Monday, December 28, 2015

i'll be a rock 'n' rolling bitch for you

To mark my 11th occasion of seeing Jon Brion's Christmas show at Largo, everything was back to normal. That is, seats were claimed, friends were greeted, baked goods were presented. All was right in the world -- and to all a good night!

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 18, 2015: The annual Week Before Xmas in Los Angeles went well, with my third visit to Doug Loves Movies' 12 Guests of Christmas (thanks again to the kindness of strangers with extra tickets). The only slight downside: Since Christmas fell on a Friday, Jon's show was earlier than usual, which meant I couldn't take in the Watkins Family Hour or Largo's usual end-of-year treats. Still, I made it to the two marquee events.

Upon entry, you could see Jon's ultraspare setup: the always present piano, a few chairs, and a couple of microphones. I don't think a guitar showed up until Jon took the stage. But before we got to Jon's entrance, Flanny brought out a surprise guest: one Zach Galifianakis! As I understand it, Zach drops in at Largo from time to time, even now that he's a movie star, but his appearances are rarities and treats when they happen. He tried out a very short set, then made way for the headliner.

For the first several tracks, Jon stuck to the piano for maybe an improvised song, and even "Punch-Drunk Melody" started out with a long, wandering lead-up before it landed on the tune we know and love. "Ruin My Day" was the first straightforward tune of the night before Jon went back to another song I can't ID. However, I can report he threw his full body into it, with his feet keeping the time and responding to the notes.

Thus ended the first piano portion of the evening. Jon's shows have always evolved, even during his time at Fairfax, but in my opinion, his shows at the Coronet have become more populist. I don't mean that in a snobby way, but with a wider swath of fans to please, he sometimes goes for jokier moves. He's always tuned to "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window" and "If I Only Had a Brain," but they both became legitimate numbers tonight and garnered giggles and smiles. In the first nod to the season, he then went into a little bit of "Jingle Bell Rock" in a semi-fingerpicking style, before delving into "Nothing Between Us." I often request this oldie from Jon's catalog, so I was glad he got to it himself. Also, that might've been the first time I've heard it on acoustic guitar.

Jon asked for Sebastian Steinberg to join him, but Sebastian took longer than expected to arrive. In the meantime, Jon punched out a very fast version of "I Believe She's Lying." Speaking of, not going to lie -- I think I prefer the acoustic version of the song because it doesn't drag along excessively.

Sebastian's official arrival began with Jon returning to the piano and the Peanuts Christmas theme, with Sebastian leading Jon through chord changes -- imagine that! I can't even guess at their seconds song, and I only list "Caravan" as the third tune because I heard them name it. "Caravan" was actually proceeded by Jon thinking aloud as he worked out the tempo and shifts to get to the performance he wanted. I didn't understand a word of it, but it was interesting to hear, and the final product was rollicking and well-paced. The duo finished up with three of Jon's own titles, including a request from our friend Sarah two seats down for "Here We Go."

The next friend due up was David Garza, who grabbed the guitar. They turned over the reins to him, and give him credit for trying to stick with the holiday theme. He went with "Blue Christmas," kind of honky-tonk style, complete with one of the most remarkable hand-offs I've seen between musicians. At Largo, you see all kinds of artists playing together and sharing the stage, making room for each other's solo turns and encouraging one another to get in a few bars. Sometimes they'll tap each other on the shoulder or nod their head in encouragement. This night, I saw David slowly shift to playing rhythm guitar, then Jon jump into his solo without so much as a glance between the two. I mean, maybe this happens all the time when you've been breathing each other's musical fumes for so long, but it struck me as the concert equivalent of a no-look pass, culminating in an alley-oop.

David next tried that delightful mashup of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Roxanne," but truth be told, he didn't carry it off as well as earlier performers. Give him points for the attempt, though, and for convincing Sara Watkins to join the group.

One Watkins was not enough, so Sean took his bow as well, his own guitar in hand. They hit a Dylan song, which was marked by Jon playing percussion on his Guinness glass, no piano at all, then a request brought up Jon's "Trouble," with Sara on vocals. Though we hardly needed the reminder, Sara's voice is indeed quite lovely and even preferable to Jon's, and her violin was a gorgeous standby for the synths on the official studio version. Great -- now that I'm listening to the original again, I'm painfully reminded of how badly I want a follow-up to Meaningless.

The next request brought "Beast of Burden," which I've heard the Largo crew do before, but it's always a ton of fun as each performer tries to out-camp one another with their best take on Mick Jagger. Jon gave it a shot, but David gave it everything else for maximum effect.

For Sean's tune, they chose a traditional title that's been covered by both Lyle Lovett and the Raconteurs apparently. Of course, I know this only because I Googled the lyrics -- there's no way I would've know that on my own.

Jon asked Sebastian to remain onstage for the last couple of tunes, requests for "Moonage Daydream" and "Since I've Been Loving You." Then it was Jon by himself for a long, languid take on "Moon River" and the encore/closer of "Happy With You."

The party continued in the Little Room, with the David and the Watkinses and special guest Gaby Moreno. Rumor had it Jon might join them, but we didn't stick around long enough to find out. Please feel free to drop me a line if you can add to the report.

See you in 2016.

Zach Galifianakis opener

-- piano
-- Punch-Drunk Melody
-- Ruin My Day
-- ???
-- How Much Is That Doggie in the Window
-- Jingle Bell Rock
-- Nothing Between Us
-- If I Only Had a Brain
-- I Believe She's Lying
-- Christmastime Is Here *
-- ??? *
-- Caravan *
-- Strangest Times
-- Knock Yourself Out
-- Here We Go
-- Blue Christmas **
-- Rudolph (You Don't Have to Put on Your Red Light) ***
-- From a Buick 6 ****
-- Trouble ****
-- Beast of Burden ****
-- Keep It Clean ****
-- Moonage Daydream *
-- Since I've Been Loving You/Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies *
-- Moon River
-- Happy With You

* = with Sebastian Steinberg
** = with Sebastian Steinberg and David Garza
*** = with Sebastian Steinberg, David Garza, and Sara Watkins
**** = with Sebastian Steinberg, David Garza, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins

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

Friday, December 11, 2015

winter wonderland

Can you believe it's December already? My concert year will end with two beloved perennials. First up: Aimee Mann's Christmas show, featuring Ted Leo, Liz Phair, Jonathan Coulton, and John Roderick at Bimbo's 365 Club.

Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, Bimbo's 365 Club, December 6, 2015Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, Bimbo's 365 Club, December 6, 2015: This show was going to be a good one long before the date and hour approached because I managed to convince the McCormicks to join me, despite their busy holiday schedules. It doesn't happen enough -- a lament many of us surely share as our priorities shift and the days fill up. Leave it to an awesome show to bring us together.

My records tell me this is the fifth Christmas show I've seen from Aimee Mann and friends. That sounds too low, and I might've missed a date or two during the leaner year(s). Regardless, it's always a highlight on my calendar, and I look forward to seeing what Aimee and company have cobbled together for the audience.

Aimee has created a general template for these shows: Lots of music of course, connected by a goofy storyline, with help from talented friends. The tunes generally stay the same, with an emphasis on Christmas songs, particularly the titles from Aimee's holiday album. "Calling on Mary" might've been the most serious song of the night; otherwise, even the classics felt airy and fun. The surprises come with the guests and the annual narrative -- but more on that later because it was kind of complicated.

I guess I should note that this was the second year Ted Leo has joined the show; it's basically the Both's Christmas special. If you've been to a Both show, you've heard some of it, including Ted's turn on "A Bottle of Buckie." They also reprised that supersad donkey song and another classic track -- but more on that later.

Liz Phair was the first guest of the evening, and she went directly into "Supernova," which she mentioned was kind of about a star (in reference to the one over Bethlehem, I guess). I haven't seen her in concert in ages, and wouldn't you know, she still looks amazing. The surprise for me: I think she's a better singer now. I think most of us will admit it was never her voice that drew us in on the early records, but she sounded pretty good, especially on the Yuletide tracks, which can be a real test on the vocals. Later in the evening, she delivered a holiday version of her "pop" hit "Why Can't I," with the lyrics rewritten to reference shopping, tinsel, and decorations. As I recall, Susanna Hoffs and "Walk Like an Egyptian" filled that role last year.

About a million years ago, I saw Jonathan Coulton accompany John Hodgman on a book tour. Little did I know Jonathan Coulton would carve out a following over the years -- though I had every confidence that John Hodgman would continue to thrive. Rereading the blog entry, I see that I got a good look at the Jonathan Coulton's act even in that small window. He's a fantastic wordsmith with a ton of humor, and my mind immediately went to They Might Be Giants. Honestly, he's not my preference, but his own Christmas song was pretty great, and he took on the very important non-gentile role for "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve."

John Roderick filled out the trio of guests, and he assumed the coveted role of the Grinch in the annual reading. He took a fair amount of stick from Aimee for not rehearsing before the show and forgetting the cadence of his own song -- not to mention he seemed a little toasty toward the end. Hey, every holiday party has one, right?

Now back to this year's premise: Aimee and Ted addressed the elections their own way, with a yarn about Santa's term limits and the North Pole polls. In the process, Ted revealed his political aspirations and a secret identity. Aimee too dropped her own bombshell about past dalliances, and Jonathan Coulton had the biggest reveal of all, capped off with an Andrew Lloyd Webber number.

To tell you the truth, the premise was a little sweaty, especially compared to years past, but I loved watching the banter between Aimee and Ted. I suspect all the time they spend with comedians and improvisers has paid off. It's not like they were reading from a Teleprompter, but their exchange never sounded anything less than natural and convincingly on cue.

I've probably said this before, but my favorite fruits of the Aimee-Ted musical union is the "Voices Carry" revival. I don't think I can overstate how much I loved this song both then and now, and I knew it was coming as soon as Aimee strapped on the bass -- though I probably could've guessed at it as soon as this tour was announced. However, not content to play it as is, they toyed with it and penned an entirely new premise. Maudie mentioned that Jonathan Coulton may have lent his ear for lyrics to the troupe, and I wouldn't doubt it. But no matter who contributed, the rewrite on "Voices Carry" was inspired and hilarious. If Aimee and Ted ever decide to leave this songwriting thing, I bet they could punch up scripts around Hollywood.

They're the best thing to happen to the holidays since the Rankin-Bass productions, and as with Rankin-Bass, I hope they're back every year. It's a tradition worth celebrating.

See also:
» 2006: it's not going to stop
» 2007: unless you hate baby jesus
» 2008: if there's a star above
» 2014: here comes the jackpot question in advance
» "A woman lives here who is fond of triangles."

Thursday, November 05, 2015

you old so and so

Here we go.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, October 30, 2015: I've said it before, but it bears repeating. If I had all the time and resources in the world, I'd attend every Jon Brion show I could. As this was my birthday weekend, I figured I could squeeze in a trip. And what do you know? Everything worked out: Friends were present, (almost) favorite seats were reserved, and of course, music flowed. I didn't even have to blow out the candles and make a wish.

As I mentioned in my last Jon Brion post, Largo continues to evolve and change, and tonight, the first detail that jumped out at me was the setup. It wasn't the bare-bones arrangement that dominated for at least a year, but the drum kit was still missing. However, a handful of electric guitars occupied a spot, and the Leslie cabinet was ready and miked. The right-hand corner of the stage featured a half-dozen acoustic guitars and an overhead mic. Equipment nerds will have to seek out a better authority than me. I couldn't tell you the exact terminology, except it always reminds me of those old shots of the Beatles at Abbey Road studios.

Abbey Road

Flanny offered a short intro, and Jon followed immediately, decked in a gray suit. Early indicators suggested he was in a good mood, which is always a welcome sight. Though he carried a guitar onstage, he went to the piano first, as is his wont. The finger exercises began, and I thought I heard a touch of Randy Newman in the instrumental work. Perhaps it was there, but in truth, I wouldn't have had a clue what he actually played if not for his ID at the end: "I Must Have That Man," complete with Jon's hearty endorsement.

From one queen to another, Jon next landed on "Lady Stardust," which I knew without any hints. I gotta admit -- because of the sheer volume of amazing tracks on Ziggy Stardust, I didn't pay a ton of attention to this song in the first 20-odd years I owned the record, as much as I loved the album as a whole. But attendance at Largo has highlighted the brilliance of both "Lady Stardust" and "Moonage Daydream" -- as if they need a boost. Listening with a new set of ears, you fully understand why it's a favorite for artists everywhere. It's a classic portrait of the performer's life from its humblest beginnings.

Finally, we got a Jon original with "Here We Go." At one point in my life, I felt compelled to listen to this song several times each day, and my appreciation has not lessened, even if the repeat count has dipped. I've sometimes complained on this blog about Jon's lyrical patterns (aa/bb, ab/ab, and so on), but sometimes it works, and boy howdy, "Here We Go" might be the best example in Jon's catalog. The lyrics are so straightforward, yet so sincere. It probably helps that it's paired with one of the most elegant sound beds Jon has ever written. It's a perfect song, no two ways about it, and it was thoughtful of Jon to play it on his own accord, thus relieving us of the burden of the formal request.

If you've heard this song live, you've undoubtedly perked up at the tickle of piano that kicks off the tune. It beckons and hooks and pulls you in, and on this night, I realized what else it signifies: It's the musical embodiment of the butterflies in your stomach before a big moment, when you don't know whether to throw up and/or jump out of your skin. Here we go, indeed.

In the days since the show, I've been listening to the studio version of the song on a loop again, and I've been surprised to learn those treasured notes are not as prominent in the sanctioned recording. It's all over the live rendition, so if you must hear it, drop me a note, and I may be able to hook you up. *wink*

Update: Oh shit, it's on YouTube!

"Strangest Times" followed in a wordless, jazzy version, and thus ended the first piano segment of the evening. On to the guitars!

Jon picked up an acoustic Epiphone and unfurled a long intro. I wondered if (1) he was getting a feel for the instrument or (2) he was simply working his way into a song. Eventually, "It Looks Like You" poured out, in an intimate-sounding reading and with an extended outro. Granted, it's been a while since I've heard the song performed, but I think it was one of my favorite versions in a long time. Regarding the aforementioned radio mic: It was yet another moment I wish I could take photos at Largo. Jon was perfectly framed, planted firmly in the chair while simultaneously stretching up the microphone for those cooing notes. I hope Lincoln got a shot!

Jon adjusted the light to shine on his notebook for a newish song. Earlier in the evening, Jon had commented on David Bowie's gift for writing midtempo rockers, and this one definitely qualified for the category. I liked it -- the song kicked along at a good pace, and I enjoyed the overall progression of verses. I look forward to repeat airings.

By the way, Jon's first turn on guitar offered a surprising glimpse at the crowd. First of all, sitting nearly front and center was another fan taking notes. Honey, if you're reading this, drop me a line and we can discuss outlining strategies. Would you believe my JB gig journal kinda looks like long division? Also, the note-taker's companion (?) appeared to be asleep during the set. That's cool -- I'm pretty sure some of my friends (who will remain nameless) have done the same.

Onward! A fellow (a new regular, if I'm not mistaken) sitting a couple of seats down from us was clearly prepared for the first call for requests, as he bellowed "I Believe She's Lying" with no hesitation. Jon went for the 12-string, and to be honest, I don't have any other notes on this track. Alas, my favorite Halloween request ("Bela Lugosi's Dead") once again went nowhere, but at least I tried. Also, it turned out this would be Jon's last turn for the night on acoustic guitar.

Instead, he headed back to the piano for "Over Our Heads," delivered without any synths whatsoever -- not typical. However, he soon fired up the electronics, fiddling with a synthesizer and a beat machine, along with the MicroKorg and the Chamberlin. I had to laugh aloud when I finally realized his choice: "People Are People" by Depeche Mode. I especially loved how he worked in Martin Gore's portion (that lighter, ethereal lift if you're unfamiliar with the tune). This is not the first time I've heard Jon do this song, but I'm always amused when he covers titles from my junior high years.

Depeche Mode was only the beginning as Jon launched into one of the stream-of-consciousness medleys he does so well. I caught Beethoven -- but only because the man sitting next to me commented on it. Stephanie said it was "Rite of Spring"? She also said the next tune was something along the lines of "Popcorn," but I'm sure she'll clarify in the comments below. I for sure caught "Funkytown," a longtime favorite at Jon's shows, then he went into a song I don't know, and he wrapped up with "Walking Through Walls," complete with a nice synth complement under the piano and Jon's feet providing the rhythm track. Again, it's been a while since I've heard this, but this sounded fresh again to me and Jon eschewed the sometimes overlong treatment. It too may have been my favorite performance of it in a while.

Jon picked up the black and white Gretsch for his sole electric track of the night. He went heavy and fuzzy for "She's At It Again," one of his original tunes. It's not like I need to be reminded that Jon is fantastic on guitar, but it doesn't hurt to get the memo from time to time. However, the song might've gone a bit too long for my liking, especially when the piano tunes never felt too far extended at any point.

Jon asked for requests again and went with "Short People," albeit asking for our participation. I don't know this song very well, and as we soon discovered, neither did most of the audience. However, from my seat, I could hear one guy with a solid hold on the song, and this being Los Angeles, he had pretty good pipes too. At least the rest of us knew to join in on the refrain.

Jon was committed to the singalong, particularly multipart harmonies, so we next tried the BeeGees' "How Deep Is Your Love." Mere notes into the song, Jon stopped to remark that only women appeared to know the tune, so we switched to what he called a "girl key." In our early days in the United States, my family owned a handful of records, and like all good Americans (and resident aliens) at the time, that included the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and I listened to it all the time. Unfortunately, I don't remember most of the lyrics anymore, but I contributed when I could. It also doesn't hurt to sit next to a degreed musicologist with a lovely voice and piggyback on her sweet tones.

To restore gender equilibrium, Jon led us to "God Only Knows" and we were golden again. I definitely like it best when we all sing together.

Jon took a quick break, then returned for an encore and asked the audience for a classic rock track. Someone in the middle requested the dreaded "Freebird," which Jon could not resist. Without realizing it, I let out an "oh no," and because of my proximity to the stage, Jon immediately responded, "Oh yeah" -- and away we went. Honestly, I don't know the song very well, so it's not quite as loathsome to me, but I hate it as a cliche. However, Jon treated it with all the seriousness he poured into the Billie Holiday opener, as he played with the mellotron and the MicroKorg to build up the track. I hope the requester got his money's worth.

Jon closed with "Knock Yourself Out," as forthright and guileless as can be -- then bade us good night. This evening we saw no guests or pyrotechnics, but in fact, it might've been one of the most charming performances I've seen in a while. Let's do it again in a couple of months.

-- I Must Have That Man
-- Lady Stardust
-- Here We Go
-- Strangest Times
-- It Looks Like You
-- new song
-- I Believe She's Lying
-- Over Our Heads
-- People Are People/Beethoven/???/Funkytown/???/Walking Through Walls
-- She's at It Again
-- Short People
-- How Deep Is Your Love
-- God Only Knows

-- Freebird
-- Knock Yourself Out

See also:
» the subject now in question
» i go for it every time
» i'm younger than that now