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Elliott Smith, October 2, Philadelphia

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What do President Clinton, Robert Redford, and Elliott Smith have in
common? Well, fortunately for Redford and Smith, not much. All three were in
Philadelphia on Friday, Oct. 2. Yet none managed to rock a diverse crowd of
concertgoers as Smith did.

In case there was any doubt, Smith was never really a folk singer. Yet
when you’ve been caged, sometimes you need to break through the bars (and some
guitar strings) to get free. Smith has been plagued by the “tortured folk boy”
label for quite some time now. His first three albums (1994’s Roman Candle,
1995’s Elliott Smith, and 1997’s Either/Or) featured melancholic gems played
mostly on acoustic guitar. But with his latest effort, XO, Smith flew the
proverbial coop, adding radiant layers of electric guitar, bass, piano, and
even French horn, sax, and flute to flesh out the sound.

And he still hasn’t returned. At his Oct. 2 performance, Smith played a
tight all-electric set (in contrast to his past all-acoustic shows) to a
crammed yet attentive audience at the Trocadero. Backed by the energetic Quasi
(also the opening act), Smith filled the theater with explosive, driving
versions of his often subdued songs. The platter consisted mostly of tunes
from his last two albums, along with one older number (the haunting “St. Ides
Heaven,” which resonated live with bittersweet defiance), the 7” release
“Division Day” (a jaunty number which recalls scenes from Crime and
Punishment), two new songs (“Stupidity Tries” and a tune written on the set
list as “Tom’s Start”), and a cover of Big Star’s “Stroke It Noel.”

Dispelling the “folk” and “quiet” misnomers, Smith attacked his songs
with a palpable confidence, while never compromising the integrity of his
work. Smith is no stoic. Despite his unassuming demeanor, his songs call forth
every emotion with stark honesty. It was as if each stinging feeling was being
purged as he squeezed his face up and caustically repeated lines from “Waltz
#2 (xo)”: “You’re no good. . . can’t you tell that it’s well understood.”

Some songs were completely reworked for the live setting. “I Didn’t
Understand” hearkened to both 1960’s Motown and Beach Boys with its four part
a cappella harmony on XO. Live, it was exquisitely converted into a solo vocal
and guitar piece. Quasi’s winsome pair, Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney) and Sam
Coomes (formerly of Donner Party and Smith’s old band Heatmiser) provided
subtle harmonies to Smith’s raw tenor, never obscured by much more than a
slightly overpowered bass amp. Together, they breathed new life into songs
such as “Bled White,” “Alameda,” and “Sweet Adeline.”

Quasi, on their own, is a band not to be missed. The duo’s sardonic
lyrics made for a clever mixture with their sweet vocals and buoyant
arrangements. And seeing Coomes perform gymnastics on his Roxichord keyboard
was a sight indeed. After Smith broke his guitar string playing the
effervescent “Baby Britain,” Coomes also helped to kill some time offering
cheesy but entertaining jokes. For future use during conversations, try this:
“A skeleton walks into a bar. . . says to the bartender, ‘I’ll have a beer and
a mop.’” Smith: “you have to think about it.”

For the first encore of two, Smith finally acceded to the audience’s
requests by playing a mesmerizing rendition of “Between the Bars” (a song
featured, among several of Smith’s, on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack). His
vocals echoed chillingly throughout the room as he promised: “the people
you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore, that push and shove and
won’t bend to your will, I’ll keep them still.” The words create a surreal
image wherein alcohol is the actual narrator. The promise is a sarcastic one.

As a sidenote, concertgoers were treated to songs from the Zombies as
they filed into the theater: one 1960’s band among many of Smith’s favorites.
Lest anyone assume that Smith is too enamored with ‘60’s pop; give a listen.
He re-hashes nothing. His street-style impressionistic lyrics and semi-punk
ethic produce a classic, yet wholly unique sound. Perhaps not since the
Beatles has there been an artist who’s given as much skillful attention to
both words and melody, while offering such a distinctive voice to the music
scene. Elliott Smith always manages to fly free of any labels that are thrown
his way.