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Live Report: Elliott Smith

Middle East, Cambridge, Mass., April 15, 1998

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.

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