Monday, February 20, 2006

three-god night

I'm in the throes of some serious PCD (postconcert depression), though I have three shows scheduled for this week. I miss my minivan something awful, but perhaps a little blogging will take the blues away.

Nels Cline and Jon Brion, Largo, February 18, 2006: Three is the American ritual number; we tell jokes with three parts, and we order everything in three sizes. It's the smallest number to constitute a majority. Two points make up a line, but three points indicate a path or a trajectory--usually. But when you're talking about two improvisational geniuses, three is just another wild and woolly night.

Jon and Nels's first show together was a learning exercise for everyone in the room, perhaps most notably for the two men onstage, whereas the second show saw more of Jon's presence. Only a fool would try to call this one ahead of time.

Nels Cline and Jon Brion, Largo, February 18, 2006Once inside Largo, we noticed a small array of stuffed animals strewn across the pedals and amps at the front of the stage. This meant only one thing: Bobb Bruno would open the show! At 10pm, the man in the bunny outfit made his way to the stage and played a 15-minute set. Unlike at the first Nels and Jon gig, this set wasn't confined to electronic drum noises. He also played against backing guitar tracks, some of which were very beautiful. At the end of Bobb's set, we watched another adorable scene unfold as Sami cradled the menagerie in his arms to take them offstage.

Before either man picked up an instrument, Jon came clean with Nels's fears that they wouldn't be able to satisfy a roomful of people out on a Saturday night and warned of their intentions to "drain [their] subconscious." He offered refunds, but not a soul moved to the door. Frankly, if the crowd weren't already scared off by Jon's visual violation of a jacket, they had already navigated the biggest trial of the night. Fortunately, sporting a black long-sleeved knit shirt and vintage blue sharkskin pants, Nels held down the other side of the stage with his inimitable elegance.

Song 1: We expected a meandering warm-up session, but we had no idea that it would stretch out to an hour of free-form improv--though I doubt that Nels and Jon did either. There's no way to understand what happened onstage without seeing it yourself, but I'm just the dork to attempt an explanation.

Jon started on the piano, celeste, and Casio, while Nels grabbed his trusty Jazzmaster for an avante intro. The two echoed each other's notes for a spooky, spacey sound. My notes tell me it was reminiscent of the Twilight Zone theme. This became something prettier and more pensive until, still matching each other note for note, they sped up to an almost frenetic pace.

Changing up, Nels reached for a smaller black-and-white guitar while Jon stayed on the piano. Jon played sparer notes, and Nels added a psychedelic spin. Jon switched to the drum set, though he didn't go with the usual instrumentation. Instead, he grabbed a very large tambourine with one hand and beat directly on the skins with the other; the resulting beat reminded me of Led Zeppelin. Once Jon was satisfied with the loops, he went back to the piano and Casio, playing in a trancelike state.

Nels reintroduced the Jazzmaster for fast, reverb-inflected notes that he set up on a loop. Jon did the same on the piano, though at this point he favored sparser, simpler notes. While Nels ran a spring over his guitar strings, Jon picked up a guitar to contribute liquid, languid bass. By then, Nels had looped enough guitar to create a wall of white noise in the background, which freed up his hands for a touch of haunting, crystalline sounds, at points coming across almost like a siren.

Nels jumped over to the drums to carve out a steady, building beat while Jon remained on guitar and ran through a handful of styles. Most notable to me was the heavy, crunchy treatment that brought to mind the Stooges. With Nels still on drums, Jon turned back to the piano-based instruments as well as the crotales (his newest toys onstage) for a jazzy, spacey sound. Nels returned to the Fender and his pedals, and I could almost hear a theremin at points.

Nels turned it up for a fast, New Wave-like sound, to which Jon added drums. Jon quickly went back to guitar, and in perhaps my favorite sight of the night, the two of them stood at the front of the stage, playing off each other. Nels yelled encouragement at Jon, and Jon went to town with a heavy but melodic solo reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine. From there, Jon switched to bass, while Nels took his soloing turn, crafting finer notes than Jon. This section was very pretty and melodic and almost poppy, even with the distortion pedals at work. While Nels brought out the spring again, Jon squeezed the strings on his guitar--the members of Sonic Youth would've been proud. This gave way to Jon playing Mike Watt-worthy bass notes while Nels made his guitar squeal with delight.

Taking a 180-degree turn, Nels introduced haunting, Western-style guitar. At the piano, Jon sampled his own background vocals, manipulated them beyond recognition, and added the vocoder. Meanwhile, Nels reached for his lap steel and the pink hockey puck he uses for sampling vocals. Squatting on the floor and bent over his guitar, he breathed a wordless chant into the sampler. (Later, we found out that Nels inflicted a 10-inch rip up his inseam while attempting this move.) What a tableau: the two of them flanking opposite sides of the stage but doing the exact same thing.

Jon took it a step further, turning the vocoder mic inside the piano to sample the sound of hammers hitting the backing. Nels did his part by playing a series of hard, single chords à la "Hard Day's Night," except abstract. With the addition of crotales, Jon made it almost a pop song. He also contributed bursts of harmonica, as well as the kazoo-like thing that resembles an egg timer (really). Nels brought out a new guitar: a shiny red 12-string. If I knew what I was talking about, I might propose it's a cross between Dylan and Aaron Copland (that must be the most pretentious thing I've ever typed).

When the two finally surfaced for air, they looked a little exhausted and rather surprised at the applause. Jon's promise of Grand Funk Railroad covers for the rest of the night aside, we were ready for more.

Song 2: There are few visions more enthralling than a phalanx of guitars and guitarists; lacking such numbers, a couple of deities will do nicely. Jon grabbed a weathered acoustic guitar, while Nels donned his Fender. They started with somber minor chords, and as the song progressed, Jon hummed in parts, and I heard hints of early Elliott Smith, especially "Between the Bars." Though the tempo of the song increased, its character remained the same. If these sessions ever see the light of day, I hope that song makes it to the final release.

Song 3: At Jon's beckoning, Matt Chamberlain joined the group. Jon made the briefest of introductions ("Matt, Nels. Nels, Matt."), called it a "rehearsal," then told us that the group would be breaking up in 15 minutes.

I believe Matt started off the song, while Nels took the electric guitar, and Jon manned the bass. Early on, it was clear that Nels would lead this number, which began with a heavy, sleazy, slow, epic feel--it was great. Jon seemed happy to sit on the piano bench, play bass, watch Nels, and grin contentedly. Nels eventually sped up the pace so that it was almost like an old punk song. Not long after, Jon literally threw away his guitar pick and turned to the piano and the Casio keyboard.

At this point, Nels tried another tack, and his guitar sang out with soaring, inspirational tones. Jon again added crotales and the celeste, further lightening the mood, and Nels matched the notes. In response, Jon came in with harmonica, and together, they nearly churned out a pop song. They took this song through a jazzier treatment, most notably in Matt's changing rhythm backing and Jon's piano work, though Nels didn't shirk his duties either. Jon briefly took out the hammer to bang a bit against the piano, but it was a short diversion, as he soon jumped back on guitar.

Together again, Jon and Nels brought the rawk. Between a few yells and grunts, Nels laid on the heavy distortion, and the two traded rounds of feedback before tempering the sonic attack and bringing it back to delicate, finer notes. Nels took the lead again, while Jon sprinkled in a few squeaky notes. By this point, they had firmly established a bossa nova beat. At the very end, Jon returned to the piano for a finishing of subtle notes. He dubbed it "Bossa Nova #47," but that in no way accounts for the other 46 parts.

See also:
» i'll be back again
» i like jon brion. a lot. (part 1)
» smarty pants
» Nels nights

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