In a surprise move, Largo rang me three weeks after I had placed my original call to let me know that I had a table for four for October 21. Fortunately, Heidi's schedule is flexible enough to allow for these adventures, and that's how we found ourselves back in Hollywood, rejoined by Evonne and accompanied by Glen, a guy we met in line. They made for great company on a truly remarkable night. Find a warm, soft blanket and a hot toddy 'cos I have another epic.
Jon Brion, Largo, October 21, 2005: Jon came out about 10 minutes earlier than usual and explained that the traffic on Barham Boulevard had made him miss soundcheck, so we would have to endure the process with him. Anyone who's been to Largo enough times know that this is a common enough preface for his shows, but his actions bore out the veracity of his excuse. As always, he started on the piano, then the celeste before his first real song, "Same Mistakes." When he seemed satisfied with the piano, he moved to the guitar, which required a little more care. He instructed Scott in the soundbooth to take over while he tuned (or something), and Scott complied by turning on a somewhat cheesy beat, soon thereafter incorporated into "Lock My Heart." So with two instruments down, he moved to the drums to create his first song build of the night, the delightful "Girl I Knew." After "I'm on a Roll with You," he asked for requests, then chose "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," which somehow morphed into "Moonlight Sonata," the Peanuts theme, "Smoke on the Water," and a ragtime stomp. Oh yeah, the celeste, the vocoder, and a spacey synth theme also popped up. By this time, there was no doubt that we were out of soundcheck mode.
Up next was "No Excuse to Cry," and I still haven't figured out if it's an original Jon Brion song or a cover. All clues welcome! "I Was Happy with You" is indisputably a Jon composition. After the smokey standard "Everything Happens to Me," he turned to his own "Stop the World." On other occasions, this song has been a straightforward piano ballad, but tonight, he turned it into haunting psychedelia, complete with "Strawberry Fields"-like tape shifts and doppler effects; it was easily the best version I've ever heard of the song.
Back to the requests, he played "Baby You're a Rich Man," asking for crowd participation, which we were happy to lend. Halfway through the song, I noticed a figure crouching next to Heidi and realized it was Grant Lee Phillips, who jumped right in to join the vocals shortly after we spotted him. He and Jon bantered in their usual goofy way that I miss sometimes, and Grant stayed for a few more songs at Jon's insistence. They even did my request for "Mockingbirds." I have a feeling I've heard them do that song together back when I went to Largo for Grant's shows, but it's certainly been a long enough break that it sounded new again.
Jon finished the first set without Grant but with a song that he and Grant have cowritten, "Trial and Error," followed by a request for the Stones, though he made the decision to do so in the manner of Les Paul. I'm Stones-illiterate and can't tell you what he played, and Heidi couldn't name any songs either; however, the Les Paul influence shone through.
The second set came to a low-key start. Jon and various other people had been hanging out onstage in the dim light, perusing the instruments for about 10 minutes or so before Jon called the crowd to attention. Tonight's supergroup consisted of the incomparable Benmont Tench on piano, Ethan Johns on drums, and Jerry Donahue--a hero of his, according to Jon--on guitar. Jon also explained that he had met Jerry about 10 minutes earlier, and it was obvious that Jerry wasn't used to the Largo environment. But especially on the second song, "You Win Again," he turned in a masterful solo, and the rest of the gang was more than happy to hand him the well-deserved spotlight.
Jon turned to Benmont for ideas on songs to do, and I could hear only a mention of Graham Gouldman. Jon settled on a nylon-string acoustic, and they did both "Bus Stop" and "For Your Love." Jon made a small request for us to sing along, and the crowd was happy to do so, with the mood holding for the rest of this part of the set. For various reasons, I'm not so thrilled by "Don't Fear the Reaper" these days, but Benmont turned the ending coda into a tour de force of piano styles. I love Jon on piano, but Benmont crafts it into something altogether different, knowing when to pile it on and when to hold back. His mastery is palpable. From that jumping-off point, Jon tried to think of other nylon-string classics, then hit a couple of Rod Argent originals. Though I doubt nylon strings have ever been associated with the song, "Won't Get Fooled Again" become a honky-tonk rave. Next, Jon turned to his big book of lyrics for the crowd- and band-pleasing "Tell Me Something Good," but no one needed it for "Ain't No Sunshine."
Big hugs followed as Benmont and Ethan left the stage to make way for Jon's so-called crap. There were no bells and whistles for "Trouble," "Here We Go," or "Knock Yourself Out," but they don't need them. Jon ended the night with a bang-up version of "I Believe She's Lying," stretched out to incorporate more spacey synths, skronky guitar, mad-dash harmonica, and a shouty coda that reintroduced "The Girl I Knew."
I say this just about every time, but this show felt different to me. Maybe it was the company, but the energy levels never dipped, and the enjoyment on both sides of the stage couldn't be beat. I don't go to Largo for the potential of amazing guests, but I have to admit that when they show up--especially old regulars such as Grant, Benmont, and Ethan--the vibe changes completely. For a lot of us, it's the closest we'll come to being a fly on the wall during those landmark sessions that pass into lore years down the line. But best of all, both Evonne and Glen were bowled over by their first real Jon Brion experience. You can talk about history all you want, but in the end, it's about friends old and new, and I'll never get tired of being part of that sense of wonder and amazement. We'll be back in November.
Finally, the setlist (with help from Heidi):
--Same Mistakes [piano]
--Lock My Heart [elecric guitar]
--Girl I Knew [song build]
--I'm on a Roll with You [piano + harmonica]
--99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall in the manner of (among others) Moonlight Sonata, the Linus and Lucy Peanuts theme, Joplinesque ragtime, Smoke on the Water, and I'm pretty sure Swan Lake [piano, celeste, synth, vocoder]
--Excuse to Cry [acoustic guitar]
--I Was Happy with You [song build]
--Everything Happens to Me [piano]
--Baby You're a Rich Man* [piano]
--Blue Jay Way*
--"You better run/You better run to the city of"*
--Bang a Gong*
--Trial and Error
--"Stones as Les Paul"
--My Baby Left Me**
--You Win Again**
--For Your Love***
--Don't Fear the Reaper/piano segue extravaganza, including Carol of the Bells and Classical Gas***
--I'll Be Back***
--This Will Be Our Year***
--Whenever You're Ready***
--Won't Get Fooled Again***
--Tell Me Something Good***
--Ain't No Sunshine***
--Here We Go
--Knock Yourself Out
--I Believe She's Lying
* = with Grant Lee Phillips
** = with Jerry Donahue, Benmont Tench, and Ethan Johns
*** = with Benmont Tench and Ethan Johns
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