The album Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith grew from the admiration Avett and Mayfield share for the songs of Elliott Smith. A three-year project, it was recorded in their spare time, partly in both of their homes. Perhaps it was the homegrown and personal nature of the project that inspired the unique stage set on the supporting tour. The two, along with bassist Paul Defiglia, stand in a kitchen, complete with a sink, refrigerator (with a few fridge magnets), and even a drying rack for dishes. A table lamp on top of the refrigerator provides a warm glow.
The tour kicked off in Charlotte’s McGlohon Theatre, a 730-seat restored church sanctuary. Acknowledging the self-imposed pressure of doing justice to a hero’s songs, Avett confessed to some jitters. “You just don’t want to mess it up.”
Throughout the evening, the sold out home-town crowd made it clear that he, along with Mayfield and Difiglia, most definitely got it right.
Avett opened the show with Smith’s delicate “Let’s Get Lost,” followed by “Fond Farewell,” on which Mayfield sang lead. The haunting quality of Mayfield’s voice brought out the vulnerability of Smith’s songs. Avett’s singing was both robust and intimate, and together their voices extended the emotional range of Smith’s songs.
The instrumentation was spare. On most songs Mayfield played acoustic guitar, Avett played one of several guitars, or played piano, and Difiglia played upright bass, bowing it to offer additional warmth on a few songs, including “Pitseleh.” The instruments, though expertly played, never got in the way. The vocals were front and center. The sound was crystal clear—listeners could hear every word. It was almost as if the audience really was sitting in the kitchen listening to two good friends singing their favorite songs.
Elliott Smith’s legacy was the thread that tied the show together, and along the way, other elements were woven into the mix. Avett and Mayfield had done some research and performed some songs written by Smith’s diverse influences, as well as their own. Avett sang Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” early in the evening. Later, noting that he’d read that Smith liked The Beatles’ The White Album, they performed a gorgeous rendition of “I Will.”
Mayfield sang Hank Williams’ rollicking “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” and this was the one song of the evening that challenged Avett’s restraint, setting his legs in motion with just a hint of the high-energy stage presence he deploys at The Avett Brothers’ shows.
Another fun non-Smith cover was “There is a Time,” by Rodney Dillard. Dillard was well known as a member of the Darling family on The Andy Griffith Show, which Avett jokingly cited as the primary source, besides his parents, for his moral compass. Mayfield’s clear voice evoked Charlene Darling (actress and singer Maggie Peterson), and Avett offered up some excellent picking on his resonator guitar.
Fans of the original songs of Avett and Mayfield got a treat. Avett and Mayfield performed a small number of their own songs, but twice, in the spirit of the evening of covers, and as a token of their respect and admiration for each other, sang songs written by the other. Mayfield sang “Rain on my Tin Roof,” from Avett’s solo album, “The Mourning, the Silver, the Bell,” and Avett sang Mayfield’s, “Our Hearts are Wrong.” Mayfield also sang her own songs “For Today” and “Kiss Me Again,” and Avett sang a new, unreleased song that might be called “The Lines on my Face.” (He didn’t give a title.)
A highlight of the set was the soaring harmonizing on the chorus of Smith’s “Ballad of Big Nothing,” a song that Avett described as the ultimate ear-worm, one that, for years he had heard Mayfield humming. Avett performed Smith’s “Angeles” solo, and during this piece, the stage set-up was particularly charming—Mayfield puttered around the kitchen, picking up a mug of tea.
The set ended with a faithful rendition of Smith’s “Between the Bars,” the last lyrics, “I’ll keep them still” ringing out and then fading.
The encore opened with George Harrison’s “I, Me Mine,” and continued with Smith’s “Miss Misery,” the only Elliott Smith song of the night that is not on the album. It closed with Smith’s “Memory Lane,” a dark song about isolation and defeat. But the audience to this show might find themselves visiting a different kind of “Memory Lane,” as they remember the warmth of the evening and a unique show that won’t be repeated after this short tour.