Words by Rick Levin • Photos by Todd Cooper
As Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield kicked into a tremulous, tender cover of Elliott Smith’s “Baby Britain” to open their March 27 set at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, the butterflies were evident. After all, Portland was Smith’s stomping ground, and Avett and Mayfield — on tour to support their gorgeous new album of Smith songs — were acutely aware that, for many in the audience, they were treading hallowed ground. Avett acknowledged this fact a few songs into the set, when he said that, were they to play only one show on the tour, Portland would be it.
And so, nerves and all, Avett and Mayfield were embraced by a packed house of hometown fans who were treated to a cycle of songs that touched every beautiful, bittersweet byway of Elliott Smith’s brilliant career. This was one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances — a perfect convergence of history, artistry and inspiration — as two great songwriters, so deeply touched by the craft of a departed fellow musician, pour their heart and soul into a celebration that seemed to overflow the time and place that defines it.
Any trepidation quickly disappeared, as Avett and Mayfield brought an engaging combination of warmth and humility to the stage, which resembled a sort of stylized Betty Crocker kitchen from the 1950s — perfect for the intimate buzz of Smith’s songwriting, which turned everyday scenes into cosmic meditations on love, loneliness and the ravages of addiction. The song selection — moving from anthems of alienation (“Let’s Get Lost” and “Memory Lane”) to scorched ballads (“Between the Bars”) to eulogies to annihilation (“Fond Farewell” and the stunning “Twilight”) — was interspersed with originals by both Avett and Mayfield as well as a number of fantastic covers, including Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” George Harrison’s “I Me My” and a rollicking version of Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend.”
It might sound distinctly un-Elliott-Smith-like, but a kind of collective love and faith flowed through the Crystal Ballroom that evening, a feeling of mutual connection to Smith’s music as well as an affection for two fine performers who brought their considerable talents to bear on a tribute long in the making. At the end of the show, and two standing ovations later, it felt like something momentous, even necessary, had occurred — a resolution of sorts, like something broken put back together, if for just a moment.