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
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