Or, Who Do You Have to Fuck to Show Up in Google's Search Results? Please forgive the search engine pandering.
Nels Cline and Jon Brion, Largo, November 3, 2005: This was a dream pairing for me, especially after hearing reports of one of their other gatherings at Largo where they did "Cortez the Killer." Swoon! As the date drew closer, we had no idea what to expect. Nels's site promised an "instrumental/improvised set," but I wondered if he'd be the opener, perhaps followed by a set from Jon. Regardless, it would've taken an act of god and deep mortal wounds to keep me away.
You can drive entire convoys through the gaps in my music knowledge, and at times, I've had to rely on half-learned terms and downright misinformation to put in words what happens onstage. But my previous dispatches will look like the 9-11 Commission Report compared to the generalities I'll need to employ for this one. Keep in mind that I was as in the dark (almost literally) as the next person, and it was challenging to try to take in the changing action onstage, much less document any of it, considering the players themselves probably had very vague notions of what was going on at any given moment. The songs could shift in character a number of times as Jon and Nels manned different instruments and approaches. Please use your imagination; I guarantee you that the show was even weirder than anyone who's seen either Nels or Jon live can dream up.
First off, the inestimable Bobb Bruno came out in a bunny outfit and played a short opening set on, errrr, electronic drums of some sort. If nothing, it helped confirm that I hadn't hallucinated that other time I saw him don the bunny costume in public.
As a Type A personality, I can think of no better way to present my memories of the evening than in a chronological list.
Song 1: Jon took various piano-related items (piano, celeste, synths), while Nels grabbed the guitar. My notes tell me that this exercise was a long spooky, ambient number, reminiscent of Tangerine Dream; this may have been the most unabashedly experimental song of the set, and it clearly set the tone of the night--Nels hadn't been lying in the description/warning on his Web site. Through various passages, Jon closed his eyes and swayed to the waves of sound; he dominated this number. For me, perhaps the most interesting moment was Jon's manipulation of something called the Sonic Wave knob, while Nels brandished a spring/coil against his guitar strings.
Song 2: Frenetic and hard on kickoff, this song was a major contrast to the first number. Jon went to the drums and laid down a staccato beat. After he looped the desired passages, Jon joined Nels on guitar. Nels took on more of a leadership role, and he was visibly amped, even roaring--encouragement? approval?--at Jon's guitar work. Jon is of course known as a pop guy, but if you've seen his show, he can freak out as much as anyone, and this was a fine example of that element let loose. This song was experimental in a different respect; it was probably 10 different songs in one, and we saw both musicians moving outside their comfort zones. Jon layered some gauzy vocals over the wall of sound, but Nels just about blew my mind when he moved to the drum kit! Paul reports that he's seen Nels take the drums for a soundcheck before, but this was an entirely different matter. Obviously, Nels's drumwork isn't as elegant or varied as his guitar skills (whose are, though?), but he was a steady, forceful presence, and in the true collaborative spirit of the night, he watched Jon like a hawk for musical cues. Somewhere over this, Jon played his guitar with heavy distortion, vaguely reminding me of the MC5. He somehow came back to a psychedelic approach, and by the end, the guitar was more of a percussive instrument. Nels eventually rejoined him, this time on the 12-string (the "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" guitar, for those who've studied Nels's role in Wilco).
Song 3: This song was a complete and utter treat. Both Jon and Nels sat down for this, Jon taking what looked like a nylon-string acoustic and Nels on an electric, with Jon adding some humming later. The song was mellow and simply gorgeous, and the two of them were in lock step throughout the number. It reminded me of a bolero--just incredibly sexy. It was hard to believe they could've improvised that number right on the spot, but when we asked Nels about it later, he laughed out loud at the idea that they had rehearsed any of it.
(At this point, I should apologize for not noting Nels's guitars. It's not my milieu, though I realize that I can tell you that Nels took a guitar only so many times. I'll try harder next time.)
Song 4: Jon returned to the piano, while Nels went back to the electric guitar. This song reminded me of the piano noodling with which Jon often opens his solo shows. Overall, it was a melancholy, understated, abstract number that wouldn't be out of place on Jon's soundtracks. Again, Jon dominated, but one of Nels's strengths is that he knows when to pour it on and when to hold back. For this one, he did the latter--to astonishing effect.
If you've seen Jon live, you know that he often hums or sings to himself to track the song, often while he's moving between instruments during a song build. He did much of this throughout the show with Nels, and it made me wonder if it's his way of thinking aloud, though it's probably a mere hint of what else he has cooking in his brain.
Song 5: Jon started off with the drums, then put down some harmonica, establishing what sounded like a simpler version of the "Tusk" beat. Nels contributed spacey sounds on one of his lap steels. My notes say "slide but not slide sounding"--I wish I knew what I meant by that. Later on, Nels once again took the drums, and Jon went to the keyboards, playing with the knobs to produce heavy distortion.
Throughout the night, I had been surprised by how little Jon and Nels watched each other's playing. I've seen them peering studiously for musical cues from their compatriots on other occasions and would've guessed that there'd be more visual communication, but that wasn't the case here. Paul pointed out that it may have been due to the improvisational nature of the night; there are simply no set cues to hit, after all. I mention this because it was a stark contrast to what happened when Nels took the drums; he barely took his eyes off Jon, even as Jon was lost in his newly hatched melodies.
Song 6: For this one, Nels brandished a Turkish banjo and a screwdriver, which he seemed to use almost like a reverse capo, sliding the screwdriver under the strings instead of on top of them. In contrast, Jon manned a relatively ho-hum 12-string acoustic. I have no notes on this one--I may have been too busy trying to figure out what the hell Nels was doing to pick up the pen. I have a feeling it was a fairly folksy outing, though.
Song 7: They closed the main set with a big, freaking, anthemic rocker. Jon took care of the drums, then strapped on the guitar; Again, Nels took the black-and-white 12-string that I love so much--its sounds have made me smile many times over the last year and a half. From early on, I got a Byrds-like vibe from this one and heard strains of "Eight Miles High." Along with the big hugs and mutual admiration doled out between Nels and Jon, it was a great way to end the main set.
Encore: Nels seemed surprised to come out for an encore, believing that they had already played so much. Even the Nels Cline Singers, for example, rarely play more than 60 minutes per set, and he and Jon had already given us a good 80 minutes or so. But they still had something in them, and we wanted to hear it.
Jon took a beautifully detailed bouzouki, an oval-shaped guitar-like instrument with 8 strings, while Nels had a small acoustic. They both used slides for the opening passage but changed up as the song progressed. Jon moved to playing percussion on anything within reach: the bouzouki, the keyboard, the mics. Nels took out the spring/coil again, then brought a pink hockey-puck-like device to his mouth to record some sounds. He later told us what it was for, but I can't remember now, other than he usually used it for the guitar--but not so tonight. Nels was full of surprises on this song. Later in the number, he played his acoustic almost like a harp, plucking and sliding as he pleased. And in case the drums hadn't revealed enough of his musical scope, he took to chanting as well. Jon joined in, though in a lovely touch, he decided to do a complementary harmony to Nels's vocals. Somewhere in between, Jon grinned and nodded (in admiration? respect?) at Nels. And thus ended the set.
The show was recorded, as will be their December 8 set, for possible future release. I for one welcome such a document and can't wait for the next gathering of these two musical giants.
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