Clip: Elliott Smith arranged for solo piano
Classical spin to Elliott Smith songs
Christopher O'Riley pays tribute to singer-songwriter
By Andy Downing
Special to the Tribune
Published April 7, 2006
Rock musicians often turn to classical instruments in an attempt to
legitimize their music and give it an air of class--from the Beatles'
experimentation with string arrangements to Metallica's performance
with the San Francisco Orchestra.
More rare is the classical performer who embraces popular music,
unmasking elaborate arrangements in seemingly simplistic rock tunes.
Pianist Christopher O'Riley is one such performer. O'Riley is best
known for his two albums of Radiohead covers, which twist the British
rockers' elaborate tunes into digestible symphonies.
Wednesday at the Chicago Cultural Center, the pianist debuted his
latest project: a collection of songs penned by the late
singer-songwriter Elliott Smith (available on the forthcoming "Home to
Oblivion: An Elliott Smith Tribute").
The 110-minute, 20-song performance was often stirring, O'Riley
displaying an obvious admiration for the singer in professing that
"[Smith] is the most important songwriter since Cole Porter."
That affection carried over to the song list, which drew on everything
from unreleased material ("No Life") to "Not Half Right," a song by
Smith's first band, Heatmiser.
Absent Smith's haunted vocals, it was up to O'Riley to provide the
tunes with emotional heft. On "Let's Get Lost," the pianist's left
hand wandered across the keys, lonely notes hovering like snowflakes
caught in the breeze; "No Life" teetered between hope and despair,
O'Riley signaling looming depression with a series of deep, hollow
chords; "Bye"--as delicate as a porcelain doll--was a suitably tender
parting shot following the bombast of "Stupidity Tries."
At times the respect for Smith was a bit too obvious. Dressed in
black, O'Riley made the performance sometimes feel like a memorial
service. Songs like "I Better Be Quiet" and "Speed Trials" may be
moving when driven by Smith's shaky timbre, but as instrumentals they
demand a little something more.
This became clear when O'Riley deconstructed Radiohead's "Paranoid
Android" in an encore that swung from staggering beauty to chaotic
arpeggios and back again over the course of seven breathtaking
O'Riley's greatest accomplishment, however, is his ability to
introduce young fans of contemporary artists like Radiohead and Smith
to classical music. And by the looks of the Cultural Center audience,
he is succeeding in his attempt to locate a midpoint between genres
that often struggle to find common ground.