Seth Avett, guitarist/vocalist of the Avett Brothers, and Jessica Lea Mayfield, a whimsical singer/songwriter from Ohio, payed tribute to Elliott Smith with a live performance in San Francisco’s prestigious Palace of Fine Arts Sunday night.
It was the perfect setting for the two, who were joined by stand up bass player Paul Defiglia of the Avett Brothers. The theater was lined with a robust red interior while the stage was set to emulate a dollhouse like kitchen. The ornate backdrop had blue and white wallpaper with a door, and the kitchen was equipped with a refrigerator covered with magnets and juvinile sketches of faces, a working sink- which at one point Jessica Lea Mayfield proved, framed pictures on the walls, a desk for Seth to rest one his three guitars, cabinets holding empty glass bottles, a lamp and even a vacuum. For some of us, this probably resembled home, aside from the piano, the guitars, stand up bass and microphones; although for some that might not be too unrealistic either.
The stage set the tone for an extremely genuine performance. Seth and Jessica wasted no time, plunging into the first track from their tribute album, “Between the Bars.” Seth demonstrated his flawless guitar playing and impressive vocal range while Jessica was the perfect compliment to his voice. The chemistry was undeniable. These two could have played renditions of anything they wanted and it would have captivated people. It seemed evident that they also recognized they had something special, and whether or not their chemistry exists off stage, they interacted with a sincerity that only so few singers have with each other. What creates these special bonds, especially as a duet, is a great deal of respect and admiration, which they exposed by covering each other’s songs. What was also clear is that they were having a hell of a good time, not only playing Elliott Smith’s beautifully crafted songs, but playing as an item in such intimate settings. There was something greater that was occurring, something that Elliott Smith would be proud of.
While the show was mainly to support their album, Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield sing Elliott Smith, they also intertwined acoustic versions of their own songs and covers of artists who influenced Elliott Smith. It was an unexpected and pleasant surprise to hear them sing such influental artists as Neil Young, Hank Williams, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan paired with Smith’s tunes. It gave the audience a greater appreciation and understanding of where Smith’s inspiration and crafty songwriting developed. While these two were undoubtedly brilliant together, they never stole the spotlight of show, continuously thanking the audience for allowing them to play original tunes and sharing stories of the artists they were covering.
The future is extremely bright for this duet. While the project took almost three years, the hard work most certainly payed off as they played these songs with passion and perfection. Covering Elliott Smith songs are not easy to do, and perhaps that’s why we haven’t heard a tribute album thus far, or why more artists don’t attempt to cover his songs, but there really couldn’t have been a better duo to tackle it. While many people might not exactly be familiar with Jessica Lea Mayfield, or have listened to the Avett Brothers outside their commercial success, they are legitimately talented musicians and deserve applause for conquering something so fragile and making it their own.
The playful banter between the two made the performance more palpable. Smith’s songs can be intense, and when it came to playing them musically, there was no lack of respect. But at times Mayfield stood a little awkwardly while the more extroverted Avett chimed in. “We started playing this game,” he said during an awkward pause, “sometimes I won’t say anything into the microphone to see how long it takes for Jessica to speak.” They were as cute and charming as the model kitchen they stood in front of. Before a cover of a Darlings song, Mayfield spoke about seeing them on the Andy Griffith show and thinking they were “cute.” A few minutes later, Seth teased “I always thought they were cute, too.” Several times throughout the show Seth got a rise from the audience.
Hopefully this is the beginning of a lasting partnership that could rise to such heights as other powerful duos like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, or Sonny and Cher, or Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan. Maybe they’ll even create an album of original tunes? Either way, what they’ve conceived has done great justice to Elliott Smith.
Between the Bars
Just Like A Woman (Bob Dylan)
There Is A Time (The Darlings)
Rain On My Tin Roof (Seth Avett- sung by Jessica Lea Mayfield)
Somebody That I Used To Know
Let’s Get Lost
Out On The Weekend (Neil Young)
Settin’ The Woods on Fire (Hank Williams)
For Today (Jessica Lea Mayfield)
Ballad of Big Nothing
Angel in the Snow
The Beginning (Seth Avett)
Standing in the Sun (Jessica Lea Mayfield sung by Seth Avett)
I Will (The Beatles)
Our Hearts Are Wrong (Jessica Lea Mayfield)
I, Me, Mine (The Beatles)
**Read my interview with Jessica Lea Mayfield