This week at The White Eagle, the honesty and poetry of Portland songwriter William Stafford moved one of our writers very deeply.
Earlier this month, Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield released Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, an enjoyably haunting tribute to the brilliant and troubled songwriter. When both the record and tour dates were announced, Portland was a date that most figured to be the most poignant of the tour, for obvious reasons. Avett reiterated these feelings when he first spoke to the packed room and said, “If there was only going to be one show in support of this record, it would have been in Portland.”
It was clear from the onset of the evening that those in the full (and seated) concert hall had also had the date circled on their respective calendars for awhile, as I have never heard a concert hall of the Crystal’s size remain so respectfully quiet for so long. Basically the only sounds throughout the evening during the songs were the barley audible gasps of excitement when Avett, Mayfield and standup bassist Paul Defiglia would begin a new tune. In the often cynical world of modern “indie” rock (and modern “indie” rock journalism for that matter), it was refreshing to see the both the audience and the performers so unabashedly into what was going on onstage, and nerding out as hard as possible on an artist’s work that so many hold so dear.
Avett and Mayfield’s first inspiration for the project came backstage at a show in 2011 when Seth heard Jessica strumming and softly singing Smith’s classic “Twilight”, and after a good deal of discussion about their shared Smith love/obsession, they decided to one day put out a tribute record. While all tribute records begin with the purest of intentions, few live up to expectations, usually because it’s nearly impossible to maintain an even and enjoyable vibe when 10-15 artists and their egos are involved. The singular vision Avett and Mayfield possessed for the project is one of its greatest strengths, and it translated wonderfully in the live setting.
With Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith clocking in at a sparse 36 minutes, I was intrigued to find out how the pair would fill out their set time, and they did quiet interestingly. Avett and Mayfield chose to pair Smith’s songs with songs that inspired him and/or he performed such as Neil Young’s “Out On The Weekend”, The Beatles’ “I Me Mine”, Hank Williams’ “Setting The Woods On Fire” and Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” among them (they also covered a couple of each other’s songs, including Mayfield’s gorgeous “For Today”).
All in all the evening couldn’t have gone better, from the crowd’s response, to the execution of the arrangements, down to Mayfield’s oddball personality gelling wonderfully with Avett’s North Carolina charm onstage. The tour, like the record, was very short (only a month), but if you missed them this time around, fear not: Avett has said in recent interviews the pair have another record already cut of Smith’s songs, and given the obvious reverence the two have for Elliott Smith and his former hometown, I’d wager they’ll be back.
Words – Donovan Farley
Photos – Caitlin Webb Photography