When you throw a party, people rarely congregate in the dining room, the living room, or whichever space you’ve designated as the destination for hanging out. Instead of amassing around the table where you put the booze and the cheese, they usually hover in the last place you want them: the kitchen. As you’re getting things together, guests linger when they drop off the bottle of wine they brought with them, or they come in to ask where to throw their coats. They stick around without unbuttoning the wool. They tell you about what happened at work that day or about the crazy thing they saw on the subway on the way over or about the absurd thing so-and-so posted on Instagram. They hang from the folds of the doorway’s molding by the fingertips, remembering that one thing they forgot they had to mention before trudging off to Social Siberia (a/k/a the Established Party Zone). Before you know it, your kitchen is crowded, the conversation reaches a pitch that drowns out the timer, and everyone’s drinking out of coffee mugs while you ease into the evening. It doesn’t matter where people want to spend time with you. Bourbon tastes the same in ceramic.
Last night, Seth Avett and Jessica Mayfield sang in a far less crowded kitchen — or more, depending on how you look at it — at Town Hall.
They’re touring together in support of Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, the collection of covers they’ll release on March 17. It’s as straightforward a tribute as you’ll get from two singer-songwriters whose respective claims to fame bank on their ability to knock down the walls we build to protect ourselves from a brutal ballad’s honesty while laying new bricks with perfect phrases. While the evening was rife with Avett and Mayfield’s renditions of Smith’s beloved tunes that will be replayed in perpetuity on alternative radio and in packed coffeehouses, the pair worked compositions of their own into the mix, along with select Beatles, Dylan, Hank Williams, and bluegrass covers to prevent them from playing straight through the record. (The Beatles inclusions were especially appropriate, as Smith was a vocal fan of the White Album, which led to a heartwarming take on “I Will.”)
The kitchen wasn’t a metaphor, in that Avett and Mayfield are traveling with a set that faithfully adheres to the aesthetic of an apartment Smith himself would’ve lived in, one with open boxes of cereal on the top shelf and the curling edges of torn wallpaper rejecting their adhesive. Instead of working with the audio arrangement they’re accustomed to, one that Avett and Mayfield typically employ at the level of venue they regularly play, they opted to mic their guitars and the bass themselves with a DIY setup akin to one you’d find at a house show or dive bar.
An appreciated gesture, their effort to ignore Town Hall’s gilt chandeliers and velvet seats in favor of this imperfect, authentic approach — feedback and all — set a comfortable scene that reminded us how frequently we’ve listened to someone pick up a shitty acoustic in a brimming apartment to play through “Miss Misery” with crestfallen eyes. It’s exactly the kind of framework one should be working in when they put their own spin on songs that can’t be improved upon, but conjured or invoked in hushed tones.
Avett and Mayfield’s own Smith worship and nerdery made them all the more endearing as they took turns passing the lead, with Avett’s breathtaking crack at “Angeles” and Mayfield’s flawless, feathery tone on “Ballad of Big Nothing” standing out as set highlights. They worked their kitchen setup to their advantage, too, with nothing artificial about the way Mayfield leaned on the counter, pouring hot water for tea from the electronic kettle next to the plywood sink as Avett strummed solo. The encore was immensely satisfying for this native Bostonian, who could hardly contain herself when “Miss Misery” — which isn’t included on Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith‘s tracklist, but should be — made its redoubtable appearance. Avett and Mayfield’s “Twilight” comes within yards of threatening the tear ducts as intensely as the original, and the care the artists took to do Smith’s music justice in their own way resonated from the first moment of the 90-minute set to the last.
Cover albums, by their very nature, are predictable and boring; a familiar song thrown into the setlist is so much more about making a desperate grab for the audience’s attention than it is about drawing the crowd in close to gush together about a bridge you can’t get out of your head. Avett and Mayfield have succeeded in doing the latter by acknowledging that they’re not reinventing Smith’s wheel, but using his blueprint to create their own in order to tackle the bumps and hard turns on the twisted highways of his mourned musical genius.
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