It's the way he glides up to that fragile high pitch and meanders down at the end of phrases that gets you...
Tattooed, shaggy-haired, wool-capped buskers are apt to strum and wail in public thoroughfares world-wide this time of year. Like them, the uncommon talent that is Elliott Smith appears before us with little more than an acoustic guitar and a head full of wistful songs.
The look is deceptive, though. This scruffy tunesmith plays clubs and they are packed. It’s the way he glides up to that fragile high pitch and meanders down at the end of phrases that gets you. From ‘Independence Day’ forward through the catalogue to ‘Happiness’ and back to ‘The Biggest Lie’, Smith manages to rouse passion, sorrow, melancholy and joy at will. So captivated are those present that plastic beer cups drop audibly between songs.
Faced with a growing list of polite requests, Smith seems almost befuddled while procrastinating over which way to take the set. Once he starts to play, however, it’s as if the fish has been put back into the water and you forget how unlikely a hero he appeared seconds earlier. Stripped of an accompaniment, ‘Son Of Sam’ trades its hot NY summer edge for a campfire ghost story feel. Enough to terrify marshmallow-roasting boy scouts in the woods but disturbingly sunny here in the most urban of settings.
Later, the convincing delivery of the lines “I want to hurt him, I want to give him pain” from ‘Roman Candle’ might have made you glance sideways and quicken your step were Smith really working the streets. Such darkness amongst the sighs of light and stoner mannerisms makes him all the more intriguing. Singing John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’, Smith whines “c’mon maaaan” to the crowd for not helping him out with the difficult whistle solo.
So went the night. Part ramshackle busker, part refined artist. It’s difficult to imagine a better way for him to present his work.