Elliott Smith opened his own tribute show Saturday night at Bowery Ballroom in New York and proved to be, even in his absence, an impossible act to follow. A short film preceding a lineup of artists to honor the late musician captured Smith’s first attempt at “Angeles” at his home in Portland, Oregon, seven years before his reported suicide in 2003.
“I can’t sing like him, and neither can you,” Smith’s former manager JJ Gonson told the crowd before leading her six-piece band Meat Industry through “Half Right” and “Blackout,” from Smith’s period with Portland band Heatmiser. Gonson was right; nobody could replicate Smith’s ability to balance beauty with hurt and hope, documented in songs like “Miss Misery,” which garnered an Oscar nod for its role in Gus Van Sant’s film Good Will Hunting.
Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s hosted the fourth and final night of No Name #1 – the week-long series with stops in three other cities – which included sets from Young Hines, David Garza and Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile, and unannounced appearances from Joseph Arthur and Wilco’s Pat Sansone.
The show’s standout came during a performance from Smith’s former tourmate Mary Lou Lord and her daughter. “We’re both shitting ourselves right now,” Lord told the audience before 14-year-old Annabelle led them on guitar and vocal through “St. Ides Heaven” and “I Figured You Out,” two songs that predated her birth. “My mom was telling me this, that he kind of tears you apart and then puts you back together better than you were before,” she told Rolling Stone after the duo’s set. “And I would totally agree with that.”
The event benefited New Alternatives, a New York-based organization working to transition lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth from homelessness to independence. Many trans youth especially have nowhere to go after facing rejection from their families and other support systems, according to the organization.
Though the public assumed him to be dark and withdrawn, Smith – who would have turned 44 this week – was hilarious and compassionate, his friends remember.
“To know him personally, he really had an amazing sense of humor. I think it sort of helped us all keep our sanity on tour,” Heatmiser drummer Tony Lash told Rolling Stone.
Smith had begun work on a nonprofit for children before he died in October 2003, his sister Ashley Welch told Rolling Stone. “He was actually the first person I told that I was gay,” Welch said. “He was always really concerned about anyone in need, particularly homeless people. I remember walking around with him in New York, once he sort of became successful. When he had money, he would roll up hundred-dollar bills and stick it in the boots of a sleeping homeless person on the street.
Welch said her last memory of her older brother is of him laughing. She recalls singing John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” together at Smith’s home in Los Angeles, and him forgetting the words.
“I think he had an uncanny ability to make people feel less alone,” she said.