Thursday, October 19, 2017

every word seemed to date her

Thus begins Hardly Strictly weekend in San Francisco, though I didn't make it to the festival at all. Fortunately, there was tons of music in the Bay, starting with Gillian Welch at her annual show at the Fillmore.

Gillian Welch, the Fillmore, October 6, 2017: I don't know how it happened, but it seemed like nobody got tickets to this show via the regular channels and ended up paying high prices on the secondary market. But thanks to a friend, I made it in at face value for a great start to the night.

Anyway, this show has been an annual tradition for a while, as either Gillian Welch or Dave Rawlings grace the Fillmore with a gig around the time of Hardly Strictly. They don't even need new material because the audience is so dedicated around here, but this date was dedicated to promoting the vinyl release of The Harrow & The Harvest -- which was released six years ago?! Where has the time gone?! Of course we'll take any excuse to see the duo.

I'm a hypocrite who's claimed I'm over musicians playing older albums in order, from track 1 all the way through, but this is now the second show I've seen of the variety. And you know what? I'd do it again if the right bands come through.

Truthfully, because I didn't have tickets in hand initially, I forgot who I was seeing that night -- Gill or Dave? But once the premise was established, I had no problem getting into the flow and appreciating the record (again). Time (The Revelator) is one of my all-time favorite records, and though the release dates don't match up, in my mind it's the companion piece to Wilco's Being There. The two records cemented my love of American folk music, and I haven't looked back. Perhaps because of my undying love for Gillian's earlier record, I can't say I enjoy The Harrow & The Harvest to the same extent, but it's hardly a slouch. The show was a welcome reminder of all the great tunes on the album and a kick in the pants to spin the songs more often.

As noted above, the duo ran down the song order exactly as tracked for the first half of the show, and as with the last time they toured the record, Gill reprised her dance for "Six White Horses." The one big difference I noticed between this performance and earlier shows: Gill was fairly talkative! For example, a fan in the crowd called out for "White Rabbit" during a quiet moment, to which Gill replied, "Would that I have wrote it," and offered us a "double suicide" song instead ("The Way It Will Be," I think). She also explained the genesis of her rhythm work in the song, as well as the rigorous process by which they chose the piece of plywood for her dancing and included an anecdote of her friend calling the routine "Girls Gone Wild in the 1800s."

After a brief intermission, Gill and Dave went into old favorites, including my beloved "Revelator," as well as "Everything Is Free" and the obligatory San Francisco track "Wayside (Back in Time)." They honored Tom Petty with "Elvis Presley Blues" and cited their first time opening for Johnny Cash as the inspiration for "Dry Town." Speaking of Johnny, they went with "Jackson" in the encore. Though I can't point to a specific recording or example, I feel like they've been changing up their treatment of this song over the years. I remember a more traditional take on the song before, whereas now it's more a speedier rave-up, which I love all the same.

They rounded out the set with "I'll Fly Away," which is one of the few religious songs I enjoy singing, and their classic "Go to Sleep Little Baby," accompanied by Willie Watson, which marked the first time I've seen two men on the song, as opposed to the more typical predominantly female renditions I've seen. The tune didn't suffer in the least.

One more note on the show: We sang "Happy Birthday" to Gillian, as we've often done. I love being able to lend our voices to her celebration every year.

See also:
» when we came here today
» that's the way the cornbread crumbles

Saturday, October 14, 2017

he hides his head inside a dream

It doesn't take much to convince me to come down to Largo for a Jon Brion show, and this time, it was a matter of a casual inquiry by a good friend through a good friend. No problem, right? No problem at all.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, September 29, 2017: The last (and only) time my friend Judy saw Jon Brion at Largo, he did a 30-minute version of Big Star's "Holocaust" (coincidentally -- or not -- in the same month that he turned 50). Miraculously, she survived and wanted to know more, so here we were, now with newbies in tow. Of course, I always feel slightly nervous in trying to guess what kind of show Jon would put on, but as it turned out, I had no reason to worry tonight.

Largo dropped a big hint about the evening's special guest on Twitter, and if you made a reasonably informed guess, you were correct. Kumail Nanjiani opened the show with a comedy set to try out his prospective Saturday Night Live (!!!) monologue. I love Kumail's work, but oddly, I had never seen his standup. No surprise, it was great, and I can't wait to see how it compares to his set on the show.

Jon was up next, and before I forget, I should note the stage setup. For the first time in a while, Jon had drums -- decorated with a Sarah Silverman pillow, no less. He also had a mix of six or so electric and acoustic guitars, the video screens, and the heavy wires from his loopers and mixers. Personally, I was thrilled by the drums and hoped-hoped-hoped he'd use them at some point.

Jon opened up on piano as usual, and once again, I can't tell you whether he played a previously recorded song or a gorgeous improv. I wrote "Billie?" in my notes, but honestly, that means nothing. The second song involved the piano and the EMS Synthi, eventually leading to "Strings That Tie to You."

He next revved up the video mixers, bringing up a clip of Buddy Guy on guitar and black-and-white footage of a guy providing a rudimentary a capella beat. I always say the video doesn't always figure prominently in the final mix of the song, and in this case, the beat was more important to the song of choice, which turned out to be "One (Is the Loneliest Number)." Jon urged us to sing along, and we did the best we could, but honestly, I've heard better from the audience (and myself).

Jon grabbed an electric Gibson, and despite the "gremlins" he noted, he dove into his own "She's at It Again," but he backed off quickly, returning to the piano. At this point, Paul Cartwright joined him on violin, and I'd like to take a quick detour: My best friend has recently rediscovered her love of music, and as a result, we're once again enjoying long, deep-dive conversations about music, down to the liner notes. Months ago, she brought up Paul Cartwright, and not long after, I found out he was playing with Jon! In fact, I heard rave reviews of their work together, so imagine my delight at finally getting to see him for myself. Reminder: The LA music scene is tiny.

I didn't take great notes on Paul's involvement. That is, I may not have correctly noted every song where he played, but I can vouch for at least a couple (and more). I can confidently report that they indeed took on "Here We Go" together. As we all know, on its own, it's gorgeous and exquisite, but tonight, I was interested in finding out what Paul could with it. For his part, Paul went through three different violins -- perhaps due to technical difficulties? I have no idea, but once he found the one he needed, the notes flew.

As far as I can tell, Paul took over the portions Jon would ordinarily fill in with his piano flourishes. This is a simplistic summation of his contributions, but I hope it offers some insight into Jon's collaborative process. I can't tell you how many times I've watched at Largo as Jon (and other artists) hand off or set up a fellow artist for a gorgeous contribution. Best of all, it's not rehearsed or mandated, but it gives each musician free reign in the spotlight, and it's always been a pleasure to listen in. Everything I'd heard about Paul's work was true. He added dramatic depth and strong resonant notes that you won't even hear on the original's string arrangements. I could hardly wait for the next installment.

Alas, my notes don't mention if he played on the next several songs, so I'll assume he didn't. Otherwise, I might've jotted a few observations. In any case, Jon went into request mode, starting with David Bowie and "Changes," for which he requested the audience's help in singing along. I soon realized that I not only didn't know most of the lyrics to the song, I never really liked it to begin with. That is, of all the Bowie classics, it's not one of my favorites, but hell yeah, I'll jump into the chorus at every opportunity.

Next came Steely Dan's "Any Major Dude," perhaps as a small tribute to the late Walter Becker. I know this song only via Wilco's cover, but both renditions have been top-notch. Then Jon dove into "Play the Game" from Queen, thus rounding out the '70s flashback (all on piano amid equipment problems, if you're paying attention).

Still on piano, Jon followed up with a bunch of his own tunes: first "Same Mistakes," then "Stop the World" featuring a touch of vintage synth and a clip of Brad Mehldau, before finishing up with "Knock Yourself Out," which I don't recall hearing on piano before. In fact, it took me longer than usual to figure it out, and yes, that's unusual.

Earlier in the request process, Jon hinted that he was wrapping his brain around a major undertaking for later in the show. (I wish I'd written down his exact words because they were much funnier.) You knew something was up when Jon moved to the drums -- again, the first time I'd seen him play them in a while. I have to be honest and say I figured out what he was doing pretty quickly because I love this song to death ... and I've seen Jon do it a bunch. Fortunately, it's a tune I never tire of.

Jon first started looping the drumbeat, then piano, and finally the problematic guitar for -- ta da -- "Tomorrow Never Knows." One of the pleasures of seeing Jon do this song is watching him build up the drumbeat. As a nonmusician, I'd never thought about how many layers of drums make the song. As you watch Jon loop them, you see for yourself all the phases the song passes through, and in my case, I learn to appreciate it even more.

As mentioned earlier, when Judy last saw Jon, he went all in on a half-hour of Big Star. Maybe it's something about Judy, but "Tomorrow Never Knows" went at least 20 minutes, but hopefully at a better clip than "Holocaust." Also, I know Judy is a big Beatles fan. As a longtime Largo patron, I got to see Jon pour himself into the guitar, as he knelt on the ground to wrench out the notes, sang into the guitar pickups, and even lowered the mic to his level, rather than rise to meet it at the usual height.

With the song in full bloom, he returned to the piano and brought up clips of T. Rex, a young boy drumming, some orchestral woodwinds, and old-timey singing triplets. Again, I'm going to say it wasn't central to the song, but it gave me the opportunity to trot out my theory that the video mashups may be the best representation of Jon's brain at work. Also, they may show up again in the future, but better integrated.

Jon brought up a guest, the musician John Wicks, formerly of the Records. I have to admit I wouldn't have known about John Wicks if it weren't for a friend sending me a link to a YouTube clip of a benefit concert for him, featuring Jon Brion and the Bangles, among others. Jon gave him an acoustic guitar, while he remained on piano, and Mr. Wicks played a couple of his tunes, complete with Storytellers-style introductions. "Starry Eyes" was reportedly one of Jon's favorite songs ever and, coincidentally, a rebuke to his record company -- a topic Jon knows well. The second song seemed to center on dating an underage girl. John Wicks disavowed the lyrics and explained he only wrote the music; Jon Brion meanwhile played the piano strings (a familiar sight to Largo regulars, but I was glad the newbies were able to take it in) and provided backing vocals.

Jon closed the set with help from Paul Cartwright, who was already plucking on the violin even as Jon spoke to us. I didn't recognize the song at first, which was odd because it's one of my favorites, but that probably has more to do with the twist Paul put on it. It was "Ashes to Ashes," which was ethereal and spacey in the hands of the duo. Also, I had no problem singing along to it, albeit more under my breath, as Jon and Paul deserved every ounce of our attention.

In a surprising move to me, Jon invited us to the Little Room for more music, and fortunately, Judy and Jerod jumped at the offer. From what I've heard, they've been extending the evening on a regular basis, so if you're at future shows, plan accordingly. Over in the Little Room, it was exactly like old times, albeit with at least a couple of new faces -- a saxophonist named Jacob had joined them. As a matter of fact, Jon said they had just met.

They opened with what sounded like a standard, and my best guess (which isn't good at all) is Cole Porter or Irving Berlin. Trust me, though, that it was lush and warm and intimate. They soon jumped into request mode and granted many wishes, starting with the crowd-pleasing Ramones and "Waterloo Sunset"; I had no idea how much I missed the latter in my life, especially in this setting, until it started.

Jon was all over the map with requests, next hitting Sinatra, Dylan, and Neil Young. Judy tells me the jazzy number was "Take the A Train," and I trust her with my life, so it stays. To close out, Jon played what should've been the obvious choice of the SNL closing theme, considering Kumail's guest slot so many hours before and the fact that he had a sax man in his midst. Jon even nailed the farewell style and definitely needs to be on the show while we still have terrestrial TV. My notes mention that they snuck in "Creep" before we left the premises, which I wouldn't put past them.

So there you go! I couldn't help but think of those old-school Largo nights, with the comedy opener, the musical guests that we music nerds love, and the second secret-feeling session. You never know what awaits you at a Jon Brion show, but if these extended performances with Paul Cartwright become a regular feature, sign me up for more.

Kumail Nanjiani opener

-- piano
-- Strings That Tie to You
-- One Is the Loneliest Number
-- She's at It Again
-- Here We Go *
-- Changes
-- Play the Game
-- Same Mistakes
-- Stop the World
-- Knock Yourself Out
-- Tomorrow Never Knows
-- Starry Eyes **
-- Teenorama **
-- Ashes to Ashes *

Little Room
-- piano
-- I Wanna Be Sedated
-- Waterloo Sunset
-- Wee Small Hours
-- It Ain't Me Babe
-- Only Love Can Break Your Heart
-- Take the A Train
-- SNL outro
-- Creep

* = with Paul Cartwright
** = with John Wicks

See also:
» i've heard a rumor from ground control

Monday, July 10, 2017

when we came here today

We all felt something true.

Solid Sound Festival, June 23-25, 2017: I've been slow to post concert reports. Quite simply, I've seen many, many shows by the musicians who dominate this blog, and it's hard to come up with new thoughts and phrasings at times. I still like them a ton, but I don't always know what to say about them.

I faced a similar quandary with Wilco's Solid Sound festival. I'm now in the habit of not preparing a ton for trips -- I mean, I check the weather, I pack accordingly, and I know where I'm staying and how I'm getting there. But I no longer plan out activities to the minute, and I try to let the chips fall as they may. Also, Solid Sound made a new rule barring tarps and lawn chairs close to the stage, so we kinda had to get off our butts. For the first time, I felt like the days were wide open.

Solid Sound 2017

The only two non-Wilco events on my radar were the comedy show and the Mark Bittman talk. With the former, John Hodgman once again took over emcee duties, which he handled with aplomb, especially in light of all the cancellations. I hit the first installation, featuring Michelle Buteau and Nick Offerman. I know Michelle mostly through her @midnight appearances, where she's always good. As for Nick Offerman, I doubt he needs an introduction, but I admit I've seen exactly one episode of Parks and Recreation (the one with Jeff Tweedy).

All three were great, and I especially enjoyed John Hodgman's long-form storytelling/standup. Michelle Buteau was more classically standup, and I kind of gasped in recognition when she told of her European in-laws melting in the sun at the beach. Nick Offerman was the surprise and delight. I vaguely know of the Ron Swanson persona, but even I could tell how he plays off and satirizes that reputation. Like John Hodgman, he's not a traditional comic, but he's an expert raconteur. His fans are in for a treat.

Mark Bittman drew a good crowd, though not in the same numbers as the comedy show. I love Mark Bittman's recipes, and a half-dozen of them are in regular rotation in my kitchen. Alas, his talk didn't involve a cooking demonstration, and a lot of the discussion didn't exactly break new ground. However, I loved how he handled a question about food waste, framing it not as a matter of composting and eating our leftovers but instead the huge farming subsidies and resources devoted to soybeans and corn.

But what about the music? First, the non-Wilco acts: Friday featured Dave and Phil Alvin. Music nerds can tell you a lot more about their history than I can, but listening to them, I was immediately transported back to the pre-No Depression sound of early-'80s California indie rock (Evonne confirmed as much for me). I loved seeing Dave's classic split-legged rocker pose, and I was glad to be reminded that he co-wrote "4th of July" during his time with X. Downey, Calif., represent!

Of course I caught the rest of Wilco's openers too. Television was disappointing, and I'm glad I saw the band's first reunion tour all those years ago, but Kurt Vile was fantastic, and I finally understood the chatter about him (though in all honesty, I probably won't ever see him live again on my own accord).

I caught only one pop-up performance: Chikamorachi, aka Darin Gray and Chris Corsano, accompanied by Jeff Tweedy on guitar. It was loud, crowded, and abstract, but I loved it. I'd absolutely check them out again if they came to town.

Solid Sound 2017Among the other scheduled performances, I saw only Kevin Morby, who was breathtaking. Of course, I saw him last fall at the Fillmore, where he sounded great. The last nine months of touring have done him good because the whole band has notably improved further. I was impressed enough that I went out and bought the record when I got home.

OK, now for the Wilco portion of the weekend! I've been one of those jerks turning up my nose at bands performing classic albums in their entirety ... except when I don't. Wilco put on a contest to let the fans decide which record they would play from front to back, and as an obedient follower, I voted early and often for my favorite, Being There. It won, but that rascally Wilco had a surprise for us, as they played both Being There and the runner-up, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. In retrospect, did anyone think Wilco wouldn't do YHF? But we didn't know this until Friday night, when they finished up Being There, and we saw that the band had about an hour left before curfew. I thought maybe they'd do b-sides or covers, maybe favorite tunes, but after the first couple of tracks, we knew what was coming. Congrats to all my YHF-loving friends!

But back to Being There: I've already detailed my love for this record, but it's another matter altogether to hear it in sequence live. About halfway through the first side, I realized how front-loaded the album is and the early thrills coming our way. Of course, I love all the songs on the record, so I'm biased, but it's nice to be reminded of the power of the record.

Solid Sound 2017

Saturday's night set was more in line with what you'll hear if you see Wilco on the road right now, though Jeff admitted they were trying to trick us with the opener "At Least That's What You Said" -- no, the band wasn't doing A Ghost Is Born in its entirety. But they sprinkled in tracks from AM, Summerteeth, both editions of Mermaid Avenue, and I guess the records that didn't quite rank as highly among voters. Let me add the ladies in front of me were happy to see Josh do his thing on "Hoodoo Voodoo."

Sunday is typically the most relaxed day of the festival, and it was no different this year, as we eased to the front for the Tweedy set. Jeff himself told us right away that Tweedy had no new songs, and the band retained the same format as before, with a solo portion of the show, which kind of became a promotional platform for Jeff's new solo album. I loved being reminded of the beauty of "Love Like a Wire," and speaking of Sima, she sounded fantastic on lead vocals for "Friendship."

Solid Sound 2017Sunday's highlight, however, was the debut of Sammy Tweedy on lead vocals with Tweedy! He sang "Military Madness" by Graham Nash, which is entirely appropriate, based on everything I've heard about Sammy. He sounded confident and at ease, and I hope we see him again. Maybe we can get Susan up there next!

One side note for all the gawkers: On all three nights, the pit filled up with spectators from backstage. Typically, this area is vacant after the photographers finish up their shift, but the band's friends and family (including Nick Offerman) decided to catch the gig from the front row on all three nights. It was the first time I've seen this at Solid Sound, and it was awfully sweet.

Before I wrap up this post, I need to highlight the true MVP of this trip: The beautiful house we stayed in, booked by the genius Maudie. For the first time, we couldn't stay in North Adams, but it was worth the trade-off. For a short, 10-minute drive, we had our run of seven bedrooms, three bathrooms, several public spaces, and two luxurious porches. If we can get that house again, it might not matter who's playing at Solid Sound.

See also:
» always hated normal american kids
» Solid Sound 2015: the whole love
» Solid Sound 2013: the boys are back in town
» Solid Sound 2011: you can tell that i'm not lying
» Solid Sound 2010: trees held us in on all four sides