Sunday, May 22, 2016

when u love somebody

Reunions, remakes, reboots -- they're a simple fact of life these days. I'm not crazy about them, but I'm glad I have a choice. Reunions, in particular, make me feel my age, but some are not subject to debate. Thus, there was no hesitation to get to the Fruit Bats, now reassembled.

Fruit Bats, the Independent, May 19, 2016: This is how much I love the Fruit Bats: I went to Eric Johnson's solo show, though I had no idea what to expect. The Fruit Bats are responsible for one of my favorite records of all time, Mouthfuls, and it arrived during a particularly music-heavy era for me. A friend recently posted a reminder of us all on AIM, listening to Mouthfuls and chatting away when we weren't flying and driving to see shows with each other. Oh, the Aughts! It was a good run.

As far as reunions go, Fruit Bats didn't exactly light up the headlines like LCD Soundsystem, but I'm glad they're back (with a decidedly less dodgy reasoning). It appears the Ruminant Band is supporting him again, so they obviously have the chemistry and teamwork under their belts. The shared experience was apparent from the sweet harmonies they added to Eric's already charming melodies.

As mentioned above, Mouthfuls is my favorite, and this show confirmed a suspicion: I like the Fruit Bats a lot better live than I do on record. Obviously, this comes down to personal preference, but their records don't hold my attention, whereas their live representation is all I want in a band, delivering great tunes, voices, musicianship, and energy. They didn't disappoint at all in that regard.

To my ears, Fruit Bats have always been folk music at its core, with a bit of production thrown in. Maybe it's my bias, but now that they're based on the West Coast, I hear so much more of the Laurel Canyon vibe. That's not bad news at all, and in fact, it's still as sweet as ever. When you have Eric's voice, you don't need to do a whole lot to pretty it up.

Fruit Bats, the Independent, May 19, 2016

However, I noticed one big change. Perhaps due to last year's tour with My Morning Jacket, the audience is livelier and more invested than I recall from the last outing. They knew a ton of the songs, and they let the band know it. That has to be a huge lift for the musicians. I hope it carries over for the rest of the tour and beyond.

Alas, the only downside to this revival is the fact that Mouthfuls tends to get left off the setlist. Granted, I know it's been [checks Google] 13 years since its release, but I can name several fantastic tracks from the record, and only one was played. That track was "When U Love Somebody," of course, as the finale. The records that came after Mouthfuls, including the new one, were well represented, but as an old-timer, I would love to hear "Rainbow Sign" (and others).

Before I sign off, I'll repeat again the story of seeing Fruit Bats at Bottom of the Hill approximately 100 [checks Google] 13 years ago, when they played to a small crowd composed of many friends and probably a handful of fans. I'm going to dream of that version of "Purple Rain" for a long time. If Eric ever wants to record it, I'll be the first to download it.

Fruit Bats, Bottom of the Hill, 11-11-03

See also:
» the cub who washed out in the flood
» she couldn't dance but she wanted to
» waiting for the rainbow sign

Thursday, May 05, 2016

i was dreamin' when i wrote this

This will be the only Jon Brion show I get to for the first half of the year, and right now, it's hard to say when I'll be back. But I'm glad to say I chose a good one, even if entirely by coincidence!

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, April 29, 2016: If I suffer FOMO over anything, it's Largo shows, and the sparse reports indicated I missed lovely moments this year, notably after the death of David Bowie. Alas, I can't make them all, so I treasure the ones I can attend, no matter what the evening holds.

Like I said, I don't know what happens at Largo from month to month anymore, so maybe this is a common occurrence. But the opening of the show hearkened to the past and could've been a whole night's entertainment in itself, as Griffee introduced Tom Brousseau. As he explained, growing up in North Dakota, they filled their days with music, and if you've ever heard him, you can only say it was time well spent. Tom's voice is so pure -- I kind of imagine he could be transported to any era in history, and his vocals could take on nearly any native tune presented to him. What a kickoff!

Next, Flanny and Jon emerged, and the former took time out to draw our attention to the chair onstage. It was a simple metal chair, backed in light blue leather (pleather?) and adorned with the NBC logo. He asked us if we understood its significance and even struck an iconic pose to jog our memories, but no one in the relatively light crowd seemed to have an answer. Flanny filled us in: They were from the Elvis comeback special, which aired on NBC in 1968. Apparently Jon's friend worked in the studio where they had been housed and was ready to throw them out. Instead Jon (and Flanny?) claimed them. With that, Jon planted his "pink cheeks" (Flanny's phrase) and officially took the stage.



Speaking of the stage, it was as minimal as I'd ever seen it: only three acoustic guitars and two microphones, in addition to the mic placed next to the piano. That was it. Later, we heard that Jon had tried to set up his usual gear, but for whatever reason, it didn't work out.

Before he played a note (OK, maybe he tried to tune a key or two), Jon told a story about the legendary Glyn Johns (father of Ethan and producer of ton of records you love) Dumpster diving at a studio and retrieving master tapes of a few albums he had worked on. The moral of the story: If you are in the vicinity of a renowned studio, check the trash cans.

The music began on the piano, as Jon teased out his usual exercise tracks. I think I heard the Pink Panther theme, but I know for sure he landed on "Punch-Drunk Melody." He followed up with a handful of TV theme songs, smiling all along.

You could probably pin the official start of the show as "Ruin My Day," followed by "Someone to Watch Over Me," which began almost in the abstract but eventually made its way to an uptempo bridge. I don't know how often Jon plays the song these days, but it's a beauty, especially when he's in one of his better moods.

Jon hit the guitars for "It Looks Like You" -- can you believe it's been a jillion years since he wrote this song with Evan Dando? Anyway, he threw in a few ad-lib lines ("It walks like you/It talks like you") toward the end, and I couldn't stop smiling myself.

As Jon himself noted, the spirit of Elvis reached out to him from the chair, and he hit a couple of the man's songs, complete with the era-appropriate level of reverb. Jon stayed on the guitar for "Love of My Life So Far." I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I kinda prefer the acoustic treatment for some of Jon's songs; they tend to be more concise when he doesn't have a pile of pedals to mess with.

It was back to the piano for "Happy With You" and that newish song about getting married and having children. I still don't like the latter, but at least it was better paced this time. Jon went into another piano medley before settling into a couple more of his originals. Some of these selections had come from audience requests, and for his last song of this portion, he halfway entertained us and himself with a Fats Waller song that I couldn't name for the life of me.

Jon returned to the guitars and tuned for a bit before he started playing a beautiful song, with gorgeous touches. It was breezy and folksy, and I was already in love with it. In fact, it sounded reminiscent of Wilco, though I couldn't put my finger on it until long after the show.

It was not Wilco at all -- in fact, it was the highlight of the evening: a completely reworked version of Prince's "1999," in a totally different cadence, tone, probably notes. Back in the day, Jon urged us to listen to the artist's original works and not his covers when a beloved musician passed. I think he's revised that policy over the years, probably to the joy of most of us in the audience. In fact, I felt a flood of emotion as soon as I recognized the song, and it was great to hear, honoring the man while not slavishly aping him. (By the way, the song it brought to mind: Wilco's "What Light.")

Despite the nod to Prince's untimely passing, Jon was in a great mood all night. Thus, he hopped over to the piano again for "Play the Game" and responded to someone's request for an old, old song -- like, from a century ago. Voila, we heard a few classics before Jon got to Randy Newman's nod to the past.

Jon once more asked for requests, but didn't do much with our suggestions. Then a British voice rang out. I didn't recognize him at first, but others did, including Jon himself. It was Robyn Hitchcock, who had been taking in the show from the seats. Of course Jon brought him up for a bunch of tunes, including Robyn's request for "Purple Haze."

If you've ever seen the two of them together, you know their banter darts back and forth. Robyn urged Jon to play it any way he liked, which turned out to be in the style of Thelonius Monk. I honestly can't read my notes for the song, so use your imagination. However, I can dutifully report Robyn played a few more of his songs, by special request from Jon. Bravo on the suggestion of "Queen Elvis" -- which I too have asked of other Largo guests. Great minds!

Of course, Jon accompanied Robyn on piano and backing vocals as needed. For the final song, Jon asked Robyn to do a new track, anything he's been working on. Robyn replied that Jon's superpower is his ability to know the chords before anyone else, and duh, he was right. As Robyn played this heretofore unknown song, Jon felt out the notes and eventually dug into the meat of the melody. Because he can.

For the final song, we went with Jon's safety track, guaranteed to bring the room together: "God Only Knows." It works every time.

The noncapacity crowd managed to convince Jon to come back for an encore, though I have to admit it was one of the weaker calls I've heard at Largo. Jon and Robyn treated us to "More Than This," but the true treasure was a story related to the song: something about Jon and Flanny traveling in France, then meeting Robyn in at a seaside spot in Northern Italy, where Robyn played the entirety of Avalon to what Jon characterized as "the gulls." To top it off, they had a great lunch together.

For the final track in the big room, Jon said, "Fuck it," and rolled out "Happiness" in one of the more upbeat versions I've heard. It's hard to hear this song and not think of the loss associated with it, and I imagine recent events (along with the night's requests) led him to the selection. Even remembering it now, I have the tune in my head again, and it probably won't leave for several days.

Wait, there's more! A couple of dozen people stuck around in the Little Room, for a live taping of the Live From High Fidelity podcast. You can listen for yourself (and maybe hear me!) when the podcast is released, but I'll fill in a couple of details we saw with our own eyes. Per show protocol, Jon chose his vinyl track, but while the song played, he mimed along and pointed out the very elements he had singled out in his explanation of the tune. And in the course of Tom DeSilva's and Eric Gorfain's selections, Jon visibly drank them in. If you listen to the podcast, you may even get your own mini education on studio life and session players. It was true music nerd world, and I loved it.

One more aside: You may or may not have heard that Jon and Eric are responsible for strings on the Beyonce's new record. I don't plan to purchase it, so maybe someone else can supply the liner notes. I actually meant to ask about it, but I didn't have to. As Jon steered Eric to singling out a track, emphasizing the use and application of strings in a pop context, none other than Flanny himself could be heard yelling "Beyonce!" from the back of the room. I take that as confirmation.

Sometime not long before 2 am, we left the bar, not unlike the old days on Fairfax.

Setlist
Tom Brousseau opener
-- My Texas Girl
-- A Wildcat Woman and a Tomcat Man
-- Rope Stretchin' Blues Part 1
-- I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire
-- Light of the World

-- piano (Pink Panther theme/Punch-Drunk Love)
-- Mr. Rogers Neighborhood/Adams Family theme/Peanuts theme/Christmastime Is Here
-- Ruin My Day
-- Someone to Watch Over Me
-- Looks Like You
-- I Want You, I Love You, I Need You
-- My Baby Left Me
-- Happy With You
-- newish song
-- piano (Incense and Peppermint/Peter Gunn/Rhapsody in Blue)
-- Strangest Times
-- Knock Yourself Out
-- Fats Waller song
-- 1999
-- Play the Game
-- A Bicycle Built for Two/Scott Joplin song
-- Dayton, Ohio 1903
-- Purple Haze *
-- Raymond Chandler Evening *
-- Queen Elvis *
-- My Eyes Have Seen the Trolley Bus *
-- God Only Knows

encore
-- More Than This *
-- Happiness

Little Room
-- Somewhere Over the Rainbow
-- Ain't Misbehavin'

* = with Robyn Hitchcock

See also:
» blue christmas
» i'm happy, hope you're happy too
» lost inside adorable illusion
» simple twist of fate

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

rejoice to the skies

Spring is here, and with it comes an uptick in touring. Personally, I'm not taking full advantage of the concert schedule, but the Big Star's Third reprise was notable enough to warrant a night out.

Big Star's Third, the Fillmore, April 24, 2016Big Star's Third, the Fillmore, April 24, 2016: Fun fact: After you hear "Thirteen," it's impossible to not sing it to yourself for the next few days. It's science!

Truth be told, I might not have ventured out if Paul hadn't come to town for the show, but it doesn't take a lot to convince me to hear pretty voices and awesome musicians play songs by Big Star. The early question was why the band had come back together. They had put together a couple of shows last fall, and it's not like the setlist was going to change much, nor had many new faces joined the roster. The answer became clearer when the L.A. date was announced. This would be the dress rehearsal, albeit without a couple of big names.

About those names: Many of the usual suspects returned, including Chris Stamey and Jody Stephens (of course). Much of the same crew returned from last fall's appearance, Mike Mills, Pat Sansone, Chuck Prophet, and the Kronos Quartet among them. A new face (or at least one I don't remember) was Mitch Easter. REM fans can probably wax much poetic about him than I can, but it's no exaggeration to say his hair alone enjoyed '80s indie rock icon status. Though he looks nothing like that these days, he can still play the guitar -- and he was the only person onstage to sport anything close to formal wear.

I caught only the set at Hardly Strictly last year, so I don't know what the normal show is like, but more experienced ears tell me the ensemble reversed the usual order of events. Instead of going into the advertised record, they began with the one-off tunes -- not that I can tell you the setlist for either night. But let's say Pat Sansone helped kick off the proceedings, and what do you know? He made his way to a solo song for the encore too.

In between, we got all the expected tracks and some new tunes sung by new voices. Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo was one of the new additions, and they eventually convinced Georgia Hubley to join them. I don't even remember what they sang, except Ira picked up the hair dryer for one song. Speaking of sound effects, Mike Mills took care of the basketball again.

Big Star's Third, the Fillmore, April 24, 2016

Now that we weren't in the middle of a field, the finer details came through. Jody, a true gentleman, exuded Southern charm, and Mitch Easter was second only to Chris Stamey as an all-purpose player. Th Kronos Quartet might've benefited the most from this proper setting -- that is, their contributions rung out, which I kind of missed at the Arrow Stage. Strangely, Chuck Prophet wasn't much of a presence until the very end, when he finally stepped up the main mic. Oh, and we did quite well on not biting on the fake ending of "Holocaust." (Full disclosure: We were warned.)

But the constants stayed strong, notably "Thirteen" and "Thank You Friends," but it would take a ton of questionable decisions and a deficit of talent to detract from those songs. The encores felt somewhat ramshackle, and in fact, the whole show was endearingly ragged. We imagine they'll edit out the pauses for the final release. Maybe someday they'll realize they already have the perfect closer in "Thank You Friends" and mix up the rest of the song order to lead down that path. Regardless of the final setlist, the songs remain among the all-time classics, and that alone is good reason to listen to these players. I wanna thank you again!

See also:
» i'm so grateful