Looking just as scruffy and disheveled as he always does, Elliott Smith made his triumphant return to Cambridge's Middle East on a day better known and dreaded as Tax Day all across America. Not that most of the close to 600 eager fans who had filled the club's main downstairs room to capacity looked like they were old enough to worry about 1040s. But this may be the first year Smith himself has had to hire an accountant, thanks to the success of Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting and the film's soundtrack, which features a handful of Smith's gems. One of those tunes, "Miss Misery," earned him an Oscar nomination and a spot on the award show opening for Celine Dion. And even if the former punk rocker didn't stand a chance at actually winning the "Best Song" Oscar against long-hairs like Dion and Michael Bolton, at least he had the opportunity to be seen rubbing shoulders with the No. 1 artist in America.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining the full-house tonight at the Middle East, which, fittingly enough, is only a stone's throw from the venerable institution of higher learning that serves as a backdrop for Good Will Hunting. Smith's played here previously at least a half dozen times, both solo and with his former band Heatmiser, usually in the smaller upstairs room, never to more than a couple hundred people. So this really does represent a triumph or sorts, though some of Smith's longtime fans in the back of the room are already fretting about the fact that 600 chattering people could easily drown out the soft-spoken singer/songwriter.
As he takes the stage with an acoustic guitar, sits in front of a microphone, and quietly, with no introduction, begins strumming the chords to "Angeles," a dark and twisted love song from last year's Either/Or, it's clear that Smith hasn't let his recent notoriety affect his unassuming style one bit. Within seconds it's nearly quiet enough to hear the proverbial pin drop -- if you can imagine a cascade of dozens of pins hitting the floor you'll have some idea what Smith's guitar sounds like in this big room. Hunched over his acoustic, a blue knit cap pulled down over his greasy hair, Smith breezes through a dozen tunes from Either/Or and his self-titled Kill Rock Stars debut, avoiding "Miss Misery" but playing the Good Will Hunting track "Say Yes" and a cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy."
"You guys are awesome at backup vocals," offers a bemused Smith before ending his forty-minute set with a wistful number from his debut, "The Biggest Lie." When he returns to stand just a foot or two from the rapt audience he appears to be just as vulnerable and unguarded as his skeletal, often doleful songs would suggest. In fact, a six-foot-something guy startles Smith by jumping right up on stage to confront him with, yes, a big loving hug. "I've got to do this, man," the guy explains as Smith consents. After declining a couple of shouted requests -- none, surprisingly, for "Miss Misery" -- he launches into a deep cut from his first album, the bristling "Christian Brothers" with its defiant opening line "No bad dream fucker's gonna mess me around," with background vocals provided by the front row. Elliott Smith has indeed arrived -- and it would appear that he's handling his new role as sensitive singer/songwriter for the young and the restless pretty damn well.