Music fans just don’t make music these days. There are notable exceptions, but much of the geekiness (and that term is used with the utmost reverence and respect) has been beaten out of rock & roll by a bumper crop of cynical bullies, leaving rap-metal and neophyte punks to rule the charts along with the thriving hip-hop industry. And the chasm between bands and their fans is as vast as it is between those same bands and their predecessors. Thus it’s no surprise that Radiohead tricked a quarter-million fans into shelling out greenbacks in week one for their black Valentine to listeners, a fascinating aural excursion, yet one that has little to do with the timeline of pop vernacular. And it’s no big surprise that a gaggle of blockheaded Bizkit fans are more familiar with Hugh Hefner than John Lennon.
But the geeks are still out there. And the day seems near that the machine will cease to instigate rage and melody-based, guitar-driven rock will again hit home en masse, as it does every decade or so. Whether or not Elliott Smith will be the bellwether of a movement, a Big Star-esque after-the-fact hero or none-of-the-above is yet to be determined. But for the time being, he has much to offer pop-minded rock & roll including a knack for melodies that you can trip over, a restrained sense of guitarmanship that serves the song rather than slaves to the whammy bar and an unabashed love for music that sticks to the soul. His is a world where one-hit-wonders, rock & roll dinosaurs and guitar-driven electronicaphiles (like opening act Grandaddy) peacefully coexist in the pop aristocracy of the Beatles, Stones, Kinks as well as other musical institutions that time has treated with a less gentle hand, a la Seventies and Eighties riffage-raff like AC/DC. It’s this sponge-like musicality and pop purpose that Smith brought to New York City’s Beacon Theater Sunday night.
Unlike years past, Smith has recently found comfort in, and even seems to relish, the role of frontman. With a budding charisma that remained largely in-check during his solo acoustic jaunts, the soft-spoken singer’s stage personality reflects his two most recent recordings: varied and daring yet still playing within the parameters of a style that is part pop history, part Smith’s own musical mine. The four-piece lineup serves Smith’s entire catalog well. It’s testament to the flexibility of his songcraft that earlier acoustic tunes like “Needle in the Hay” function as effectively with the added muscle of his band. And the piano has become that essential pinch hitter (handled nimbly this night by guitarist/pianist Shon Sullivan), popping up as the most tasteful of embellishments on harder driving tunes like “Son of Sam,” the dirty, saloon-influenced “In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)” and the danceable “Waltz #3 (XO)” — three songs that reflect just how much range Smith possesses as a composer.
But his comfort zone has been hard won. Smith’s fringe hipness makes him one of those over-revered artists; his quiet manner, vulnerable voice and emotional songs convince listeners that they know him personally and vice versa. Thus it’s nice to see him fielding tricky groundballs like a male fan yelling, “I want to have your baby!” with a chuckle and a “You wish.”
Even potential hot-button moments like the tour’s sponsorship were handled with a dose of wit and music history. Smith claimed that he and his band had received a number of electronic toys courtesy of Philips, but claimed that “the Rolling Stones never showed up,” referring to Rolling Stone‘s co-sponsorship of the tour. “Aw man, who said Judas?” Smith asked after a jeer prompted by corporate sponsorship chitchat. “Um, I don’t believe you.” It’s hard to imagine that said fan was serious, but were that the case, it would be indicative of the self-sabatoging absurdity that defines indie-rock’s uber-purist clientele.
As though sponsorship banners weren’t odd enough for an Elliott Smith show, he took the evening’s looseness a step further inviting out “my friends Mark and John” to stand on the wings and dance through “Junk Bond Trader.” It was a delightfully absurd, amusing and loose moment for a artist who two years ago seemed uncertain just what to make of his expanding fan base and celluloid-driven notoriety.
But Smith has come to grips with that period of his career. No, you won’t hear “Miss Misery,” and no, nobody in attendance seemed to care. His was a performance that managed to enthrall even in light of the absence of some of his best tunes (“Coming Up Roses,” “Southern Belle,” “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud,” “Rose Parade” to name but a few), probably due to the stark beauty of the super-spare “Everything Means Nothing to Me” and “In the Lost and Found” that feature a layering of vocals which demand a quiet that only a request-free audience can provide.
As telling of Smith’s upbeat pop recipe was his choice of covers. He eschewed the seemingly bottomless Lennon/Davies pools (in which he has been known to swim) for a show-closing nod to impending Halloween in the form of a cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” complete with a dancing, um, Reaper. Smith tossed out the indie-manual when interpreting the song. Played straight-up, “Reaper” was done without the wink-wink-aren’t-I-clever smugness that allows a comfortable ironic distance between artiste and low art. Smith has never needed that distance. To his credit, he’s a music believer. When Smith dons a Hank Williams Jr. or ZZ Top t-shirt, he’s not looking for a knowing nod from the alterna-hepcats that have formed something of a callous gespopo, who rule with an iron fist what is and what should be within the pop world. Smith doesn’t need the kid gloves to pick up the prickly pop of yesteryear. He grew up with it. He loves it. To him, there’s no trick or treat in the world of pop. Just the latter.