Thursday, January 17, 2019

this is how i tell it

From one long-running Largo tradition to a newly developing mainstay: Jeff Tweedy's annual (?) winter residency at Largo at the Coronet. Stay a while, Jeff!

Jeff Tweedy, Largo at the Coronet, January 3-4, 6-7, 2019

Now that Jeff has booked his third run at Largo, I suppose these dates no longer count as a rarity, but they remain a massive treat, and I refuse to take them for granted. I hope to make these shows for as long as I can, using as much subterfuge and obfuscation as necessary.

The fact that Jeff had played the West Coast only a few months prior, ostensibly promoting the same material, made me wonder how these shows might differ from the recent tour. Truth be told, the first night felt a bit like a continuation of that tour, albeit with a little rust as Jeff eased back into professional form. When you see Jeff and Wilco enough times, you start to recognize the standby tracks, which help both the audience and the performer(s) gain their footing and suss out one another. The first night included most of the songs that comprised the bulk of the setlist from the fall tour -- a reasonable expectation for Jeff's return.

The second night was another story altogether. Though Jeff kicked off with a couple of Warm tracks, he eventually rolled out some B-sides and Uncle Tupelo songs. However, I was gobsmacked by "Via Chicago," a song I've heard a jillion times at this point, but something about Jeff's cadence, the notes from the harmonica, and maybe even the room's reverence hit me between the eyes and moved me to tears. As much as I love the song, I can't recall the song's inherent loneliness striking me so deeply ever before. As Jeff played the final notes, Evonne and I turned to each other and discovered that we were both drying our eyes. In fact, it was so good that I barely minded the woman sitting next to me who laughed at the opening lines of the song.

I don't know if Jeff did this on purpose, but he made subtle changes to the classic tracks that night. He changed up the cadence and maybe the tunings. Actually, I don't know about the second part, but they weren't the same renditions we're used to. Maybe it was the rust again, or maybe Jeff wanted to try something new. In any case, they sounded amazing.

The somewhat complementary aspect of the first two nights led me to muse if the third and fourth nights would continue this theme, but -- spoiler alert -- they didn't. Instead, Jeff stuck to the core set, then sprinkled in deep cuts of his choice, including brand-new songs from the forthcoming Warmer, his follow-up solo record, expected this spring. Among these tracks, "One Sunday Morning" in particular stuck out to me. I mean, if you can't pull off a wordy, melancholy 12-minute (the studio version, anyway) at Largo, where can you do it? Still, it's not part of the regular rotation, so I tend to pay attention when it comes up.

No one asks anymore, but every now and then, a friend or acquaintance finds it hard to believe that I would see multiple consecutive shows by Jeff and Wilco. This time, I can point to a single song that made the whole trip worthwhile. Last year, Spencer and Sammy took the stage to sing and play a couple of songs. On this occasion, they joined their father for an old British folk tune ("Bright Phoebus," according to Paul), their voices melding in the way that only family can do. Their pride in and love for each other was visible, and I'm sure every face was smiling at the sight and sounds -- none more so than Jeff himself. Chalk it up as another Only at Largo (tm) moment.

Of course, it wasn't all sad songs, as we joined Jeff in singalongs for "Let's Go Rain" and "California Stars," among other tunes (though a couple of audience members raised questions about whether we should lend our vocals if not asked to do so). Jeff also took questions every night and shared a bunch of stories, including a hilarious anecdote about a Best Chest in the West contest at a bar he and his fellow musicians frequented after shows at Mississippi Nights. The questions on the whole, however, were less inspiring.

These shows happened to fall on the same weekend as the Golden Globe Awards, and Jeff plumbed this coincidence for tons of banter during the last two dates. But the scheduling did, in fact, result in some celebs not showing up until Monday night. Jeff had some fun with other California stereotypes, claiming to have used CBD cream for aches and pains in his playing arm. Fortunately, he reported no toilet paper deficits at the Airbnb this time.

Jeff had a different opener every night: Nick Offerman, Sarah Silverman, Tom Pappa, and Jeff Garlin, in that order. Tom Pappa was the most polished of the group, even though he subjected some of your favorite front-row faithful to his banter. The others pulled off less polished, more informal sets (which is often the case at Largo), but were all quite entertaining in their own way.

Finally, Andrew van Baal, who co-directed the Largo movie so long ago, filmed at least two of the shows from this run. It's anyone's guess how this footage will be used or even if the general public will get to see it, but at least we know it's in good hands.

See also:
» sorry charlie honey he's back from LA
» every night is a test
» early in the morning

Monday, January 14, 2019

on such a winter's day

Barring any major incidents, you can set this date in stone on my annual concert calendar. I'm not about to back out of Jon Brion's last show of the year at Largo any time soon.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 21, 2018

Tonight, an opener: the magician Derek Hughes, who -- holy symmetry, Batman -- I last saw at Largo almost exactly 10 years ago. Funny how the numbers work sometimes! Like all of us (surely), he looked a little different, and in fact, he reported on the changes in his life, including fatherhood and moving to Minnesota. As he bantered, he also pulled off a number of impressive illusions (not tricks!) with the help of several members of the audience, including some skeptics.

Jon's setup for this show included the video screens, a bunch of guitars, and a random keyboard, but no drums. As typical, he settled at the piano for his portion of the show, and here, I have to throw my hands up in futility because, as usual, I couldn't tell you the name of the wordless songs he played even if I wanted to. This is when I admit that my default guesses usually go to "My Funny Valentine" for sad-sounding songs and "Ain't Misbehavin'" for higher-tempo numbers. You're totally right to scoff at the fact that those are the only two standards I can name when they're played as instrumentals.

Jon commented it's "all uphill from here," and to emphasize his point, he played the classic funeral march from Chopin (I actually knew the theme, but had to look up Chopin for this post) and remarked on his fixation with G sharp minor. Relatively warmed up, he broke into his own "Knock Yourself Out" on piano, manipulating the keys for a tinny, old-fashioned sound effect. He also interspersed the song with snippets from "Jingle Bells" -- his first nod to the holiday.

He stayed at the piano but added a harmonica for the next song, drawing out a Dylanesque intro for "Someone Else's Problem Now." Because I don't go to Largo as often as I used to, I have no idea how often Jon breaks out his vintage tunes. I'm always happy to hear them, and maybe I'll get in a request for "Nothing Between Us" or "Amateur" next time.

Jon asks for requests and went with -- guess what -- an instrumental tune I can't name. Context clues indicate that he might've played the coda to "Layla," and he even rolled out a video clip of Clapton for accompaniment. But don't quote me on that.

The Christmas songs continued with "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," which included a beautiful filigree in the middle. That somehow became the audience request for "Don't Stop Believing." I'd like to mention here that once upon a time, Jon rarely entertained these more populist requests. In fact, he was more likely to dig into obscure artists, whether we knew them or not. But of course, the audience and the venue have changed, and you can't expect time to stand still. Perhaps in acknowledgement of this shift, he had the crowd sing along instead of providing the vocals himself. And they did!

Jon returned to the holiday spirit with "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy," which morphed into "Incense and Peppermint," then shifted again as he called up footage of a symphony orchestra and dialed up the trusty Moog and Casio keyboard that line the piano. This became "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes," which is always worth revisiting. Jon brought it back to "Sugarplum," but my notes indicate that he went on a lot longer, giving us the Christmas Freakout of 2018 (likely his words).

The guitars finally got a look for two whole songs: first, "Excuse to Cry," then a request for "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," drenched in feedback and sounding a lot like the Hendrix version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at first. Honestly, it could've used more Dave Rawlings.

Jon's crew had set up a smaller standalone keyboard at centerstage, so inevitably, Jon went to it, partially by audience demand. Also, somewhat by audience demand, he led us in a Bowie Christmas singalong, the sublime "Life on Mars." To bookend the keyboard section of the show, he worked in notes from "Sugarplum Fairy."

But it was then back to the classic piano for "We Are the Champions." I can't recall the impetus for this song, except that maybe it was one of the more vocal audience requests or perhaps Jon had snuck in a few notes in an earlier song. The audience ate it up, roaring in full voice.

Once more, I default to my bad guess regarding the follow-up jazzy instrumental tune. I'll pencil in "Ain't Misbehavin'," but there's little reason to trust me.

I don't think the next song came from an audience suggestion, but whatever its origins, I'm more than thankful that Jon plucked it out of his vast catalog. It was "Happiness" from Elliott Smith, so gorgeous in all its forms. There's a lot to love about this obvious gem of a song, but I can't help but focus on Jon's ability to draw out the rhythm. I guess it shouldn't be a huge surprise, given Elliott's occasional forays behind the kit, but it's easy to miss all of its moving pieces amid the sublime melody.

Jon went back to requests, and a long build became "How Soon Is Now," with the harmonica providing the song's trademark dissonant note. In the 30-odd years since I first heard this song, I've sort of learned how Johnny Marr created that signature effect, and yet I still marvel at its sound. Jon then segued into a Morrissey's own "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get."

Jon broke out into a semi-medley of Christmas-theme tracks: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "The Christmas Song," before shifting to one of his favorites: "Waterloo Sunset." To the crowd's credit, our harmonies were fantastic on the "sha la la" bits, which I didn't hear a whole lot in the past. Jon did bring up some footage of Andres Segovia and slip in a few notes of "Tomorrow Never Knows" as he stretched out the tune, but all you need to know is that "Waterloo Sunset" remains a beauty.

Jon returned for one more song on the main stage, and by audience request went with "California Dreaming." It seems so obvious that I'm surprised it hasn't come up sooner (in my experience). But Jon being Jon, he sprinkled more sugarplum fairy dust toward the end.

In an unusual move, Jon invited us to the Little Room, where he said he'd play piano for anyone who wanted to listen. He was true to his word, treating us to about 30 minutes of music, all free of lyrics. There might've been tunes by Cole Porter and Scott Joplin, but I can't say for sure. But I can report he did a few of his own songs, including "Little Person" (by request) and "Punch-Drunk Melody." At one point, he set up all the wind-up toys around the piano, but alas, it wasn't "Voices." Instead, he threw in "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," and to end the night properly, he concluded on a grand note with a musical nod to Bugs Bunny.

That's all, folks!

-- Derek Hughes opener

Setlist
-- piano
-- Knock Yourself Out
-- Someone Else's Problem Now
-- We Wish You a Merry Christmas
-- Don't Stop Believing
-- Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy
-- Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes
-- Excuse to Cry
-- Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
-- Life on Mars
-- We Are the Champions
-- Happiness
-- How Soon Is Now/The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get
-- Charlie Brown Christmas
-- The Christmas Song
-- Waterloo Sunset
-- Telegram Sam
-- California Dreaming

The Little Room
-- We Wish You a Merry Christmas
-- Punch-Drunk Melody
-- Little Person

Ghosts of Christmas past:
» let your heart be light
» i'm offering this simple phrase
» it's been said many times, many ways
» with soul power
» it's the end of the things you know
» you could say one recovers
» a really good time
» the things you do to keep yourself intact
» i've heard a rumor from ground control
» strangest times
» i'll be a rock 'n' rolling bitch for you
» purple rain
» a few of my favorite things

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

every kind of memory

Rocktober turned out respectably after all, with a quick (fact-finding) mission to Los Angeles to see Jon Brion at Largo at the Coronet -- my first show of his for the year, believe it or not.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, October 26, 2018

I had reasons for this trip that I won't bother sharing now, but long story short, I discovered what I needed. However, this was unlike my usual forays to Largo, in that I arrived straight from the airport a few minutes shy of 9:30, and without a request for a saved seat, I instead headed to the back row. The room was about 70 percent filled, and I might've been able to find a closer chair, but it didn't matter. The only downside was that I was scribbling mostly in the dark, so you'll have to forgive any lapses in my notes. It's a miracle that they're legible at all!

The first thing I noticed was Jon's full setup: drums, video screens, several electric guitars, the Leslie cabinet, and enough wires to overload the eastern seaboard. Another welcome sight: Flanny's lightly bearded face. He referenced the World Series game that was in the 11th inning when Jon took the stage, but trust me -- the sports update mattered little to either of them.

Jon BrionJon quickly promised us that we were in store for "live soundchecking," and he delivered, at first sticking to piano. He said he was going to play in the style of the 19th century because it feels like we're in the 19th century, and he even made up a few lines to a song involving robber barons, the KKK, and the game of Monopoly, as he stabbed at various keyboard-bearing instruments.

He started the set proper with a call for requests, and in a move that surprised me, he went straight to the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." I attend fewer of Jon's shows these days, but I feel that the Beatles haven't been part of the rotation during my last few visits, though I always welcome their inclusion. As he often does with crowd favorites, he asked us to sing along, and overall, we delivered nicely, including on the more ethereal parts. It's a ton of fun as a fan.

Jon moved over to the electric guitars and remained on the request train. I'll include the setlist below, but be warned: Many of the titles were only snippets, a lick here and there. "Barracuda" was one such morsel, though Nick Lowe's classic track got a longer airing, complete with guitar buzz and some Les Paul-style fingerpicking.

Jon returned to the piano and warmed up the video decks, bringing out clips of Andres Segovia and Maria Callas. He may have been warming up, as neither added a ton to his eventual performance of "Strings That Tie to You" until he worked in a vocal punch from Maria at the very end. Her contribution didn't follow the blueprint of the song, but if you think of Jon's shows as a laboratory, you might see how it elevates the emotion, especially if you consider that the song is part of the soundtrack for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

It was back to requests for "Sloop John B," and Jon even commended the guy for trying again when Jon didn't bite at first. Once more, he asked us to sing, and because this was Los Angeles, a good portion of the audience not only knew the words, but delivered them pretty well. Kudos to that crew!

By now it was clear that Jon was working directly from our requests instead of operating on his own agenda. Fortunately, that included some of his own songs, so off he went to the drums to lay down the rhythm for "I Believe She's Lying." Odds are Jon can loop a song using dental floss and a paper clip, but I have no problem confessing that given a preference, I'd request that the drum kit be included at every show at Largo.

We once again went into requests/snippets territory with the Buggles, the Smiths, the Zombies, and Abba. Someone tried to request "Monster Mash," which Jon acknowledged. I tossed in one of my annual holiday requests ("Bela Lugosi's Dead"), which elicited a laugh, though not a performance. I yelled out for XTC too, but alas, Jon didn't go there either.

He did apologize for a few moments of "Stairway to Heaven" -- it was that kind of a night -- but went gung-ho for "All the Young Dudes," and again, the audience came through. In a previous Largo life, I recall a performer (Jon? Paul F. Tompkins?) alleging that we all wanted to hear it, but none of us knew any words other than the chorus. Tonight proved to be the rare exception, as the crowd knew at least a couple of verses. Of course we all roared out the chorus in unison and on key. To follow up, Jon gave us a little of the Casablanca theme.

Over to the drums again! It's always fun to guess at what he might be playing, and at first, I thought it would be "Happy With You," which I hadn't heard in a while. But after the second set of loops, I realize it was another song: his own "Get Over Yourself." I'm not crazy about that tune, but I appreciate that he can do a rocker every now and then, not just lovely waltzes (as much as I adore them).

I didn't take extensive notes on this, but Jon went into "Purple Rain" next -- I'm assuming on guitar only, no drums, though I could be wrong. In truth, he didn't sing it at all, aside from the "oooh oooh"s toward the end, instead playing only those immense guitar chords. It was still pretty amazing.

Jon wanted a closer, but I'm not sure we helped much because he went with "Telegram Sam," which I didn't recall hearing among the requests. He did set down some drums for the tune to accompany the guitar, but it was a little tough on his voice, for whatever reason.

Then he dove back into request world, with a lick or two of a bunch of popular songs. My setlist notes "Tom Petty" because it went too fast and the room was too dark for me to attempt anything deeper. I did the best I could with the rest.

"Jump" started out as a joke (maybe in Van Halen's world too?), and Jon even remarked that he would not attempt nor did he expect us to know any of the words. But it got such a huge reception from the audience that Jon gave it a second go, complete with drums and the song's signature synth sounds. It probably helps that "Jump" is entirely of my generation, but I thought it was hella fun.

Jon Brion"Don't Fear the Reaper" was more of a flirtation than a performance, but the next tune offered full commitment. Jon returned to the drum kit and requested that the staff dim the lights all the way down. In the darkness, he unveiled -- ta da -- glow-in-the-dark drumsticks! I guess they were his nod to Halloween, but from my seat, they looked not unlike lightsabers, especially as he started bashing away on an even bigger treat: the Beatles' "The End."

The song was more of an opportunity to play out the drum solo and launch into even more covers, including my beloved "When Doves Cry," along with "Hot Blooded," "Hot Legs," the Cars, Cream, Nirvana, and Patsy Cline. When he circled back to the Beatles, he flipped on the video decks again to air Leon Theremin, Percy Grainger, and Eric Clapton, among others.

Overall, it was a crowd-pleasing set, but through the entirety, Jon was in great spirits and didn't seem to mind catering to us (even if my requests didn't land). It's hard to imagine that anyone left without a smile on their face.

And for those playing at home, the baseball game was in the 16th inning when Jon finished up. What a night!

Setlist
-- piano
-- A Day in the Life
-- Barracuda/Peace, Love, and Understanding
-- Strings That Tie to You
-- Sloop John B
-- I Believe She's Lying
-- Video Killed the Radio Star
-- How Soon Is Now/This Will Be Our Year/Dancing Queen/Stairway to Heaven
-- All the Young Dudes
-- As Time Goes By
-- Get Over Yourself
-- Purple Rain
-- Telegram Sam
-- Cherry Bomb/Tom Petty/Sea of Love/I Want Candy
-- Jump
-- Don't Fear the Reaper
-- The End
-- When Doves Cry
-- Hot Blooded/Hot Legs/My Best Friend's Girl/Peter Gunn/Sunshine of Your Love/Crazy/The End