Cover Bands. It seems every musician and music fan has an opinion upon them. Either they’re a fun way of experiencing live music from musicians / acts that would be hard or impossible to see otherwise, or they are seen as slightly less creative or talented as those who play their own music. But what about “honor bands”, when musicians – who normally write & play their own material – decide to play another musician’s material as a way to honor and celebrate them? And what happens when the musician being honored was so loved, but taken away from us in a way that – on the surface – seems hard to create any celebration or joy from?
That is what happened when Seth Avett and Jessica LeaMayfield decided to record, and then tour upon, a tribute album to the visionary singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who we lost needlessly almost 12 years ago in what was deemed a suicide by self-stabbing (but left many wondering if foul-play wasn’t involved). Elliott’s music has meant so much to so many (including this author), as it has the ability to cut straight into peoples’ souls with profound melodious melancholy that never lets up or gets old, and doubtfully never will. Avett and Mayfield recently brought their “honor band” to the elegant Tennessee Performing Arts Center in downtown Nashville to pay tribute to Elliott and his music.
Immediately one could tell this would not be a normal concert. The performing arts center is not your normal music venue; it is an elegant and intimate venue that often hosts plays or orchestral music. Everyone had assigned seating, and once the first song began everything went black except for the stage, and after that their was no normal movement of attendees, no one was getting up for drinks or for anything else. People were there to experience the music wholeheartedly, paying their homage, and this feeling was highly tangible from the very onset.
And then there was the stage design, with the musicians standing upon and within a reconstruction of a kitchen from a small apartment, seemingly from the mid 20th century. It was replete with an old fridge and sink, shelves filled with canned & boxed food, family pictures on the wall and even wallpaper that was starting to peel in some places. This setting – which was probably supposed to allude to a typical apartment Elliott would have lived in – was very successful in grounding the overall intention of homage through making one think of a bygone time as well as Elliott. This worked well because the era it represented didn’t matter, it needed to just clearly be of the past – before 2003 – so that your mind would remember the music from the living man. It also worked well because it made the atmosphere feel homey, and that’s where Elliott did most of his recording – and probably playing – as he was one who very much avoided playing in public.
And while Elliott’s story is sad, and his music often forlorn, the energy in the venue on this evening was anything but that. It was a communal celebration of music that everyone in the building clearly loved. That is also reflected in the manner that Elliott’s songs were played on this evening, and recorded on the album. Avett and Mayfield did not try to take edgy artistic approaches or rethink the energy level of the originals, they basically just wanted to change who was doing the signing. One would have to think they’re maybe trying to expose this music to a new generation of listeners, and that to over think the re-recordings wouldn’t accomplish that. It also is another way of respecting the man who wrote the original music.
One highlight was Somebody That I Used To Know, which was sung by both Avett and Mayfield in a very buoyant manner which surely brought smiles to many in attendance. Miss Misery, the song for which Elliott received an Oscar nomination, was part of the encore as it should be (although it’s oddly enough not on the album), and was played and sung beautifully by Avett. Another moving number was Angels in the Snow, sung primarily by Mayfield, at a slightly slower pace than the original, but with the same reverence for the brilliance of the lyrics. Hearing it sung so heartfelt by a woman with a voice such as Mayfield has was a very pleasant, yet minor, twist.
As mentioned before, not every song was Elliott’s, maybe because they needed to fill more time, but also probably to honor some of the musical influences that Elliott had in his lifetime. I Me Mine and I Will from The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ were performed (Elliott was known for saying that album influenced his greatly). As was Dylan’s Just Like a Woman and Hank William’s Setting the Woods on Fire. I Me Mine was the clear favorite of these covers for this author. But Just Like a Woman was interesting in how differently they did approach it, with a slow heaviness that came off quite unlike the original. And of course a Hank Williams song was a crowd pleaser for this Nashville crowd.
I remember once while in audio school we had to create a presentation on an album or recording technique that intrigued or influenced us. One guy gave a presentation on Elliott’s album New Moon, which is comprised of recordings he created at his home in his basement. The presenter, on speaking of the album and it’s creator’s death, just started crying in front of the whole class. It had been 5 years since Elliott’s passing and he still couldn’t handle it, his love for the music was that deep. I had never heard of Elliott Smith before that, but I immediately went out and purchased that album, and eventually every other one he released. I would be lying if I said I haven’t shed tears since then also, with New Moon playing on the record player after a rough day or experience.
But yet his music, while often projecting misery, always has the ability to leave you feeling sublime. It’s cathartic. He had a way to enable his listeners in finding radiant joy through songs singing of the vicissitudes of life, even if he never found that joy for himself. And that confusing but ever present part of life is what Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield were reminding us of, I imagine, on this evening when they gave new life to his songs. Done through music so few of us ever actually got to experience in a live setting. If that was indeed their goal, then they accomplished it, and I am for one glad for the chance to experience these songs honored in such a way.
Written by Sean Brna
OurVinyl | Editor