Elliott Smith’s live act worth it

Helen Schumacher
Notes from the underground

Many things should be taken into consideration when deciding where to go to college. Everyone has their own prioritized list of qualifications that the school must have. I had spent my entire childhood in a small town in Montana, and when it came time to fill out college applications, I only filled out those that needed to be sent out-of-state. I absolutely refused to spend another four years in Montana.

In my hometown the closest thing to a cultural event was the rodeo. I desperately wanted to be able to see a concert once and a while. So I was thrilled when I ended up at the University, only two short hours away from Portland, where if I wanted to invest the money and the time I could see a performer every night.

After arriving here, the first show I saw was Elliott Smith. He played at the Roseland Theatre, and the band Grandaddy opened. It was amazing. It was exactly what I had been missing in Montana. I had never experienced anything like it before. I mean, I had been to concerts, but it had always been some huge band in an even bigger venue, like Sugar Ray in a football stadium. There was never much of a relationship between the performer and the audience. But that night at the Elliott Smith show, there was.

The entire night I stood toward the left of the stage, awestruck as people threw notes and cigarettes on stage and shouted for his attention. I remember one man, who, as a sign of his undying devotion to Smith, stood with his arm straight in the air and a slowly burning cigarette in his hand — a one-person candlelight vigil. Smith’s album “Figure 8” had just been released, and his set was mostly comprised of songs from it. But Smith still played favorites like “Needle in the Hay,” “Waltz #2 (xo)” and “Say Yes.” For the next month, the only thing I could bring myself to listen to was Smith’s song “Between the Bars.”

That show set the standard by which all others would be judged. Few have matched the intimacy and soft passion that Smith shared with his fans through his music. He took all those ugly thoughts, the ones most of us pretend don’t exist, and dressed them up with guitar and made them into songs so pretty that hearing them makes your heart break all over again. A statement from his label, DreamWorks Records, eloquently states “(H)e was perhaps his generation’s most gifted singer-songwriter. His enormous talent could change your life with a whisper.” Smith’s music has a comforting honesty that isn’t forced or contrived, and that is hard to find.

Last Wednesday I once more turned to his music for comfort. This time, it was the news of his death, at the age of 34, that I needed solace from. The past week I’ve been noticing people doing the same. The night the news of his death broke, I called one of my friends and I could hear “Miss Misery” playing in the background. A couple days later, at another friend’s apartment, I noticed her copy of “Roman Candle” sitting next to the CD player instead of on the shelf with the rest of her CDs.

Since that first Smith concert, I have been both spoiled and lucky enough to see a great many shows with talented and responsive musicians. However, that show, and Smith’s music, were the catalyst for me. And Elliott, I just want you to know that I keep you apart, deep in my heart, separate from the rest, where I like you the best.

Contact the Pulse columnist at [email protected].
Her opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Emerald.


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