Monday, June 08, 2015

the subject now in question

How long has it been since I've been a regular at Jon Brion's show? Long enough that the young man sitting next to me asked me to stop clicking my retractable pen while I was taking notes because it was too loud. Bwahahahaha! Oh honey -- I was doing this back when you were dancing to your babysitter's Blink 182 CDs. I hope I didn't ruin his show (probably his third, tops). Anyway, this weekend offered me the chance at a double dip (Hello Kitty!) and of course filled out the schedule with a visit to Largo.

Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, May 29, 2015: I do not suffer from FOMO. Instead, I may labor under FOGO (fear of going out -- tip of the hat to Susan for the phrase), but dammit if the recent promises of Jon Brion with a band didn't pique my interest. Alas, I couldn't make my way to those shows, and only a month later, Jon was back to his spartan setup. Other than a small rack of electric guitars (that went unused) on one side, every instrument was acoustic and unplugged, and the drum set was absent altogether. If a band were scheduled to assemble, they probably wouldn't be loud. (In fact, early on, we were promised guests, but we'll get there in time.)

As for the man himself, Jon emerged looking somewhat professorial in glasses and with notable cheer in his voice. He also carried a small folder with loose-leaf pages and informed us that he had new songs, though he didn't yet know the order of the verses. To start off, however, he went on an instrumental tear covering several songs. As I've said repeatedly, I'm not great at picking out older songs when no words are sung, so take my guesses with a grain of salt. That said, I think I heard Vince Guaraldi and Cole Porter ("Everytime We Say Goodbye"), though the latter might've been Chet Baker -- or Elvis Costello ("Almost Blue")? I want to say Randy Newman ("Dayton, Ohio - 1903") made it in too. However, I can report an I Heart Huckabees tune capped off the movement.

From there, Jon stayed on piano but turned to the lyric sheets for the first new song, which even on my first listen struck me as a Jon Brion classic in the making. We're talking four or five verses, with a couple of bridges and a nice clip to the tune. The phrase "my love" came up repeatedly -- which probably doesn't sound revolutionary, but it totally fit in the context of the tune. I would love to hear it again, no doubt in some form I couldn't predict.

Another new song followed, and at first, the pace reminded me a little of "Knock Yourself Out." The lyrics, however, were nothing to write home about it. Let's say this song holds promise but could use more attention.

The next song was not new, but it was a relatively rarity. I'm pretty sure it was "Row" from Eternal Sunshine, only with lyrics and extra poignancy. Jon ended this piano-based segment with "Happy With You," complete with all the spontaneous bits Jon is known for.

The acoustic guitar then came out, along with a call for requests. "Meaningless" landed first, followed by "Citgo Sign," a request from the patron sitting front and center, who I assumed has taken over the role of #1 fan. Jon said it might be the first time he's played it at the Coronet, which probably checks out. Jon capped off this segment with "I Believe She's Lying," and I should mention all of them got the extended treatment. For "I Believe She's Lying," Jon even changed up the vocals here and there.

Jon returned to the piano and his "hymnal" for the next song. If you read this blog enough, you know I don't love everything Jon has ever done, and this falls squarely into that pile. The lyrics were heavy-handed, and the melody itself didn't stand out. Unlike previous clunkers, this didn't morph into a 10-plus minute dirge (whew). OK, enough said!

At this point, Sebastian Steinberg came out, with his stand-up bass and an impressive beard. I likened him to Zeus, albeit with his long ponytail intact. Jon opened up the floor to requests, and after some back and forth, the Buzzcocks finally landed in a jazzy two-man piano-and-bass take. As if I needed a reminder of Jon's encyclopedic knowledge of music, but it's always nice to hear confirmation.

For the next request, Jon married a style of music with a song, which is how we got "Space Oddity" a la stride piano. Did you watch the last season of Mad Men? I've had at least one screaming moment during each episode, when an unexpected twist plays out. One of the moments -- MINOR SPOILER ALERT -- had to do with "Space Oddity." I will never not love this song in any form, and this one was a delight. Jon himself wore a big smile on his face for much of the tune, and Sebastian's slap bass added unexpected notes. Of course, it morphed into another style all together, but I'm not the person who could characterize it for you.



"Over the Rainbow," a request personally solicited by Jon from the person sitting in what was once my seat (AA24, in case you're wondering), was soon granted, and it was slow, pretty, and spare. Sebastian came close to a bass solo around the bridge -- so it was deliciously ironic when he declared he hated the song at its conclusion. For the record, Jon stated he did not.

Jon next picked up the acoustic guitar for an instrumental track, the kind that tend to stump me. In my notes, I have "I'm in the Mood for Love," but I could be way off, which is typical for standards. During the course of this song, Sebastian's face was like that of a silent movie actor, nodding and shaking along. By the end, both Jon and Sebastian were actively hamming it up for one another.

The requests continued, and Radiohead made it to the forefront. Jon returned to the piano, but hardly went traditional. The notes sounded like they were coming from a harpsichord or a toy piano, but eventually came back around to the "real" sound. This was a ton of fun, as well.

Jon followed up "Trouble," featuring a jazzy bridge, then a request for a song he gleefully reported he didn't like: "Rocky Raccoon." Susan next to me thought she heard Vince Guaraldi here. All I know is that it took a detour through, like, the Preservation Jazz Hall (note: I know nothing about the Preservation Jazz Hall), and it was decidedly loose, though not in a White Album sort of way. Make of that what you will!

Jon inquired into Sean Watkins' presence, and after a brief dash to the stage, he joined them for a couple of tracks: "I Go to Pieces" and "Tribulations," the latter a terrifying (in Sean's words) gospel song he recently learned. Brownie points go to Sean for the Back to the Future reference when he explained what it was like to try to teach a song to the bona fide geniuses beside him.

Jon Brion playing stand-up bass at Largo at the CoronetSebastian stepped up for his vocal contribution, George Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care." This song may be one of the highlights of the evening, as we watched Jon and Sebastian switch instruments. I don't think I've ever seen Jon play stand-up bass! What a sight!

Jon returned to the piano and took over for the next song. I don't know if it was a request or his own selection, but he rolled out the always welcome "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding." Jon went with a pretty classic power pop take on this song, which is fairly different from the slower version Nick Lowe plays these days. Trust me, there were no complaints.

Sean exited the stage, and we were left once again with Jon and Sebastian, this time for Jon's own "Please Stay Away From Me." This has become a semi-staple of Jon's set, and I hear hints of this and that with every listening, but for some reason, the Randy Newman-esque tone hit me between the eyes this time (perhaps because the earlier brick of a tune was probably trying too hard to take the same approach).

With that, Jon and Sebastian's show came to an end, but a couple dozen of us headed to the Little Room for extra songs from Sean. I didn't take notes here, but I can report he did my request for "Moonshiner," though only after he realized I wasn't asking for moonshine. I've heard him do this before, as Sean himself acknowledged, but I know it's far from a regular on the setlist. Nonetheless, he gamely attempted it, with a little help from Jackson (I think), undoubtedly Googling lyrics in the back.

I likely won't get back to Largo for a Jon Brion show until the fall, but I'm already looking forward to the next go-around.

Setlist
-- piano (like, five songs)
-- new song #1
-- new song #2
-- Row
-- Happy With You
-- Meaningless
-- Citgo Sign
-- I Believe She's Lying
-- new song #3

with Sebastian Steinberg
-- Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't)
-- Space Oddity
-- Over the Rainbow
-- I'm in the Mood for Love
-- Creep
-- Trouble
-- Rocky Raccoon

with Sebastian Steinberg & Sean Watkins
-- I Go to Pieces
-- Tribulations
-- Peace, Love, and Understanding

with Sebastian Steinberg
-- Please Stay Away From Me

See also:
» strangest times
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg

Sunday, April 12, 2015

tripping the dark fantastic

I've caught myself saying this a lot lately: I don't need to see that band again. It's not as if I don't like the band, but when your concert attendance starts hitting the double digits, especially in the bigger venues, my interest drops off a cliff (with very few exceptions). But when a friend is in town and wants to hit the Fillmore, why the hell not? Thus, hello Punch Brothers!

Punch Brothers, the Fillmore, April 4, 2015: A pleasant surprise awaited me when I bought tix from the Fillmore box office for the show: download codes for each concert-goer. I figured the Punch Brothers were offering, at best, a three-song sampler, but I was dead wrong. The download covered the entire new album, The Phosphorescent Blues. As I've said a million times, I nearly always favor live music over studio recordings, and the download fit perfectly into my plans. I realize not all bands have the luxury of giving away their music, but I have so much respect for the Punch Brothers for reaching out to the fans who come out to see them on the road.

Perhaps the Punch Brothers can pull off these acts because they know they'll be rewarded by passionate audiences at every stop, if San Francisco is anything to go by. Granted, they were booked for two nights at the Fillmore, which is already a good sign. But you still have to pack the bodies in and fire them up -- check and check on both counts in San Francisco, as the fans responded with cheers, singalongs, and declarations of love.

Punch Brothers, the Fillmore, 04-04-15

By no means am I particularly knowledgeable about the Punch Brothers, but I've enjoyed the privilege of seeing them or at least Chris Thile fairly often at Largo. I also don't mind admitting their more not-bluegrass touches hooked me, though I can't imagine how you couldn't love their banjo solos.

If you've listened to the new record, you know it starts off on a decidedly poppier, more accessible tone, but if you stick around, you'll hear the usual mandolin and harmonies kick in later. That wasn't the only change: The live setup now included a set of drums, and at one point, Chris brought a bouzouki. Never fear -- still no electric guitar in sight. As it turned out, Gabe Wicher took the drums for a handful of songs while simultaneously playing fiddle, but his percussion duties were mostly limited to kick drum.

I have no idea what longtime fans may think of this development, but it all sounded great to me. Of course, the Punch Brothers touched on their roots -- say, with the Jimmie Rodgers cover "Brakeman's Blues." At other times, I kept thinking they should've written for the Taylor Swift of, like, two albums ago. But mostly, I marveled that they could turn one of the most old-fashioned of American musical forms into prog rock -- it's no small feat to mount a mountain of suspense out of such timeless instruments.

The topper to the show might've been the a cappella turn at "The Auld Triangle," from tons of sources, but in this context, perhaps most famously from Inside Llewyn Davis. (I really only know it from listening to Jeff Tweedy covers, don't yell at me for not citing Dylan or any of the Irish troubadours who originated it.) The six of them gathered around the appropriately old-fashioned microphone and delivered perfect harmonies to complement the eternal track; we in the audience helped in the chorus as well. As a fairly impartial by-stander, I loved it, and I wish every concert could have such a moment.

Punch Brothers, the Fillmore, 04-04-15

Gabriel Kahane opened the show, and I'd seen him a few years before playing with Chris Thile at Largo. The audience was incredibly respectful to him and let him sing -- and he deserved to be heard! He even made me curious about some of the Los Angeles landmarks that inspired him, so that could be a mission on my next visit down south.

See also:
» broadminded
» let's not fool ourselves
» one day like this a year

Sunday, March 29, 2015

deep rivers run quiet

Hey, I remember keeping a regular blog! I'd better get in these concert reports now before the baseball season claims me again. This week, Black Rivers visited the Chapel on their short debut tour in the United States.

Black Rivers, the Chapel, 03-26-15Black Rivers, the Chapel, March 26, 2015: I'm so out of the habit of reading music magazines that I have no idea if Doves have broken up, except that I haven't seen any notification from, say, the mailing list. I mean, I know Jimi Goodwin has a solo record, and now the two remaining members (also, brothers/twins) have Black Rivers, but the band could be taking a break, right? Also, does any band break up anymore? What reunion tour isn't around the corner? I'm too lazy to investigate, but I'm not so lazy that I won't at least go to their show and find out for myself.

It's been long enough since the last Doves show I saw that I don't mind repeating that I love them. I've traveled for them, dammit! (Granted, that doesn't necessarily mean a ton with my rock tourism habits.) In 2000, Badly Drawn Boy's The Hour of Bewilderbeast and Doves' Lost Souls were a one-two punch from moody Mancunian tunesmiths, and they ruled my MP3 player for months on end. I still listen to them all the time for emotional sustenance, not to mention they're one of the few bands in my music collection that would qualify as booty music (yes, Mancs and Canucks fill out my booty music bracket).

However, I haven't listened to either Black Rivers or Jimi Goodwin's solo work; given the choice of studio output vs. the live experience, my limited disposable income goes to the gig. Thus, I wasn't sure what to expect from the show, but never fear. Black Rivers' songs reminded me why I love Doves so much. The cinematic arrangements and atmospheric feel were intact, with maybe more of a rocking feel. Then again, that could've been my proximity to the stage and the blaring mix from the guitar monitor.

Black Rivers, the Chapel, 03-26-15

I've always wondered how the division of labor works in Doves -- who is most responsible for which touches, whether anyone leads a specific charge. Of course, each musician has a main instrument: Jimi on bass and most vocals, Jez on lead guitar, and Andy on drums, the latter two occasionally taking a turn on the mic too. Also, it's not like the lyrics are Dylanesque or mine a deep auteur's vein (not an insult). Black Rivers didn't shed much light on the question. Jez took all lead vocals, but the songs were close enough to Doves trademark material that you could probably mistake them for each other in a blind listening test.

Not helping the situation: Black Rivers did a couple of Doves songs, but not the ones with Jez or Andy on lead vocals. For example, "Jetstream" and "Here It Comes" are two of my favorite Jez and Andy vocals, but instead, they did "Rise" and "Black and White Town." "Pounding" was also on the list, but they didn't get to it. Further muddying the picture, Black Rivers used the same keyboardist they had on the last Doves tour. As you can imagine, the Doves tracks got a big reception from the crowd.

I have a confession here: The sound at the front, namely the vocals, was terrible, and I could barely make out a word of the lyrics or the banter, and it had nothing to do with the Manc accents. Like many other British bands on their first tour of the United States, Black Rivers is used to playing much bigger rooms in the United Kingdom, and the sound suffered for it. Hey, it gives you something to look forward to on the next tour -- if they will be back, so will I.

Black Rivers, the Chapel, 03-26-15

By the way, I had no idea how of the size of this tour before I got to the show. It sounds like they did only a few very small shows in California after SXSW, and San Francisco was the last stop on the road. And after the gig, I had an almost Broad City-like (apologetic, drunk pissing dude; drunk, supine, rolling woman) adventure getting home, so hats off to Black Rivers for briefly interrupting my life as a shut-in. You guys are totally worth two bus rides, transfer included!

See also:
» doubles up and comes back Mondays
» here comes the action
» seems that I've been waiting here forever
» talking trash under your breath