The seeds for “Pictures Of Me: An Evening In Tribute To The Music Of Elliott Smith” (Friday, July 29 at Cactus Club) were planted in 2013. As a way to break the mold of tributes dedicated solely to commercially successful mega artists, local musician/writer Sahan Jayasuriya curated a night of performers paying tribute to Big Star. Jayasuriya says the show came “simply out of a desire to hear those songs be played live by people whose music I liked.” With the success of the Big Star show in tow, Jayasuriya set out to build upon its framework.

After roughly a year of planning, Friday’s Elliott Smith tribute show has been expanded to be a benefit show. Instrument backline support will be provided by Music Go Round of Greenfield, and all proceeds will go to Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee. “Suicide has affected a lot of people over the last few years,” Jayasuriya says. “This definitely includes people in Milwaukee, but it’s still something that goes undiscussed, despite the larger conversation behind self care and mental health being far more open now.”

Jayasuriya is quick to note that “making this event a benefit for suicide prevention awareness isn’t speculation on Elliott’s passing, but his music has often been associated with darker themes.”

The grim reality is that the music world is a bastion of truth for the isolated and the harmed people of the world. It’s an open door for exploration. Many pass through, but not all gain enlightenment. Years after Smith succumbed to the darkness, his music continues to provide a light for many.

In just shy of two decades since his passing, the legend of Elliott Smith has grown astronomically. From an Oscar nomination to major label record deals, you can’t exactly call Smith’s career unsuccessful. But in his time, he’d yet to reach his current status as a cultural icon. “At the time of his passing he was scheduled to play here at Mad Planet,” Jayasuriya says. “That’s where his career was at that point.”

Since his passing, there has been no shortage of Elliott Smith related material. His music has been issued via a posthumously assembled album, an odds and ends collection, and expanded reissues of his back catalog. There’s been a tribute album, multiple books, and the full-length documentary Heaven Adores You. The vast majority of these projects being good faith ventures, a healthy legacy has been built and continues to grow.

With people clamoring to sing the praises of Smith’s catalog, Jayasuriya puts it into perspective. “In the same way that Big Star was definitely ‘your favorite band’s favorite band’ for a certain era of music, the same can be said about Elliott Smith.” Stars as disparate as Frank Ocean and Beck have sung Smith’s praises. Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard credits Smith with inspiring his own band as well as other indie stars of the era such as The Shins and Iron and Wine. Phoebe Bridgers has said, “It’s like The Beatles to me.”

Looking at the “Pictures Of Me” lineup, you’ll find that while there are a few performers that were adults at the time of Smith’s 2003 passing, the majority of them were middle school-aged or younger. “I wanted people who were fans of his music, and everyone performing is a fan of his,” Jayasuriya says. “Many of the people performing were driven to participate by the benefit component as well.”

As with most tribute shows, expect a fair share of covers that are faithful to the originals. It’s what we know, and tapping into that vibe is like a warm embrace among friends. Will there be deconstructed, sideways takes on Smith classics? There’s no shame in letting pure emotion and honesty fuel your method of expression. As you will read in the testimonials below, Elliott Smith’s music has deeply affected the past few decades of music fans—and, in all likelihood, will continue to do so for future decades.

“My favorite thing about Elliott and his music is that it strikes something in your core and can bring out so many emotions in just one song alone. I love that he makes the music take focus and he himself was just a relatively normal guy, similar to why I look up to Brian Wilson. A songwriter you’ll only get once a generation.” — Cody Ratley of Shamewave

“Elliott Smith has a way of capturing dark emotions in a very poignant way. I got involved with this show because he is one of my biggest influences and his music helped me through some difficult times in my life.” — Micah of So Zuppy

“I was 16 when I first heard his second album. At the time I was still trying to figure myself out in this world and I was not feeling super great about myself. It’s a dark record with beautiful and haunting melodies that I always keep coming back to when I feel low. What I love about his music is that he wasn’t afraid of being vulnerable, and his honesty. For me, that’s the kind of music that sticks with you forever.” — Alisa Rodriguez of Apollo Vermouth

“Elliott’s music was a bastion of honesty and vulnerability about mental health struggles which were then and are now very real to my friends and to me. I lost one of my best friends to suicide in 2018. Many of my bandmates and buddies have lost close friends. A lot of us struggle, sometimes invisibly, with making it through each day. Elliott’s music plumbed the vast joys and impossible challenges that come with being a person. The songs will never stop being powerful, healing and poignant.” — Kat Wodtke of Long Mama

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About The Author

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Dan Agacki is a veteran of long dead publications like Punk Planet, Fan-Belt, and Ctrl Alt Dlt. He currently contributes to The Shepherd Express and Explain. His free time is spent frantically searching for Black Flag live bootlegs.