Tuesday, December 24, 2019

man of the world

The great Oscar Wilde once said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” But guess what? Consistency also means you make friends in interesting places and occasionally reap the rewards of faithful patronage. Case in point: The last Jon Brion show of not only the year, but the decade.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 20, 2019

A couple of days before this show, Largo posted via its Instagram and Twitter accounts that Jon would welcome a special guest at this show. I registered the note but didn't think much of it. After all, I've been to enough of them to know that the guest could be just about anyone, and I come to see Jon. Everyone else is butter.

But not long after we arrived, we ran into another Largo regular, and she revealed the mystery. Neil Finn would be the guest tonight. You can't necessarily tell from this blog, but Neil is a longtime beloved performer. I was already a fan of Largo, but when I heard that Neil was starting to drop in for Jon's sets, I chalked up yet another reason to visit Los Angeles. My wish finally came true in 2004, when Neil guested at a Jon Brion show. I pretty much died that night, and fortunately, I managed to document the experience. Neil has continued to support Largo (and vice versa), but to be able to see him as an unannounced guest is a special treat.

But first, Jon's show! The stage was well stocked with the two video screens, a full drum kit, a mess of guitars, a Mellotron, and a Leslie cabinet.

Flanagan and Bobb Bruno emerged together -- Flanny looking like a young Kris Kringle from the Rankin-Bass Christmas classics, and Bobb offering silent moral support. Flanagan ran down a list of Jon's recent ailments (arm, leg, head), then brought the patient to the stage. For what it's worth, Jon looked fine, decked in a classic vintage outfit and carrying a pint of Guinness. So far, so good.

He started with a piano tune that's probably an actual composition and not simply noodling, but once again, I have to shrug because I rarely recognize any of the jazz standards. Fortunately, he soon went in on a couple of his own compositions. "Knock Yourself Out" was a mostly traditional interpretation on piano, and "Over Our Heads" was also fairly traditional (for Jon), with a vocoder and sampled feedback from inside the piano.

He asked for requests and decided on a mashup of "Moonage Daydream" in the Christmas style. The celeste mostly supplied the holiday effect, bringing to mind "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" at times. Not missing a beat, Jon continued to mess around on the EMS Synthi until he eventually coaxed out "Ashes to Ashes." Once again, the celeste came through for a tiny sprinkle of "Jingle Bells" amid the electronic angst.

With little fanfare, Jon yelled backstage and asked Neil if he felt like singing. Neil joined us posthaste, but he wasn't alone. Largo regular Sebastian Steinberg joined him, and what do you know? So did Mick Fleetwood! Yes, that Mick Fleetwood from that band that Neil has been touring with for the last year-plus. For those keeping score at home, yes, this was Mick's first appearance at Largo, and he made a hell of a debut.

They went immediately into one of Neil's classics, "I Got You." Neil managed to hit the mute pedal just as he was about to rock out, but no worries -- the bigger story was the fact that Mick was playing the shit out of the drums. You can take the rocker out of the stadium, but you can't take the stadium out of the rocker! They followed up with an old Peter Green song, for those who remember the pre-Buckingham Nicks era of Fleetwood Mac. Neil's voice remains one of my favorites, and he didn't disappoint this evening.

Neil left the stage, but Mick and Sebastian stayed to join Jon as an impromptu jazz combo. This happens at Largo a lot, as new acquaintances become partners and collaborators in real time. Once more, I'm completely useless when it comes to identifying the song or even the artists. The first one was rollicking as each musician settled into a groove. Jon was rocking in his seat, pulling the piano bench back and forth as he moved to the tune. Sebastian was an old pro, his focus evident as a longtime Largo fixture. The second song had a Jerry Lee Lewis vibe, and the third one was more languid at first. My stab in the dark is Fats Domino, but I'm sure that's way off. After the show, Flanny mentioned that one of the tunes was from Thelonious Monk, but I'd be hard-pressed to figure out which it was.

Mick, for his part, looked hugely invested as he worked the entire drum kit, his long arms hitting every inch of the drum kit. I loved watching him as he watched Jon for musical cues and perhaps more -- maybe to express his approval? Like I said, I've seen that look before, and it's a huge tell when world-renowned artists are clearly so happy to be in the Largo environment.

Here's a funny aside: It looked like Mick brought his own tech to the show. A man hung to the side of the stage and intently watched his every move. I believe he also collected Mick's drumsticks after every session.

Jon settled in alone for his "Please Stay Away From Me" and fired up the video machines and footage of Andres Segovia for "Strings That Tie to You," capped by an instrumental nod to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (No, I don't always need to hear the lyrics!)

But the solo spell was short-lived, as Jon brought Neil back out, this time accompanied by Liam Finn (to audible gasps from Evonne and me). Mick and Sebastian soon followed, and they settled into a Neil Young rock block. The first title, "After the Gold Rush," fell apart a little on the second verse, even though an audience member tried to help.

When they couldn't immediately figure out what to do as the second track, Jon took the lead to bring on "Only Love Will Break Your Heart," which was a lot kinder to everyone involved. It was pretty clear that Jon wasn't really in the mood for singing that night (perhaps related to the afflictions Flanny mentioned?), so it was a good thing that Neil was ready to man the mics. They finished up the Neil-on-Neil set (album idea!) with "Southern Man."

Neil asked for requests and finally opted for Crowded House songs, starting with an audience request for "Chocolate Cake," where Neil and Liam's complementary vocals jumped out. For "Private Universe," Liam moved to percussion, where he and Mick went with the double drummer setup that I love so much (see: early Adam and the Ants records) to great effect.

They came to a short impasse as Neil confessed he couldn't remember the old classics he and Jon have done so much at their combo shows. From the front row, I offered "Moon River," and Neil obliged. As someone who's attended several of their shows together and has listened to a numerous bootlegs, I can do this all day, but I was more than happy that they took up the one request.

To close Neil's portion of the show, Jon suggested "Four Seasons in One Day," and for his part, he played at first the Mellotron, then switched back to the piano for a sublime bridge on this always lovely song.

For the capper, Jon at first tickled some keys, and my heart skipped because I recognized it as Elliott Smith's "Happiness," which probably would've made me cry in my seat. But instead, he fired up the beat machine and opted for another favorite. With Sebastian Steinberg and Paul Cartwright, they coaxed out "More Than This." I will never object to it.

And he threw in a few notes of "Jingle Bells" on celeste for good measure. Happy holidays and have yourself a great new decade!

Setlist
Flanny and Bobb Bruno intro

-- piano
-- Knock Yourself Out
-- Over Our Heads
-- Christmas Moonage Daydream
-- Ashes to Ashes

w/ Neil Finn, Mick Fleetwood, and Sebastian Steinberg
-- I Got You
-- Man of the World

w/ Mick Fleetwood, and Sebastian Steinberg
-- mystery song 1
-- mystery song 2
-- mystery song 3

-- Please Stay Away from Me
-- Strings That Tie to You/Somewhere Over the Rainbow

w/ Neil Finn, Liam Finn, Mick Fleetwood, and Sebastian Steinberg
-- After the Gold Rush
-- Only Love Will Break Your Heart
-- Southern Man
-- Chocolate Cake
-- Private Universe
-- Moon River
-- Four Seasons in One Day
-- Moon River

-- More Than This

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
» on such a winter's day

Monday, December 23, 2019

you shouldn't be faint about it

Amid all the holiday season hubbub, I almost forgot we had a Friday the 13th in December this year. What better way to tempt fate than with Robyn Hitchcock's return to Largo at the Coronet?

Robyn Hitchcock, Largo at the Coronet, December 13, 2019


No surprise that I decided to attend this show on the promise of the "Robyn and Friends" billing. Though I try to temper my expectations, I hold out hope that a beloved figure or two will show up. Stay tuned to see if they do.

Robyn emerged in a flowery shirt on a minimalist stage, though the three mic stands hinted at the personnel to come. He explained that the show would be broken up into two segments separated by a brief intermission. He said a whole lot more, to be honest, but I can't remember the sequence or most of the banter. I'll try to cover some of it later, but for now, I can report that he went straightaway into "Balloon Man," perhaps his most notable stateside hit. In fact, he played a bunch of Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians songs during this performance, perhaps in preparation for the upcoming performance of Eye at the Chapel in San Francisco for his birthday in March. Who can blame him? It's a landmark record with some of his greatest songs, and we want to hear it.

Not long ago, I realized that Robyn may be the through line connecting much of the American music I love the most: Wilco, Gillian Welch, Grant Lee Phillips, and Jon Brion, to name a few. (In fact, he opened three shows with Wilco in Chicago shortly after the Largo date.) A little internet research turns up a reasonable explanation: He was a huge influence on REM, and in return, they championed him among their fans at their peak popularity, not only playing on his records but also touring with him. It's no stretch to imagine that the young musicians listening to REM would turn their ears to Robyn as well.

I mention this because I think it helps explain my evolution as a Robyn fan. Granted, Robyn has a ton of die-hard fans who can recite his discography backward and forward. I'm not one of them, but I've come to fully appreciate his influence on at least one corner of the American indie landscape. Even during my Anglophile years, his music more investment than the shiny pop hits of the day, though they often had incredible hooks and melodies. A friend once told me that I'll get Dylan when the time is right. (This has yet to happen.) I guess the time has arrived for me and Robyn, now that I've seen him in concert umpteen times.

Robyn talked a lot during the show, though I can't say if it was more or less than usual. The banter that stuck out the most was all geography based, as he shared his experiences living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, while growing more distant from England. He had a great bit about being in school with Brian Eno, in the same way that he was in England at the same time as Winston Churchill. That is, their schedules happened to coincide. Any true connection was imaginary.

Unsurprisingly, the sublime "Madonna of the Wasps" was a highlight of the show and reminded me that I had caught Robyn's birthday tribute at the Fillmore a few years back. Drawing from that cast, Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats joined Robyn and Emma Swift for a couple of songs ("Trams of Old London," "Ole Tarantula") to end the main set. I'm not sure if Eric has played Largo before, but it's always a please to see another artist join the fold.

Robyn took to the piano for the encore, banging out three of his biggest influences: Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon. I'm forever a fan of the Lennon track ("God"). Robyn went entirely traditional on the tune, not ad-libbing any lyrics. As much as Robyn likes to chit chat, this show might've been one of the better spotlights on his music I've seen in a while. My appreciation has only deepened. Until next time (and there certainly will be a next time)!

See also:
» i was a new york doll

Saturday, November 09, 2019

just what i needed

It took a while, but I finally pulled the trigger on a SoCal trip to see my favorites. As it turned out, it wasn't a bad time at all to see Jon Brion at Largo at the Coronet.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, October 25, 2019

I've actually been in SoCal for a bunch of things this year, but strangely, none has been a Jon Brion show. On a relatively late whim, I decided to pull the trigger and come back to my home away from home.

Of course, I have no idea if Jon's favored the spare or the loaded stage recently, but tonight's setup was stark: all of four guitars and a couple of keyboards. I'm up for all of it, but I have to admit I'm a little relieved some times when the video screens aren't up. I appreciate the glimpse they give us into Jon's creative process, but mostly I want to hear the magic delivered directly from his touch.

Per usual, Flanny introduced Jon, but in his stead, Zach Galifianakis emerged from the side entrance, walked across the stage without a word, and sat down at the piano, where he played freeform for a minute or two. Jon showed up soon after and tapped him on the shoulder. With about equal fuss, he left the stage. Jon picked up where the guest left off, but Zach made one final appearance, as he silently walked across the back of the stage, fixated on his phone, looked up, did a double take, abruptly realized we were watching, and scurried back offstage. It was lovely to see him back.

Jon immediately asked for requests after his warm-up and went with "Here We Go," which -- in case I haven't mentioned it lately -- is a perfect song. I got in the second request for "That's Just What You Are," my typical classic callback. In fact, I thought a lot about my requests for the evening, but you can hear more about them later.

My muscle memory with Jon Brion concerts is nowhere near its peak levels. Though I made a point to put a notebook and a pen in my bag, the pen soon started running out of ink. I managed to scribble spare notes, but had to skip the details to spare what little ink I had at my disposal.

From there, Jon broke into another instrumental piano break before coming back to "Over Our Heads," using one of the small keyboards that always comprise his setup. He followed up with what sounded to me like two distinct piano pieces: one jazzy, the other sweeping and more linear. Alas, that's all I can tell you about them.

Jon then asked us to name a key, a style, and a song. It was kind of a Dr. Frankenstein moment, if you will. I love these mashups, and I was happy to see Jon flexing his unique genius. First up was F sharp minor (I think) plus the Velvet Underground (my request) plus "How Soon Is Now." As Jon commenced, I started to wonder if the Smiths song was already an homage to the Velvets? You can kinda hear it, right? It didn't really matter, as Jon decided to mimic Nico's vocals -- to not great effect, as he admitted -- instead.

The second song combined G plus prog rock (Jon promised the song would go for 35 minutes) plus "Monster Mash." I love this for many reasons, particularly because I've been requesting "Bela Lugosi's Dead" (with no success) whenever I'm in town for a show close to Halloween. I'm all for Jon giving in to seasonal cues, and "Monster Mash" should happen more often. Jon cut it off before it came anywhere close to double digits in length, but he delivered on the other prog rock signifiers, including lots of reverb and flashing lights, courtesy of the elves in the sound booth.

He next turned on a drum machine, which provided an easy lilting beat. I want to call it bossa nova, but that's probably not right. Just imagine a pleasing, swaying beat. Jon proceeded to build up a song from it, and what do you know? It was one of his own classics, "Same Thing." Jon is known for recasting his songs left and right, but it was a reminder that no song is sacred, and every single one can be reinterpreted, remade, and reworked. Honestly, it's a song! And if a remake bothers you, you can probably still listen to the original!

Jon finally moved to the guitars and took a request for "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," with a helpful reminder from the requesting audience member on the lyrics. Jon did the rest. He stayed with the guitar for the Billie Holiday standard and for his own "Why Do You Do This to Yourself." The latter featured a ton of fuzz guitar, and in my humble opinion, his voice sounded particularly great on that track.

It was back to the piano for a long, jazzy, gorgeous tune. Such is my lack of knowledge that I searched my brain for what it could've been, and the only song that my mind latched on to was "Rhapsody in Blue," though I knew it wasn't right. Fortunately, Jon said so himself at the end. It was "Mood Indigo" -- so at least I was in the right color family? It was indeed rapturous, and I wish my brain could retain these things more effectively.

We rounded out the rest of the night with requests, and I gotta say that the audience did well here. I can be a music snob, and one of my complaints about this iteration in Jon's shows is that the requests can often be banal. (Please stop with "Freebird.") But the relatively intimate crowd at this night's show brought some good ones, at one point inspiring Jon to remark that he and another audience member should form a Dizzy Gillespie tribute band.

My favorite request, though, was more populist: "Jump" by Van Halen. I had actually requested it earlier that evening, but either Jon hadn't heard or it wasn't the right time. Still, I'm glad it came out, even if it quickly became apparent that none of us knew the words other than the chorus. Jon ran with it and segued into a synth-heavy version of "Running with the Devil," which moved him to say it reminded him of Avalon -- and he even did a line or two in a Bryan Ferry inflection! Happy Halloween to all!

Jon closed out the main set with a request, and it was lovelier than I could've imagined. "Just What I Needed" is a relative staple of Jon's set, particularly as a celebratory singalong. But this time, Jon took the opportunity to remind us that it's a great piece of songwriting, and though he didn't say it, he offered us a chance to remember the late Ric Ocasek. I'm not going to look into it too much, but it's probably not a stretch to imagine Jon has some links to Ric since both have ties to Boston (the city, not the band -- that I know of). Tonight, Jon turned it into a warm piano ballad that tore into your heart, while still allowing us to nail the chorus. See what I mean about songs not being sacred?

Jon returned for an encore and listened to our requests for a long time as he decided on the perfect closer. He wanted to end on a happy note as a contrast to what he considered a moody show. (I disagree.) He shot down "Hey Jude" because he said we only knew two words, and we eventually went with "God Only Knows," the perennial Largo favorite. I have no complaints -- the room sounded great, and it felt like a group hug in a way I can't recall feeling at Largo in a little while. As Jon knew, it was a perfect choice and the perfect send-off.

See you again in December.

- Zach Galifianakis cameo
- Here We Go
- That's Just What You Are
- piano
- Over Our Heads
- jazzy piano
- sweeping piano
- How Soon Is Now
- Monster Mash
- Same Thing
- I Just Wasn't Made for These Times
- Fooling Myself
- Why Do You Do This to Yourself
- Mood Indigo
- Highway to Hell/Back in Black
- Sesame Street
- Spinning Wheel
- Jump/Running with the Devil
- Just What I Needed

encore
- God Only Knows