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

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