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

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