Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Avett kicks off Elliott Smith tribute tour at home with Mayfield

When I was a kid my dad would say he was going to a bar or a friend's house or a festival "to listen to some music." Sitting at McGlohon Theatre watching Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield perform for a quiet, packed house Tuesday during the first date of the duo's "Sing Elliott Smith" Tour, I wondered how often crowds actually truly sit and listen to the music being played on stage with the attentiveness of my father.

Although some in the crowd were as familiar with Elliott Smith's work as the trio paying tribute to him on stage and many knew the covers they played of Smith-influencing artists Hank Williams, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, Tuesday's show insisted on a quiet, respectful audience that hung on nearly every note.

Sure that happens at Evening Muse regularly, but in the case of a raucous Avett Brothers' show or Saturday's Fleetwood Mac concert at the arena, fans already know the words to most of the songs. They're singing along or making beer runs, watching beer runners file up the stairs or posting photos to Facebook when they aren't watching through the video recording on their phone. Although there were beer runs Tuesday and a few cell phone videos, the environment at McGlohon reminded me of watching Ani Difranco unveil a new song to a rapt audience at one of her shows in the `90s. That happened over and over again Tuesday, but aside from Avett's stirring new original, most of the songs weren't new.

From the moment I took my seat and saw the kitchen set on stage, it felt like the tribute show would be interesting and different. Would they act out a scene from "The Honeymooners?" Avett, Mayfield, and upright bassist Paul Defiglia, who subs for Bob Crawford with the Avetts on the road, emerged from a doorway on to a wallpapered set complete with refrigerator, counter and sink. Details like a picture not yet hung, a trash bag hanging from a cabinet door handle, a dish drainer, coffee maker, and fridge magnets brought the scene together. At one point Mayfield made tea while Avett played Smith's "Angeles" alone.

They began with Smith's "Let's Get Lost," "Fond Farewell," and "Baby Britain." At times I could almost hear the echo of Smith's version in the latter, which happened occasionally during the show.

Introducing The Dillards' "There Is A Time," Avett mentioned that he connected the song, which Mayfield performed with her brother in Charlotte in December, less with Smith and more with "The Andy Griffith Show." Originally a twangy bluegrass tune, it was performed on "Andy Griffith" by the Darlings. Avett's observation that he probably picked up some of his moral compass from the TV series drew a big laugh from the crowd.

Those candid moments combined with the warmth and intimacy of the performance and the venue's impeccable sound (which you almost take for granted since there's never a blip), made Tuesday's show feel extremely special.

Avett shared that he once had the intro to Alice In Chains' "Dirt" stuck in his head for three years, much like he did Mayfield humming Smith's "Ballad of Big Nothing."

Avett pushed his vocals to new places singing the second verse of Mayfield's "For Today" and later on "Angeles." Their recorded version of the latter - one of my favorites on the album - isn't out of his range by any means, but his voice is less distinguishably Avett on that song.

Mayfield's haunting voice feels so at home in honky-tonk. The cover of Hank Williams' "Settin' the Woods on Fire" was particularly fun. She led some of her originals, but where it got really interesting was hearing Avett sing lead on Mayfield's "Our Hearts Are Wrong" or her leading his "Rain on My Tin Roof."

The idea of sitting and listening was even more pronounced during Avett's original new song which included ear perking observations on love, loss and aging with lines like "Romance and sadness arrive hand in hand."

Yet if there was one goosebump-raising moment it was their rendition of Smith's "Twilight" with Avett on piano recreating the moment that started this obvious passion project. It was easy to hear what Avett first heard backstage in Sun Valley, Idaho when he plunked out the notes on piano and Mayfield joined in.

They saved Smith's Oscar nominated "Miss Misery," which does not appear on the record, for the encore.

At the close of the show, he genuinely thanked the audience admitting that it's scary to start a new project.

Although they played no Avett Brothers' songs and seventy percent of the set list was covers, the show felt incredibly special. It may have been opening night, but there were no obvious hiccups. I'm sure you can find a complete set list online, but I think seeing this show without any expectations other than two friends paying tribute to another artist they both love is the way it should be heard. The little surprises are part of what makes it feel like one of the best shows of the year -
one where everyone just sat back and listened.