Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Take Me Home, Country Pigeon

Whoa, I found my old review of my favorite Largo show ever, back when I wasn't properly smitten with Jon Brion. You may note how naive--that is, not obsessed--I sound in this write-up.

Thank you, Yahoo search, especially for ranking me higher than Google does. Grrrr to Google!

Grant Lee Phillips (with Robyn Hitchcock and Jon Brion), Largo, July 31, 1999: I flew in from Silicon Valley, picked up my friends, and headed over to Largo, where a pretty big crowd was already gathered. I guess I should preface "big crowd," as the Largo holds about 100 people. Also, I got a table this time, so that made a difference. We sat down, and I noticed Robyn Hitchcock standing around, drink in hand. I had seen him on the Flaming Lips' MABD Revue in San Francisco earlier that week. I thought that he was just hanging out, enjoying the atmosphere. Not a single suspicion crossed my mind, and I totally forgot that he was a guest player on Jubilee, so I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that he was the opening act. He played a short acoustic set with Tim Keegan, including the very lovely "I Saw Nick Drake." Jon Brion also joined him for a few songs. I've never been a big fan of Robyn, but he's a very likeable performer and put everyone in a great mood.

A short break, then came--what?! A man in a red and black cape and a gold mask came onstage, accompanied by a creepy single-note piano tune, where a miniature altar of sorts (lots of candles) had been erected. He called up Jon Brion and asked him a few questions, then demanded that he take off his clothes. When Jon refused, he requested that at the least Jon take off his shoes. When Jon again said no, he settled for Jon's offer to play the piano. Then Jon turned the tables and asked the man to take off his mask. He did--and it was Grant all along!

(I know my account is doing this no justice. I'm sure that I haven't been able to express that this was a straight parody of the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut.)

OK, on to the music. I took a stab at the set list, but I forgot it on my way out the door. Grant was joined onstage by Phil Parapliano and, eventually, Robyn. They did about half old songs (Arousing Thunder, The Hook, Honey Don't Think, Truly Truly, The Shallow End, Mockingbirds, Fuzzy), half new songs (a good five or six of them, featuring lots of sampled beats), one of Jon's songs, and the song on Robyn's album that they did together. Robyn did one verse of "The Hook," ad-libbing one line about "I'm up here singing with Grant," and playing guitar and harmonica. I can't even begin to describe Grant's between-song patter, but he had us in stitches.

Again, another short intermission, then Grant came back on karaoke-style. I have no idea what the backing tune was; it sounded very Bay City Rollers to me. This interlude was much less structured. They took a title ("Maggot Love") from an audience member and made up a song on the spot. Then they produced five different songs about pigeons. The highlight: Robyn's interpretive dances (when he wasn't throwing together lyrics off the top of his head) and his dubious drumming.

Even my friends were very impressed by the end of the evening (and it was quite an evening--I think Grant was on for at least two hours), especially by Jon Brion's chameleon-like ability to jump from the piano to the drums to electric guitar to improvised lead vocals. [Editor's note: Bwahahahahahahahahahaha!!!] If I were a teacher and had both Grant and Jon in my class, I'd probably have to separate them, because they're obviously too successful in encouraging each other's mischieviousness. But when you're going to see live music, that's the kind of stuff you hope for.

Also, there was a pigeon theme for the night...I think these are the five songs they made up:
» The Haunted Pigeon
» The Haunted Passenger Pigeon (Grant sang a line about the pigeon always coming home to you, obviously mistaking the extinct passenger pigeon for the common carrier pigeon. OK, enough National Geographic.)
» Take Me Home, Country Pigeon, "only without the 'country' part," as requested by a mysterious female voice in the sound booth [Editor's note: I now realize it was Mary Lynn Rajskub speaking.]
» Pigeon Lips
» Pigeon Pot Pie (wherein Grant rhymed "smidgen" and "bitchin'"--among other words--with "pigeon")

Oh, there was also a song about Britney Spears in there too.

See also:
» top 5 Largo memories
» please share my umbrella
» unplug the jukebox and do us all a favour

Saturday, December 24, 2005

let your heart be light

Undoubtedly, 2005 will go down as my Year of Largo (the first of many, if I'm lucky). What had once been a diversion has now become a need, and there was no question that I'd catch the last Largo show of the year, which coincidentally--or not--turned out to be Jon Brion's gig.

Jon Brion, Largo, December 22, 2005: Annie and I got to Largo relatively early, only to find a fairly lengthy line, even for those with reservations. As it turned out, they squeezed in nearly everyone that evening, as there would be no second set. I was just glad that we were at a table and not crammed in at the bar.

Jon came out a little before 10pm, downing Red Bull and wishing us a "merry effing you know what." He jumped into "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," starting with jazzy, discordant piano, then meandering to the synths--well, I think it was still the same song. I know for sure that he segued into "Here We Go," this time adding a couple of notes to the sublime piano motif that characterizes the song. (I wish I could be more technical.) It worked, but it was still surprising to hear him tinker with near perfection. He followed with "That's Just What You Are," which began with a seemingly resigned tone but ended on a passionate, rousing note. I love the song, even if my secret hope that he would do "Amateur" again wasn't realized that night.

He built "I'm Further On," then pretended to look around the stage for his next instrument. When he couldn't decide, he announced, "What I need isn't on this stage. Fiona, get up here." Of course, Fiona Apple showed up, though the surprise wasn't so great for us, as we had spotted her on her way in. Flanagan gave their set a little push, and as customary, they took on a few standards as well as a couple of her songs, mostly with Jon on acoustic guitar. I'm not a Fiona fan, but beyond a doubt, her voice is beautifully suited to the classics.

A lot of times, you watch Jon and realize what it means to be a producer. Sometimes it's as obvious as, say, Jon doing the Sex Pistols à la Bacharach, but if you're lucky, you get a glimpse of it in his onstage interactions with other artists. Case in point: As Jon played the instrumental bridge for a song, he urged Fiona to keep going. She didn't understand him at first, but after more egging, she sang the bridge--that is, she "oooh"ed where she had previously stayed silent and stood back. All of a sudden, I could see that happening in the studio. Throughout Fiona's stint, Jon added backing vocals to a couple of songs, but he otherwise mostly grinned widely and supported her musically. At the end of her portion, they gave each other huge hugs, and towering over her, Jon bestowed a little kiss on the top of Fiona's head. As she left, she waved frantically, stared out intently, and blurted, "Merry stuff!"

Jon jumped back on the horse, building the "Tusk"-like instrumental, which I'm beginning to suspect is a new original composition. The theme from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a flirtation, lasting a few seconds before he decided on "You Made the Girl." Lest it seems like I believe Jon can do no wrong, let me say that I don't like this tune. It's too maudlin, too long, and too literal ("I hate my heart/I hate the world"). Tonight's version was no different, though the middle trance-like guitar bridge was kinda cool to watch for the first 3 minutes--not so the remaining 10 minutes.

When he finally broke off the song, he sat down at the piano, and a voice requested "Ghostbusters." Instead, Jon added a harmonica for "Knock Yourself Out" but ended with "who you gonna call?" He also did a tiny snippet of "Do Re Mi," but it was a mere preamble to an instrumental "You Don't Know What Love Is," which opened the floodgates two weeks ago.

Jon asked for requests and chose a couple of standards before he introduced the second guest of the night: Matt Chamberlain. Of course, Matt took the drums, and Jon asked him what he wanted to do. I didn't hear his response, but they went into "Sweet Emotion." This set the tone for Matt's session: 1970s classic rock songs.

Jon challenged Matt to "start some shit," and Matt obliged by rubbing his drumstick around the circumference of the high hat, which Jon answered by banging the strings on the upright piano and running his fingers emphatically across the keys. They started their respective loopers and built their improv into a frenzy. Just as I was flashing back to the Nels Cline shows, Jon led them to Badfinger's "Rock and Roll Fantasy" with a lovely jazzy piano accompaniment.

Matt started up a new rhythm, while Jon grabbed a 12-string acoustic and churned out a spare, bluesy "Sweet Home Alabama." With Matt keeping time, Jon removed the lead from his guitar and beat it against his palm. Playing the lead and some pedals, he concluded this exercise with "Stairway to Heaven," complete with a rock jump at the end, lead in hand. Next, back at the piano, the celeste, and the synths, Jon reminded us that no '70s retrospective would be complete with a Foreigner song I recall hearing a few times during my early days at Largo but not recently.

Jon asked for more requests from '70s, and though he acknowledged my call for "Band on the Run," it wasn't part of his ultimate plans. Instead, he picked "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." He had initially laughed it off as not being a '70s song, but that didn't stop him from turning it into a lost classic from the Led Zeppelin archive, complete with high-pitched vocals and a wicked guitar solo. We roared our approval as he--channeling Page and Plant, no doubt--kicked over the music stand. With an incredible gleam in his eyes, he declared, "I just woke up." Clearly, the night had just begun.

The next request granted was "Brown Sugar"--but perhaps in name only. Jon sampled himself screeching "brown sugar," playing with it throughout the course of the song and distorting it myriad ways. At some points, it almost sounded like old-skool hip-hop record scratching. As they meandered into disco territory, I was about to ask Evonne if the song we were hearing bore any resemblance to the original, but Jon kind of answered my question by singing a couple of lines from "I Feel Love."

The next round of requests again raised my hopes when Jon echoed my yell for "Taking Care of Business"--only to go with the Bee Gees instead. Granted, the Bee Gees turned out to be a much better choice, especially when Jon turned it into a tutorial on the aspects of a prog (the genre, "not the country recently Westernized") song. Before he began, he requested an accompanying light show, as well as knives from Sami. What he planned for the knives, we may never know; Sami brought them up, but they sat at the side of the stage unused. But we got Jon on his knees, playing the Casio while the lights flashed red and orange around him. With his voice echoing per his directions, he sang a few lines of an almost unrecognizable "Staying Alive." Matt took on the requisite drum solo, which led to Jon on an acoustic for the "unaccompanied folk section" and the "fake Spanish section"--in this case, featuring "Jive Talking." The prog checklist wouldn't be complete without the "classical reference" (to the tune of "How Deep Is Your Love") on piano, then the "reprise of the first section." The song concluded with a keyboard frenzy that propelled the Casio off its stand, though Jon was careful enough to lay it down gently.

With order somewhat restored, Jon sat back at the piano and synths for "Love Will Keep Us Together." Indicating that we were nearing the end of the set, he picked up the electric guitar again and kicked off a medley that covered five decades of music. By the end, he was on his knees, reprising "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" with Hendrix-style guitar until at least two strings broke. Matt Chamberlain was now relegated to a casual observer, albeit one behind the drum kit. It was actually kind of refreshing; I've witnessed otherwise very talented drummers looking on in confusion and fear as Jon led them down unanticipated but ultimately glorious paths. But knowing that even Matt Chamberlain--who has worked with Jon extensively--sometimes had to throw up his hands put Jon's mad genius in clearer perspective.

I think I have a new holiday tradition on my hands.

Merry Christmas and happy New Year to you all. Thanks to everyone who's read along.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas [piano]
Here We Go [piano]
That's Just What You Are [piano]
I'm Further On [build]
After You've Gone* [acoustic guitar]
Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me* [acoustic guitar]
Angel Eyes* [piano]
Extraordinary Machine* [acoustic guitar]
I Know* [acoustic guitar]
Don't Get Around Much Anymore* [acoustic guitar]
Tusk wanna-be [build]
Mr. Rogers Neighborhood [piano]
You Made the Girl [build]
Knock Yourself Out [piano + harmonica]
Do Re Mi [piano]
You Don't Know What Love Is [piano]
Me Myself and I [piano]
I Fall in Love Too Easily [piano + synths]
Sweet Emotion** [piano + synths]
Rock and Roll Fantasy** [piano + celeste]
Sweet Home Alabama/Stairway to Heaven** [guitar]
Hot Blooded** [piano + synths +celeste]
Somewhere Over the Rainbow** [guitar]
Brown Sugar/I Feel Love** [piano + synths]
Staying Alive/Jive Talking/How Deep Is Your Love**
Love Will Keep Us Together** [piano + synths]
Use Me/Play That Funky Music White Boy/Seven Nation Army/Eleanor Rigby/Running With the Devil** [guitar]
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas** [guitar]

* = with Fiona Apple
** = with Matt Chamberlain

See also:
» you don't know the meaning of the blues
» i'll be back again

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

the man some girls think of as handsome

I suppose Haley's Comet comes around slightly less often than Largo--or any venue, for that matter--announces three consecutive Jon Brion shows, but at least one of them can be predicted scientifically. Then again, I'd be willing to argue which is the real natural wonder of the world.

Jon Brion, Largo, December 10, 2005: The message on Largo's answering machine said tonight would feature Jon Brion and "very special guests," and rumors abounded. But the bigger question for me was whether Jon was up to another show. Sure, Friday's gig had ended on a brilliant note, but his small meltdown was fresh on my mind. Still, there was no way I was going home before I had a threepeat under my belt.

Evonne, Paul, and I were ensconced in the back corner of the bar, getting ready for the show, when we were (politely) interrupted. Largo had arranged for someone to videotape the night's proceedings; by asking us to make room for him, the camera guy basically confirmed that we had indeed claimed the best spot in the building. He said there were no plans to release the tape, but I wouldn't have expected otherwise. More importantly, we could see the stage just fine.

Around 10 p.m., Jon came onstage to introduce the opener: Zach Galifianakis. Zach is a regular at Largo, both on- and off-stage. VH1 once gave him a short-lived late-night talk show that even featured a performance by Rhett Miller (accompanied by Jon Brion). I was a little worried that I was laughing too loud for someone standing next to the camera, but I couldn't help myself. In the course of his act, Zach made fun of Carrot Top, Kathy Griffin, a physician sitting at the front table, and of course, himself. I dig him, and I hope others get to see him.

Around 10:30, Jon came out and thanked us for joining him this evening. He sounded like he was in good spirits, joking about his Saturday night ritual of "watching TV in the studio, waiting for the computer to boot up" and playing standards. This seemed to serve as an explanation for the selections of the night. He started off with his usual piano warmup, which segued into the sublime "Here We Go" and a song build of the rollicking "Girl I Knew." Jon jumped over to the guitar for "Fooling Myself," then "Excuse to Cry" (with an "ooh"-ing bridge), and an instrumental that we couldn't exactly make out. Paul speculated it might be a Christmas song, and I may have heard strains of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in the chords, but I can't swear on it.

Jon moved back to the piano for "That's Just What You Are," for which he has cowriting credit, as I like to remind everyone. What a treat--this was the first time I had heard it done on the piano. Jon stayed at the piano, turning out a gorgeous instrumental preamble. I thought it was something from the Eternal Sunshine soundtrack before it finally dawned on me--holy shit, it was "Amateur" from I'm With Stupid. If I needed any justification for staying an extra night, I had found it. I already love this song, but I had never heard Jon do it before, and his version turned out to be intimate, low-key, devastating, and wrenching. In other words, it was unspeakably, utterly fucking mesmerizing. If I ever find a recording of Jon doing this song, I'll be ecstatic. For now, I'll try to subsist on my memory of his rendition, supplemented by as many repetitions of Aimee Mann's studio take as my iPod will allow.

For the next number, Jon built an instrumental that I couldn't place, though it sounded like it could be a Duke Ellington tune, only sped up and with a suitably frenzied, post-punk interpretation. He shed the extras for a piano and a harmonica and--what else--"Knock Yourself Out." He returned to the piano and the celeste for "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way." This song has been hanging around for a long time; you can find it on the Jon Brion demos floating around the Internet, though it recently showed up on the Huckabees extra material. I don't recall hearing it live before, and I loved the rousing, passionate delivery this night. He stayed on piano for "Strings That Tie to You," another unusual treatment for the song. Switching to acoustic guitar but remaining with the theme of alternate instrumentation, he bashed out "Same Thing," a perennial favorite.

The pace of the evening hadn't let up, but Jon hadn't spoken much. If you hadn't seen his Friday night show, you might've thought everything was OK, but I wondered if there was something else on his mind. Regardless, he asked for requests for the first time that evening. He honored the call for "Nice Work If You Can Get It" but put a fast, punk, screechy spin on it. Jon seemed to have finally found his theme for the night: Gershwin. He turned "Our Love Is Here to Stay" every which way, starting with a bombastic piano opening, easing into a gentler tone, then ending with the vocoder and spacey chords, as well as a final flourish on the celeste.

The electric guitar was the instrument of choice for an understated "How Long Has This Been Going On," then the last song of the night was the magnificently built "Someone to Watch Over Me." It sure beats watching TV and waiting for your computer to boot up.

Zach Galifianakis opening
piano noodling
Here We Go [piano]
The Girl I Knew [song build]
Just Fooling Myself [b+w Gretsch]
Excuse to Cry [electric guitar]
Christmas song? [electric gtr]
That's Just What You Are [piano + celeste]
Amateur [piano]
mystery song build
Knock Yourself Out [piano + harmonica]
Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way [piano + celeste]
Strings That Tie to You [piano]
Same Thing [acoustic guitar]
Nice Work If You Can Get It [song build]
Our Love Is Here to Stay [piano, synths, vocoder, celeste]
How Long Has This Been Going On [electric guitar]
Someone to Watch Over Me [song build]

See also:
» you don't know the meaning of the blues
» i'll be back again

Sunday, December 11, 2005

you don't know the meaning of the blues

Annie and Dance joined us at our favorite four-seat table for night 2 of the Largo campaign. The best part? I still had one night to go!

Jon Brion, Largo, December 9, 2005: Flanagan made the introductions and alluded to the week's Grammy nominations for Late Registration. Again, he referred to it as Jon's album, though Jon was quick to remind everyone that Kanye may have a differing opinion. Jon began the set in his typical manner, knocking out a Duke Ellington song, followed by a couple of his own, as well as his old favorite, "Someone Else's Problem Now." There was a time in the not so distant past that the Punch-Drunk Love theme would've left me in the dark until the delicious, distinctive tickle that characterizes "Here We Go" kicked in--not so now, for what it's worth. It's the softest, warmest blanket of a song I can think of, and it makes me melt every time I hear it live.

Jon asked for requests and, amid the volley of shouts, picked out Bowie, slamming out "Lady Stardust." From there, he did a song build that I didn't recognize, though the beat sounded like "Tusk." I know I invoke that song way too much, but that beat stays with me, and it's the best stab I can take. "If I Only Had a Brain" started out as an amusement while he readied "Knock Yourself Out," but Jon did a couple of verses anyway.

And this is where the set took a slight left turn. Jon explained, "Chet Baker did this song, but he's dead, and I'm still here," but gave no indication of the cathartic, harrowing treatment that would follow. He built "You Don't Know What Love Is," an old favorite. Unlike the smoky piano ballad I recall, tonight's rendition started out almost violently and was marked by an especially aggressive guitar solo that resulted in a broken string. He stretched it past the 10-minute mark, and at the end of his vocals, he pushed the mic stand to the floor. He didn't slap it or anything melodramatic, but it was an unusual yet emotional move for him. He ended the song back at the piano and celeste, though the tone didn't let up. After the final crescendo, he thanked us and remarked that it had been a "dark two weeks of the soul" and that our coming out meant a lot to him. With that, Jon ended the first set, a mere hour after it started.

A second set awaited, though we hardly knew what to expect. Of course we were staying, but a part of me was more concerned that it would be too voyeuristic a performance to enjoy. Though I've seen moody Jon Brion shows in the past, whatever sense of malaise we may have felt was more subjective; the fact that this time he admitted to turmoil almost implicated us as guilty rubberneckers craning to catch a glimpse of an impending breakdown. But enough of the justification and speculation--let's get down to business.

The break between sets lasted about an hour, and when Jon returned, he looked his more customary chipper self. He immediately called up Benmont Tench for a song that he explained is either about being comfortable with being alone or with only one person for the rest of your life: "Waterloo Sunset." Just that day, Paul had asked me if Jon has any comfort songs--the ones he goes back to again and again. Without a doubt he does, and "Waterloo Sunset" has been the frontrunner at the recent shows I've seen. By coincidence, it was the one song that Annie wanted to hear, as well. Benmont turned in his normal exquisite work, adding a subtle, sparkling touch.

Jon took on the next few songs by himself, including "I Was Happy with You," complemented with imploring gestures that may have indicated his emotional state, as well as the plaintive and stirring "Trial and Error." He asked for requests and answered the shout for Fear of Music with "Heaven" on piano and harmonica. I'm always surprised that Jon knows that era, but I love it when we get to hear them.

At Jon's request, Benmont returned to the stage and named a key. He chose A, Jon took the guitar for "Get Ready," the old soul classic, and that was the end of Benmont's second contribution to the show. Again, Jon went into a couple of his own songs by himself: "Over Our Heads," with synth and vocoder treatment, then "I'm Further On," with a big, crunchy guitar ending that seemed to quote Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man."

Then came one of those trademark Largo moments: Jon called up Michel Gondry to the stage. Yes, Michel fucking Gondry, visual artist extraordinaire. Yes, Eternal Sunshine. Yes, Massive Attack, Bjork, Chemical Brothers, and White Stripes videos. Yes, the new Kanye West video featuring a cameo by one Jon Brion, in a striped suit. And more.

Michel took the drums--his instrument of choice from a previous life, apparently, while Jon sat down at the piano. Jon started by creating a chirpy, beeping electronic background, and for a long time, Michel simply watched him without establishing a beat, though he looked like he was listening for the opportune moment. From there, Jon took a guitar, and the action finally kicked in. They turned it up for what sounded like a Led Zeppelin song, which then became "Once in a Lifetime," then next covered a wide range of influences and sounds, from a rave-up to slow and bluesy to fast and punk. Jon happily brought in another old favorite, "Just What I Needed," and even over the glorious din, the audience managed to shout out the chorus in what was the only real singalong of the night.

Jon put down the guitar and encouraged Michel to take on a drum solo, and the audience was happy to egg him on. Michel found one of the mics near the drum kit and managed to remark, "Drum solos are for zee hippiez, I only keep zee beat," but he gave in to peer pressure and took the spotlight for several minutes. Jon joined him on the synths and celeste, crafting "Rapper's Delight" from Michel's beat. Annie and I looked around to see if Kanye might jump in and rap over it! But nope, we got a seamless segue into Daft Punk's "Around the World" (MP3). I can't even begin to tell you how inspired that choice is. First off, it's yet another song that you would never expect to hear at Largo. And second, I believe Michel directed the video!

They exchanged hugs before Michel left the stage, and Jon asked for requests again. "Don't Fear the Reaper" brought on Jon's impersonation of Christopher Walken and the vow that he would do it only if Will Ferrel played cowbell. Instead, he chose the Les Paul suggestion and married it to the Beatles requests also thrown about. In another twist, he asked us for a Beatles era, of which the middle was definitely our favorite--and Jon's too. Finally, he yelled at Benmont at the back of the room to name a middle-era Beatles album. The reply: Magical Mystery Tour, which elicited "you son of a bitch" from Jon. Meanwhile, other Beatles requests were still flying about, and Jon jokingly turned them back at us. Some of the funnier quotes: "I give you Tench and Gondry, but it's always more!" and "I've been clinging to the sheets for the past week, asking why is life as such, then I come here and bleed for you people."

To satisfy the early- and late-era grovels, he played the opening chord of "Hard Day's Night" and another passage I couldn't place. But the real selection was an instrumental "Your Mother Should Know," but about a million times cooler than McCartney's version.

Benmont was summoned once again to conclude the "Beatle-riffic" evening. "Tomorrow Never Knows" was served folk-style with Jon on acoustic guitar, followed by Jon's big ol' screeches on "Slow Down." Benmont's work was a study in contrasts; where "Waterloo Sunset" was delicate and exquisite, he veritably pounded out "Slow Down." Before he left, Jon thanked us once again; I hope our hoots and hollers showed gratitude enough.

Set 1
piano noodling
I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good) [piano + celeste]
Hook, Line, and Sinker [black-and-white Gretsch]
Walking through Walls [song build]
Someone Else's Problem Now [piano + harmonica]
Here We Go [piano]
Lady Stardust [piano]
mystery song build
If I Only Had a Brain [guitar + harmonica]
Knock Yourself Out [guitar + harmonica]
You Don't Know What Love Is [song build]

Set 2
Waterloo Sunset* [B+W Gretsch]
I Was Happy with You [song build]
Trial and Error [piano]
Heaven [Talking Heads; piano + harmonica]
Get Ready*
Over Our Heads [synths and vocoder]
I'm Further On [song build]
Heartbreaker/Once in a Lifetime/Just What I Needed**
Rapper's Delight/Around the World**
Your Mother Should Know [Les Paul style]
Tomorrow Never Knows* [acoustic guitar]
Slow Down* [acoustic guitar]

* = with Benmont Tench
** = with Michel Gondry

See also:
» the man some girls think of as handsome
» i'll be back again

Saturday, December 10, 2005

i'll be back again

Basketball has the triple double, and hockey has the hat trick--the lofty goal rarely achieved by even the best players. Brionists don't have it so easy, especially if you live outside Southern California, but the opportunity occasionally presents itself. With reservations for Jon Brion's show with Nels Cline as well as Jon's usual Friday gig, I was happy enough to combine two events in one trip. When a third Jon Brion show was added, I jumped on the opportunity.

Nels Cline and Jon Brion, December 8, 2005: Those of you who are skeptical about Los Angeles--well, I have no real hope of dispelling your doubts, but all I know is that Nels and Jon are two fine examples of the artistry that can exist in the city, and to see the two of them together is worth the effort. Overall, tonight's show was nowhere as weird as last month's Largo outing, though you could hardly call it predictable either. The best way for me to do this is to list the songs in chronological order. Without further ado:

Song 1: For the first song, Jon planted himself at the piano and celeste for a ragtimey lilt, while Nels took up his white Stratocaster and kicked off with an eerie, Twilight Zone-like motif. This was not unlike the beginning of last month's set. Nels turned in some amazing fretwork, and to my ears, his guitar almost sounded like a theremin in parts, recalling the theme for a scary or spooky movie. Also, much like the songs from November's show, this one seemed to move through many disparate parts, though they were all tied together by the fact that Nels and Jon were playing off each other. The spookiness gave way to a warmer, jazzier sound, with Nels laying down riffs that wouldn't be out of place on, say, a Nels Cline Singers record, while Jon played a tune on the piano that could've been inspired by Duke Ellington. The next phase of the song seemed to combine the first two parts, with Nels adding more space transmission-like sounds, while Jon looped the piano from phase 2, adding some harmonica as well as rhythm courtesy of the Casio keyboard. They both piled on distortion and white noise atop the somewhat wobbly foundation. From here, Jon went to the drums and added a very simple spare beat, while Nels looped some guitar feedback. Jon joined Nels at the front of the stage, strapping on the guitar and ripping it up. For this part, Jon went to town, while Nels played his steady riff. Nels seems like such a generous collaborator; he's obviously an amazing guitarist, but he's so gracious in turning over the floor to his fellow musicians. Regardless, it's probably an indication of how he's earned the respect of so many colleagues.

Nels and Jon eventually hit the same level, creating a wall of guitar. To me, it was like a rocking version of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"--or maybe the sound of the world ending. This morphed into a spaghetti western-like theme; Paul compared it to something that Howe Gelb might do, and I don't think he's far off in that description. They took the passage through its paces, speeding it up, then slowing back down, but before they relinquished the song to the rest of history, there was one more exploration. With Jon on an acoustic guitar and Nels on lap steel, they took on what sounded like a vaguely flamenco beat for a simple but hypnotic ending to their first foray of the night.

Song 2: Nels took on his white Strat, while Jon grabbed a 12-string. Paul thought it might be a baritone guitar, but I have no idea. They kicked off with a psychedelic treatment, with Jon speeding up the tempo for an almost poppy sound, while Nels maintained the swirling feel. Nels took the drums for this song, while Jon went for faster, crunchier guitar over Nels's guitar loops. I wasn't as surprised by Nels's transition this time, but I relished the opportunity to watch him. He seemed a little more confident on the skins, but he still watched Jon attentively for cues. Nels eventually returned to the guitar, and both he and Jon churned out lots of white noise and distortion--this passage could've been taken from a Sonic Youth record. Nels grabbed the whisk he had been carrying in his back pocket and applied it to his guitar, while Jon laid his guitar on his lap and banged on the strings.

Without blinking an eye, Jon returned to the piano for a bluesy, slower passage, to which Nels applied his distinctive jazzier riffs. Jon also played the Casio, using it for a deeper, more rhythmic effect. The end of the song reminded me a bit of Bill Withers, but don't take my word on it.

Song 3: The first two songs of the evening seemed to be very much in the collaborative spirit, with both Nels and Jon taking turns to lead the song to the next level. For this one, Nels definitely set the tone. In fact, he started it off, and for several minutes, Jon simply sat on his piano bench and watched with a huge smile on his face as Nels churned out spacey sounds from his white Strat. Jon seemed to be searching for his own jumping-off point, pecking at the celeste and reaching for a harmonica but not staying with either. Finally, he joined in on guitar. By this point, Nels was delicately picking notes, while Jon added vaguely twangy guitar, but this gave way to Jon's distortion and other effects and Nels's use of the spring. My notes indicate it was a fairly natural progression, but reading that now, I have no idea how they pulled it off. Regardless, building on the chaos, they went on a more experimental bent, with Jon establishing a beat on guitar, while Nels added more noodly sounds. However, they brought it back to the exquisite tone from the beginning of the song. This didn't last too long, as they reintroduced more distortion and less melody, though the song's hypnotic qualities survived. Again, Nels brought out the spring--always a fun sign.

And what do you know--Nels went back to the drums for a fast, aggressive, and bombastic turn. He didn't watch Jon much at this point, and at the Casio, Jon couldn't see him either. I have no idea how they ended this song.

Song 4: Jon took a small guitar and Nels chose the lap steel. This song was gorgeous and straightforward and poppy, resembling a signature Jon Brion song or a tune from an early Aimee Mann record. Jon hummed through parts of it, so I have hopes that it will eventually garner verses, a chorus, and maybe even a bridge. I'd also wish for it to show up on a Jon Brion album, but I'm not going to kid myself on that point.

Song 5: Nels grabbed a teal-rimmed guitar with a matching strap, while Jon turned to the celeste. They crafted a moody opening, and gradually, Jon's lead became more apparent. He tapped out a beat with his feet, then added harmonica and very subtle drums. He returned to the piano and--gasp!--started singing.


It was the first time I had heard this song, and frankly, I loved it. The tune was definitely in the mold of Jon's awesome breakup songs, à la "Ruin My Day" but moodier. Fortunately, it was nowhere as maudlin as "You Made the Girl" (even I have my doubts about that one). The chorus seemed to be "I guess I'm wrong/And I could've been all along," and he seemed to sing about five different verses. I hope that song sees the light of day eventually. It's a keeper.

At the end of the song, Jon turned to Nels with a big shrug and said, "Fuck if I know." I guess it was as much of a surprise to him as it was to us.

Song 6: Jon asked for another Guinness and commented that they had the rest of the night staring down at us, to which Nels answered with a rocking riff. Jon's reply: "Dude, you rock," then he took the drums. This started off like a punk song, with two guitars going 100mph. They made way for a short, quieter impasse, but it was as if they were simply revving their engines before the next lap. They came back with Nels's jazzy riffs, while Jon contributed a low-level buzz as a backdrop. They ended with more weirdness, letting the song disintegrate before our ears.

Song 7: Jon took his ukulele, while Nels took his 12-string. Jon plucked out some notes and demurred, "I'm going to play 'Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,' unless you start something. Those are your two options--take us to the moon or I'm taking us to Bacharach." The moon would wait, as Jon plowed on with Bacharach. Nels, ever the sport, did his part, looking very amused during the number.

Song 8: Nels stayed on the 12-string and Jon picked up an acoustic. Nels started off with exquisite, haunting looped guitar sounds, and from there, Jon somehow managed to turn it into a plaintive, stripped-down version of the Beatles' "I'll Be Back." Nels exchanged his 12-string for the lap steel and played the melody of the song. You couldn't ask for a more gorgeous ending to the evening.

Nels's friend taped the performance again, and he said he'd be back for the February 18 show that Jon announced from the stage. Nels claimed to have no knowledge of the gig, but I'm going to pencil it in anyway.

See also:
» i like jon brion. a lot. (part 1)
» top 5 Largo memories

Monday, December 05, 2005

our shore town knockdown sure was fun

Overheard at the show: "I wish we could be cool and say, I like you, you like me, let's get to know each other, but it always has to be about who's in control. Like, she goes crazy if I haven't responded to her e-mail within the hour, and in my own sick way, I know that, so I sit on her message for three hours."

When you're seeing a show by the band that wrote perhaps the greatest breakup song ever ("Happy"--more on that later), you couldn't ask to overhear a more appropriate exchange.

The Wrens, MeadowlandsAny self-respecting indie kid knows that the Wrens are one of the notable success stories of the past few years, and I won't rehash their tale, though it's certainly inspirational. I fell in love with the songs I heard on KEXP, and after another month or so of listening to The Meadowlands, full-blown wonderment blossomed. By the time the lyrics had knotted my stomach and sent shivers of recognition down my spine, I finally got to see the band live at Noise Pop in 2004. Talk about living to play! It's rare that you see a band pour so much energy and enthusiasm into a show, supposed coolness and hauteur be damned. Thus, it was with great pleasure and anticipation that I marked my calendar for two more shows from the band.

The Wrens, Bottom of the Hill, December 1, 2005: I know I've been resting on my laurels when it's been a while since I've gone to Bottom of the Hill, by far the coolest venue in the city, booking groups that go on to bigger and better. For this show, the club was packed with people who had braved the cold, blustery night to see an incredibly deserving band.

The last time the Wrens played San Francisco, Kevin Whelan had a whole bass, albeit one held together with--in addition to a wing and a prayer--lots of gaffer tape. This time, he seemed to sport an oversize, misshapen mandolin, now that entire chunks of the guitar had been lost to onstage antics. Paul mentioned that it had, for example, speared the ceiling of the Knitting Factory in New York. Julie speculated that the next time we see the band, he'll be playing a toothpick.

As usual, the band set up their own equipment, with the help of a couple of tech guys--good to see the Meadowlands profits (ha) being invested wisely. They opened with Greg Whelan and Charles Bissell onstage, playing an older song that I'm not familiar with. Midway through the song, they were joined by Jerry and Kevin, the latter engulfed in a huge parka with a hood that hid much of his face. As the energy mounted, he threw it off; later in the night, a voice from the back of the room requested "more parka." The crowd was pretty noisy at the beginning, maybe because they didn't know whether soundcheck had ended, but early on in the set, when the band unfurled the eerie intro to "Happy," a respectful silence had descended. In the past, I've noted the resemblances between "Happy" and U2's "With or Without You" as well as the Chameleons' "Tears," but tonight, the Comsat Angels' "Lost Continent" was the first tune that came to mind--none of which may matter to anyone other than me, but I dig 'em all.

The Wrens, Slim's, December 2, 2005It's been about 18 months since I last saw the Wrens, and their show was just as powerful as I remembered. The band mostly stuck with Meadowlands favorites, reinterpreting a few. For example, "Boys You Won't" got the now customary audience participation treatment, whereas Jerry didn't sing on "House that Guilt Built" for this outing. Kevin retold the story about Bottom of the Hill's legendary booking agent, Ramona, and how she was the only person who gave them a chance 10 years ago. If they continue to play Bottom of the Hill solely for the sake of nostalgia or gratitude, I'll be a happy girl.

Though the Wrens are emphatically a band--that is, they share vocal duties, none of the members seem like prima donnas, and they don't seem to take directions from a ringleader--it's hard not to single out Kevin Whelan. He's the one jumping up and down, threatening the audience with his guitar, and generally pumping up the crowd. Also, in my humble opinion, he has the best voice in the band. Tonight, he piggybacked on one of their tech guys, and within the span of about a minute, the two had somehow managed to turn him around so that Kevin flipped over the tech's head and was laid gently on his back on the tiny stage. (Think Cirque du Soleil, Jersey style.)

We missed the first band, Pale Pacific, also a 10-year-old band, though from the Washington state. Instead, we arrived just in time to see the Rum Diary, though I didn't realize who they were until the end of their set. You can hear some nods to Grandaddy in their sound, but they're a little too emo for my tastes.

The Wrens, Slim's, December 2, 2005: It's easy to cite today's ADD as a reason for the music industry's slide, but you wouldn't have guessed it Friday, judging by the crowd that came out to see the band "promoting" a 2-year-old album that proliferated mainly due to good word of mouth in the first place. Shockingly, my cousin came to the show, based on what she had heard from me and her coworker. The dear McCormicks also joined the party. Yay!

Slim's can't hold a candle to Bottom of the Hill for many reasons, but fortunately, it's bigger and less claustrophobic, and it means that more people are hearing the band's music. The show opened with Charles and Greg again, though they went with "This Boy Is Exhausted," one of more glaring omissions from the night before. In the Kevin Antics Department, he managed to climb atop one of the amps and jump down to the stage; he also mentioned that it was his 36th birthday and thanked the audience for making it the best one ever. In terms of music, though, Greg took the lead vocals for "Thirteen Grand," and they did a rousing version of "Napiers" during the encore. Alas, they didn't do "Ex-Girl Collection" over the course of the two shows, even though they had put in a good attempt last year.

Overall, this show was looser and jokier, whereas the night before had been more intense. I'd see a full week of Wrens shows if I could, but unfortunately, this was the end of the line for now. I hope they come back sooner rather than later.

Again, we missed the first opener, but we saw the set by Parchman Farm, a local band that has been getting some buzz. Their lead singer is the guy who used to be in another local band, Mover. Even an '80s girl like me could tell they borrowed heavily from Led Zeppelin's sound and '70s style in general. Make of that what you will.