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

Sunday, October 25, 2015

pretty please with sugar on top

Two Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings appearances in one month? What am I -- 12 and at my boyfriend's frat party? What is this -- 2008 to 2009, when I hit Largo on a monthly basis? Nope, not even close, but I'll take it for a Dave Rawlings Machine show at the Warfield.

Dave Rawlings Machine, the Warfield, Oct. 19, 2015: According to my records, I last saw the Dave Rawlings Machine (not to be confused with Gillian Welch) in 2010. I think the band came through San Francisco during the interim, but I must've been out of town, because there's no way in hell I'd miss them otherwise. Oh wait, DRM played Hardly Strictly last year, but I was camped out at a different stage for Mavis Staples. It happens! Moral of the story: It's been way too long.

Dave Rawlings Machine, the Warfield, 10-19-15

During this interim, the band has transformed. Whereas the first record felt like a charming, casual collection of tunes, the new record sounds more deliberate, more somber, and more complicated, and perhaps it's more of a statement of DRM's evolving musical direction. It's impossible to overlook the Neil Young influence, but better-informed minds can cite better candidates than I can. (Keep in mind that my idea of roots music is the first two Roxy Music albums.) Also, though DRM has always been a collaborative affair, this tour seem to cement the group-oriented feel, with dedicated extra band members Willie Watson, Paul Kowert, and Brittany Haas.

I feel like this record's biggest statement is its growing contrast with the Gillian Welch albums. Yes, they write the songs together and work collaboratively every step of the way, but good luck finding strings or piano on a Gillian record. Early on, when DRM was kind of an occasional treat and side project, their differences were harder to pinpoint, but I can hear it more clearly now (and not only in the voices).

However, the format of their show endures with a sparse setup (now doubled to two tables) and no amps to speak of. Instead, they made do with several microphones, a couple of banjos, a few guitars, a stand-up bass, two fiddles/violins, and probably more harmonicas than we could see.

Dave and Gill often like to facetiously comment on their professionalism, and you'll never mistake their show for a Vegas production -- but that's not why you see Dave and Gill. At times, they have starts and stops and pauses, but overall, it's always a warm, laid-back affair. Dave was clearly the driver, but they shared the spotlight at times. Of course, some dude yelled for "Miss Ohio" early on, but that didn't happen. Instead, Gill's solo song was "Wayside/Back in Time," which is kind of a no-brainer in San Francisco. Also in a nod to San Francisco (probably), they did a Grateful Dead cover of "Candyman," appended to Dylan's "Dear Landlord." Of course, though I can't possibly describe what he does, remember that Dave has a way of working beautiful, unexpected guitar riffs into every song to leave you wondering how he can carry it off.

Dave Rawlings Machine, the Warfield, 10-19-15

Willie Watson got a couple of numbers, and Paul Kowert stepped out as the bass voice on "Fields of Fire" and "The Weight." I have to admit that Willie is not my cup of tea, though I know he and Old Crow Medicine Show have a strong following. Paul Kowert, however, was great, and I wish we could hear more of him with both DRM and Punch Brothers. Brittany didn't sing, but she took a couple of highlight turns, such as on "Method Acting/Cortez the Killer."

Among the new songs, "Pilgrim" was my favorite, with the long outro and mingled voices, and both "The Trip" and "The Weekend" are worth your patience as the songs unfold. After the show, I couldn't stop thinking about the trio of songs as a chronicle of road life or maybe an existential journey. Short of sitting down with the lyrics in front of me, I have nothing else to add to the thought bubble, but I'd love to hear any comments on the topic.

Obviously, Dave and Gill are not a pop act, and they don't rely on hits ("Miss Ohio" aside) to attract their audience. Nonetheless, we fans come to the show for certain gems -- often the traditional tunes we never would've heard otherwise. Though a little twang goes a long way for my tastes, I love Dave and Gill doing "He Will Set Your Fields on Fire." I chalk it up the sublime combination of voices and impeccable timing, and it puts a huge smile on my face.

Dave and Gill have amassed such a deep catalog that they're bound to miss a song you were dying to hear, but hopefully, they'll include one you haven't heard in a while, if at all. I gotta admit I've been craving a rendition of "Queen Jane Approximately," but alas, not tonight.* Instead, we got "The Weight," followed by "Go to Sleep You Little Baby," both of which make a ton of sense when you have all those singers onstage.

I can name on one hand all the bands/performers I'd drop everything to see. Make no mistake: Dave and Gill are in that group. Whatever name they take, I'll be there for their next date.

* During Robyn Hitchcock's set at this year's Hardly Strictly, it occurred to me that Gillian, Dave, and Robyn all do songs about queens and Elvis. Wouldn't it be great to hear them mashup their tunes? Come on, the world needs "Queen Elvis Approximately" and "Queen Elvis Presley Blues"! I know they can do it -- let's make it happen.

See also:
» this old rain's just about soaked through
» summer noon
» that's the way the cornbread crumbles
» oh me oh my oh

Monday, October 12, 2015

i'm so grateful

Every October, we in the Bay Area are forced to make hard choices, some of which can tear you apart. I hated deciding between the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and the last Giants home games of the year (postseason or no) -- so I split the difference. Fortunately, I was able to get to two days of the festival and catch a bunch of awesome acts.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Oct. 2-4, 2015: How relaxed was I to start off the festival? I took the day off from work to enjoy unfettered access to all the music I desired, yet didn't leave my place until 4 pm. Even then, I totally misread the schedule -- I thought the Punch Brothers started at 4:30, but in fact, they were onstage at 4:10. By the time I arrived at the Banjo Stage, they'd probably been playing for a good five minutes or so.

The early impression was not pretty. As I waded through the crowd at Banjo -- which I've told myself over the years I never want to do -- I had to wonder why bother at all. I mean, I've seen the Punch Brothers a bunch of times now, including in very close quarters, and though I like their music, I'm not gaga for them. Nonetheless, I soldiered on and settled in for about 20 minutes of their set, including the perpetually fun "Rye Whiskey," but I had to abandon ship after the Debussy number. Nothing against Debussy, but I realized the Punch Brothers' set doesn't vary enough for me to put up with the masses. However, they are certified crowd pleasers and a natural fit for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

The early exit from the Punch Brothers left me plenty of time to get to the much less congested Arrow Stage for Big Star Third. To my delight, it was low-key and mellow, I found a great spot, and -- most important -- I spotted Frank Riley, the man who's booked probably a million shows you've loved. Weekend complete! Well, not quite, but it was a nice item to check off early in the festivities.

Hardly Strictly 2015

Have I gone on record on this blog claiming album-in-their-entirety shows are passe? I stand by it, but I also reserve the right to make exceptions. I think every music nerd can remember the first time they heard Big Star. I'm pretty sure it happened to me at Largo, but of course Alex Chilton was already a legendary name courtesy of the Replacements. Over the years, I've grown more appreciative of Big Star, and their songs can haunt my brain for days on end.

In case you aren't familiar, Big Star Third is a roving assemblage of musicians playing Sisters Lovers, appropriately enough Big Star's third record. I'm too lazy to look up the core members, but it appears Chris Stamey and Jody Stephens are at the center of the group, and the day's gathering included such illustrious names as Mike Mills, Ken Stringfellow, and Pat Sansone, along with local favorites Chuck Prophet and Kelley Stoltz, not to mention Van Dyke Parks leading the Kronos Quartet and other guests whose names escape me.

As usual, I didn't take notes, so I can't tell you who sang what, but I can report they all sounded great. Seriously -- those were divine voices onstage, in a festival full of divine voices. I loved seeing the local faces, which provoked one man near me to inquire about Kelley Stoltz. Another concertgoer helpfully informed him of Kelley's awesome work over the years. Here's hoping the first fellow acted on the knowledge.

Jody Stephens' turns at the mic were especially charming, as he shared his gratitude and his memories with the crowd. As a fan, you had to love seeing a little bit of the original voices in the room. The extra touches -- the aforementioned Van Dyke Parks and Kronos Quartet, as well as a range of horns -- were wonderful too and hardly the grand treatment you'd expect at a free so-called bluegrass festival. But that's another reason to love Hardly Strictly.

I can't lie -- the "hits" were my favorites, and it was even great to hear a version of "Holocaust" that came in at less than 30 minutes. Here's a tip: Don't turn down the chance to hear "Femme Fatale," "September Gurls," or "Thank You Friends" performed by a dozen-odd top-shelf musicians.

Hardly Strictly 2015Saturday was a little more purposeful, but hardly harried, as the first act I wanted to see happened to be on the smallest, most mellow stage. You'd be hard-pressed to label Nels Cline and Julian Lage as bluegrass in any way -- and that's fine! They still commanded a good audience over at the cozy, laidback Porch Stage. I can't begin to describe their music, except that they touch on a wide range of styles. While much of their set consisted of complex but effortless interplay, what I loved best were the moments where one would simply let the other go and intently observe, no strings touched. It's a beautiful example of trust and admiration.

From there, with a lot of help, we got to a great spot for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings -- which never happens for me. I was ready to be annoyed by my spot somewhere in the middle of the massive field, but Sandy came through with the connection and the moxie to get us to a prime location.

Have I talked enough about how much I love Gill and Dave? Can I make it any clearer? It's been too long since I've seen them, and even a few notes into their set, I was in heaven again. I think they did one new song, but they can sing the phone book in harmony, and I'd listen. They appeared to add another new cover to their repertoire: a version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" they worked up for their recent appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. The highlight for me remained "I'll Fly Away," which moved tons of people to get up from their lawn chairs and sing along. The singalongs get me every time.

Hardly Strictly 2015

From there, I vaguely tried to check out Paul Weller, but I couldn't be bothered past a song and decided to head over to the Robyn Hitchcock set at the Bandwagon Stage -- a new, tiny stage fashioned out of an Airstream-like trailer. As you can imagine, it was a very informal, casual set. Emma Swift joined him for a few songs, and they even soundchecked Roxy Music's "Oh Yeah," though alas, it didn't make the final set. (Sigh.) The best part of Robyn's set was his running claim that every song was set in 1970s San Francisco, even as he admitted it was really about his relationship with his mother. Look, there's no way to capture the aura of a Robyn Hitchcock gig or monologue, which is why you have to see him with our own eyes. Do yourself the favor!

Hardly Strictly 2015

And thus ended my Hardly Strictly adventure for the year. Fortunately, Rocktober is still in effect, so a couple more reports will filter in over the weeks. Once again, all the appreciation in the world goes to the late Warren Hellman and family. I'm continually amazed we get to partake of this treat year after year.

See also:
» tripping the dark fantastic
» don't get around much anymore
» i've heard a rumor from ground control
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg
» that's the way the cornbread crumbles
» overtook me by surprise