guitar.  If nothing else, at least I got to touch his guitar.

Overall, the show was a good-humored attempt to have a light-hearted night celebrating Elliott Smith and his music.  I think they accomplished that goal despite the setbacks.  There was a mix of heartbreaking beauty and downright annoyances throughout the show, but I think it was worth it.  They said this will continue as an annual concert and I’m sure I’ll be attending as long as I’m in Los Angeles.  After all, there’s not really anywhere else to hear these songs played live since Elliott’s death in 2003.  It would have been his 44th birthday last night and I don’t know of any better way to celebrate it than watching his friends share stories about him while playing his songs.

5 comments:

  1. The singer who sounded like Roy Orbison is Tom Brousseau. It was my first time hearing him play and he was awesome.

    The guy who played the piano and sang "Everything means nothing to me" and "In the lost and found" is Shon Sullivan. His band, Goldenboy, is playing tonight 8/8 at the Silverlake Lounge at midnight in case you want to check them out.

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  2. I have to say that I was a bit disappointed that the performers and stories were so Largo centric. I was hoping for more diversity. Elliott’s relationship with Los Angeles went far beyond the walls of Largo but it didn’t seem like they sought out enough of those voices. I fully agree… would have liked more reverence, less covers and allowing the intern kid to perform really bothered me too… I could go on but won't...he should have just gotten a ticket to the show and been happy with that.

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  3. It's Jon Brion, just so you know...

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  4. My thoughts… In particular, I enjoyed most of the stories—I learned that Jon Brion and Elliott had met through Mary Lou Lord. The Section Quartet was fabulous and they really improved whoever they backed up throughout the night. I enjoyed David Garza's covers and playing. Tom Brousseau was definitely a unique musician and reminded me of Ricky Nelson who sang "Lonesome Town". I don't remember the name of the older woman who played a couple songs but I will remember her gnarled, shaky hands strumming the guitar. Jack Black and Tenacious D were entertaining. Shon Sullivan playing "Everything Means Nothing To Me" was chilling. I loved singing along harmony to the ending of "Happiness". I was a little disappointed in the singing quality overall, though—appreciate the effort but it was uncomfortable to sit through the uneven vocals sometimes. I hadn't really heard Jon Brion sing before so that was a shock, to say the least, but he's an excellent multi-instrumentalist. Neat to see Jason Schwartzman roaming the halls afterward. Don't forget how the entire room gasped when the intern picked up Elliott's acoustic and bumped it against the stand, ha. It was an interesting night and I was happy to share it with other Elliott Smith fans.

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  5. I was also at the show. I thought David Garza had the greatest musical moments of the night. The intern is a kid, and I was a little insulted. I jokingly sang Between the Bars in a mono tone for my girlfriend and she said I nailed the intern's performance. Well, I knew Elliott too, but am not part of the "Largo" crowd, but wanted to anonymously spend a little time in his spirit. It was kind of there.....And kind of not.... I can tell the planning was poor.....

    Last concert of his I saw was at the Troub with Quasi.... That was something I'll never forget...

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