Pop: It's a sweet song of misery

Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith's existential tales of life and love not only win Oscar nominations but also bring out the mother in the best of crowds.
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WHEN DIRECTOR Gus Van Sant used a number of Elliot Smith songs in his film Good Will Hunting, the blend of music and cinematography was potent enough to draw comparisons with Simon & Garfunkel's soundtrack for The Graduate. "Miss Misery" was Oscar-nominated, and when Smith - who looks more like a dustman than a Hollywood bigwig - performed the song at the awards ceremony, Jack Nicholson was sitting just 10 feet away. His performance at Dingwalls must have been a might less daunting for him.

On his latest album, XO, Smith uses Mellotron, vibes and tack piano to widen his predominately acoustic palette. So for tonight's gig, support act Quasi (drummer Janet Weis and bass player/guitarist Sam Coombs) were on hand to help the Brooklyn-based troubadour give the fuller treatment to the more orchestrated of these arrangements.

Wearing an old, blue beanie hat and a paint-splashed T-shirt, at times Smith looked genuinely thrilled by the music he and his band were making. With his awkward smile and bottomless sack of fine, wistful songs, it was also easy to account for his disproportionately female audience. Most girls warm to a poet that they can mother.

Though there's a classicism and easy grace to Smith's material, reminiscent of Paul Simon, Revolver-era Beatles or Alex Chilton's best work with Big Star, his songs clearly reflect a darker, more existentially challenged soul. By performing all his tunes on a crunchy electric guitar, rather than an acoustic one, though, he seemed keen to subvert the "sensitive- folky" image with which he's been branded.

The music is one thing, but Smith the man is another. After "Rose Parade", one fan shouted "I hope you realise that's one of the best songs of the last 20 years!" Clearly embarrassed by this unbridled flattery, Smith eventually mumbled, "well, I'm glad you think so". This brought out the mothering instincts again, and in a moment redolent of an animation sequence from Ally McBeal, I could easily imagine several doe-eyed girls nearby metamorphosing into big, broody hens.

Characters in the city-life cameos Smith has recently taken to writing in Brooklyn bars often sound lost, confused or defeated. "Waltz No.2", a sweetly clunking half-ballad which cleverly referenced The Everly Brothers' "Cathy's Clown" was a case in point, its protagonist "staring into space like a dead china doll". "Independence Day", based on a sweet, almost ragtime-sounding guitar figure, was something of a contrast, though. Juxtaposing the human life-span with that of a butterfly, the gist of its more ebullient sentiment was that, though it might seem as though we only live for a day, "It's brilliant anyway."

He encored with an impromptu cover of The Beatles' "I'm Only Sleeping" and forgot the words. But nobody seemed to mind.