Friday, March 31, 2006

you're never coming back here again

I wasn't sad about missing Spoon on their last swing through San Francisco, but I was glad to see that Britt Daniel was returning for Noise Pop.

Britt Daniel, Swedish American Hall, March 29, 2006: Spoon's normal setup is undeniably spare, but Britt's solo rig is almost comically minimal. As far as I could tell, he had one boombox, one amp, one guitar (a gorgeous brown Gibson hollow body), and maybe a few pedals. At least the boombox looked snazzy.

Britt Daniel, Swedish American Hall, March 29, 2006Britt carried along an informal setlist, but he said early on that he would play what the audience wanted to hear and, in fact, picked up many requests. To start, he launched into the awesome "Advance Cassette," and over the course of the night, he played a mix of Spoon's five albums. To my delight, he hit more older songs than I expected, though as you might've guessed, Gimme Fiction tracks had the edge. We got a great cover of John Lennon's "Isolation," and I'll never tire of hearing "Metal Detektor" or "The Agony of Laffitte." Finally, any night where you hear a song from the Soft Effects EP is a good gig.

Britt was surprisingly modest, apologizing and warning us about songs that he didn't think would work. Before "Me and the Bean," he commented that he wished he had written it, and he claimed that he couldn't carry off "Fitted Shirt" without the harmonies and the drums. As far as I'm concerned, I didn't hear a bad song in the bunch. I can't comment on the new songs just yet; they sounded fine, though I didn't love either one the way that, say, "Delicate Place" hit me as soon as I heard it.

At one point, Britt mentioned that he's played more solo shows in San Francisco than anywhere else other than Austin. It didn't sound like he had planned it that way, but I'm glad to have been able to enjoy the bounty in my own backyard.

The openers were all singer-songwriters, though with different styles. The first one was named Meric Long, and he wore his heart rather visibly on his sleeve. I liked his use of loops, and for one song, his friend played the chair (rhythm). The second was named Martyn Leaper, from the Minders. We noted that his songs were about 2 minutes each, and Annie and I nudged each other during his rendition of "Waterloo Sunset." The last was Laura Viers, who had opened for Colin Meloy back in January. She played a longer set this time, and I loved the part when she went completely unplugged and played her song while walking around the hall, like a true troubador.

See also:
» i'll be out on the town
» turn to crystal form

Thursday, March 30, 2006

in fact, you're fanatical

I'm finding stray bits of confetti in my bag, my clothes, my apartment, and my cousin's car--and I couldn't be happier. The explanation follows.

The Flaming Lips, Bimbo's 365 Club, March 27, 2006: Back in 1998, the Flaming Lips conducted one of their first Boombox Experiments as part of the Noise Pop Festival at Bimbo's. I recall wanting so badly to go and no one taking up my offer. That gig haunts me to this day. But even if it weren't for those regrets, attending this show was a complete no-brainer.

Wayne Coyne, The Flaming Lips, Bimbo's 365 Club, March 27, 2006If you've checked out the Lips in concert at least once since 1999, you kinda know the schtick: fake blood, hand puppets, confetti, balloons, mayhem. And if you were less than enamored with their music, you might not care for the spectacle.

I've seen the Flaming Lips a number of times now, and I'm not one of those people. I've loved the last few albums, the energy of their performances, and maybe those crinkly laugh lines around Wayne Coyne's eyes. Heh. Of course, on the last occasion, I was in my pajamas and surrounded by a gaggle of some of my favorite people at Madison Square Garden. It would be a tough act to follow.

Bimbo's holds about 800 people, and its stage can support a good crowd. For example, it fit all of the New Pornographers and at least another 7 or 8 audience members who had been invited onstage to play air instruments. Thus, I was surprised that the Flaming Lips chose to use only the front 1/4 of the stage, squeezing in not only their equipment but all their accessories as well. In fact, they almost misplaced the nun hand puppet that accompanies Wayne at the end of "Yoshimi." But more on that later.

Before the music began, Wayne welcomed the Noise Pop organizers and an official from the mayor's office, who asked him to read an official proclamation for Noise Pop Week in San Francisco. From there, it was on to the favored Lips opening: "Race for the Prize," complete with all the usual goodies. The balloons, confetti, and streamers rained down on us, and I could only see smiling faces around the room.

They played most of the hits (I could've used more Soft Bulletin, to be honest), a few new songs, and their cover of "War Pigs." We also saw Wayne conducting a jerry-rigged Speak and Spell-like item on which he played the cow and the duck. "Do You Realize" doesn't make me cry anymore, but that doesn't mean I love the song any less. In between tunes, Wayne talked a lot about politics, taking a didactic approach at turns, though I never got the feeling he was speaking down to us.

Steve Drozd, The Flaming Lips, Bimbo's 365 Club, March 27, 2006The Lips are so big these days, and it's been a long time since I've seen them at such close range. But for those of us who like to think that their favorite rock stars are really just normal people, it was pretty cool to watch them not only setting up their own equipment but also checking in with each other between songs.

We took a spot right in front of Steve Drozd, and it became quickly apparent that he is the musical maestro in the band, switching between instruments and adding backing vocals. Steve and Wayne have great chemistry, looking to each other for cues and encouragement. I hope they were having as much fun as we were.

As is the case with most Noise Pop shows, we got three openers. The first was a local DJ. The second was Stardeath and the White Dwarfs, notable for the fact that their singer is Wayne's nephew. Let's just say they wear their lineage proudly. And after them was a band out of Denton, Texas, called Midlake who were truly excellent. They played against a backdrop of film clips, some of them taken from older movies and some of which seemed to be created especially for them. They made the wait for the big headliner very enjoyable.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

and when you touch down

Warning: Based on true events.

I'm not actively trying to distort facts--well, no more than any accredited member of the left-wing media conspiracy--but with every Nels Cline/Jon Brion show, I fail further in my efforts to document their feats of derring do. Dancing about architecture, indeed--proceed at your own risk.

Nels Cline and Jon Brion, Largo, March 25, 2006: If you had called Largo today to, say, get a reservation for one of the "very special guest" dates in April, you would've heard Flanagan describe the night's headliners as "two nutjobs, so come on down." I was elated when Dean, Adam, and Paul (not Paolo) agreed to join me for the show tonight. I know that they're open to new, different music, and there's no denying it takes a certain sensibility to commit to two hours of complete improv. As I looked around the room, I wondered how many of the attendees knew that they weren't in for a typical Jon Brion night or a Wilco-related Nels Cline experience. As it turned out, quite a few were in for a huge surprise, made evident by the various groups I saw leaving before the show had ended.

Once again, Bobb Bruno in bunny drag opened the show. At first, he went more bombastic and less melodic than the last appearance, and he even had a small set of sleigh bells and an egg beater for two separate short passages. But as the set progressed, he incorporated backing tracks of languid guitars for what may have been called post-rock circa 1997. He left the stage a mere 15 minutes after he began.

Unless anyone objects, I'll go with my usual NC/JB Duo report format. Decoder rings, on!

Song 1: The men of the evening cut through the crowd and didn't even introduce themselves. As it turned out, 45 minutes of pure improv would elapse before they addressed the audience for the first time this night.

Jon went straight to the piano and started hitting the keys for short, lurching notes. Nels took a little while longer to set up on guitar, but he soon picked up his end. Together, they built up this passage until the effect resembled a funhouse theme gone awry, thanks in large part to Nels's KAOS pad.

For the second phase of the song, Nels laid down a somber track, and Jon gilded it with abstract sampled vocals and the vocoder. He even turned the vocoder's microphone in on the piano's innards before settling back into the more customary piano and keyboards. They took a detour as Nels picked up a different guitar for a psychedelic sound, while Jon favored the big Casio and the little keyboards, as well as the vocoder, with which he added eerie, subtle vocals that I couldn't make out. But it was only a matter of time before they changed up, moving to a more complicated and frenzied progression. By this point, the sound of Nels's guitar seemed to swirl through the air, building to Singers-worthy fretwork. Jon continued on the Casio and vocals, as well as Eternal Sunshine-like piano.

A spacey lull gave way to a fast, echoing guitar riff from Nels. On drums, Jon added the perfect rock beat, then came up front and picked up a guitar. Nels brought his own macho licks, while Jon played contrasting, escalating notes, complete with lots of pedal action, interrupted only when he broke a guitar string. At this point, Nels switched guitars for a droning, buzzy tone, while Jon went to the piano and the Casio, pounding out frenzied, disheveled notes. White noise descended upon the room, then gave way to Nels and a gorgeous Western-sounding passage. Jon joined him on guitar, adding color to Nels's main melody. For a spell, the two of them stood as reflections of the other, each with a guitar and a foot on a pedal--hotT.

It may be evident by these long, long opening exercises, but I should mention that over the course of this series of shows, Jon and Nels seem to have become more comfortable playing off each other and letting the song lead, rather than trying to edit themselves. Of course, I've never gotten the idea that they censor themselves in any way, but it's been so much fun to watch the two of them communicating through actions, glances, and even occasional words. And when the two of them are at the front of the stage, each armed with his guitar and treasure trove of gadgets, there's no place I'd rather be.

They added to this base to create a melody that sounded strangely familiar, even if I couldn't possibly tell you what song it might've been. Nels's guitar sounded somewhat eastern, while Jon brought the rhythm. Nels turned it up, going screechy but melodic, and Jon followed suit. If I had to make a comparison, I'd say there was a whiff of Zeppelin in the room.

Although we had no idea of it at the time, the song began to settle down. They slowed and stretched out the notes, until it was almost like a helicopter circling overhead. Nels played an especially hopeful melody that made me think of the dawn breaking. We couldn't have asked for a more gorgeous denouement.

Song 2: If anyone wonders whether Nels and Jon rehearse before these shows, all doubts should be laid to rest once you've seen the two of them looking about the tiny Largo stage before each song, wondering where to start. Nels suggested to Jon that they do "something goth," and Jon agreed that "there's always room for more goth."

On the contrary, we got Nels and rippling guitar sounds from his trusty brown Stratocaster and Jon on drums for a very spare treatment. Throw in a vibraphone, and they could've been Tortoise. Jon switched to a hollow-body 12-string guitar to introduce feedback and distortion. Meanwhile, Nels maintained the prime melody, then took back the lead with a heavier rendition of that motif.

Jon jumped to the piano and keyboards for abstract notes far from the melody Nels had introduced. He also fooled around with the Casio and celeste, while Nels grabbed a small black-and-white guitar for a psychedelic spin. This didn't seem to find a form until Jon returned to guitar, and the two of them built up an epic that resembled My Bloody Valentine.

When Nels took the drums, he changed the tone completely. He sounded funky and emphatic, and he looked completely assured. With Jon still on guitar, they evoked the Stooges and rocked the house. I loved it, and Nels was a pleasure to behold.

In a complete turnabout, Jon knocked out some jazzy piano while Nels grabbed his lap steel for doleful notes that'll sound familiar to anyone who's heard him on "Dash 7" with Jeff Tweedy. They concluded the song with Nels's lap steel, looped, layered, and accompanied by Jon's celeste and piano.

Song 3: Jon thanked us and explained that they knew only two songs, but the night definitely wasn't over. Once again, they took their time deciding on the next adventure. Nels pointed to the bouzouki and asked, "What's that?" After Jon assured him that it would play music, he picked it up and fooled around with it; to no one's surprise, he sounded great.

Jon took a little while longer to figure out what he wanted to do. He headed toward the drums, flitted about the Turkish banjo, then decided on a simple acoustic guitar. Nels soon picked up a slide and crafted a melody, while Jon added a spare rhythm.

Nels continued to find his way around the bouzouki, showing off wonderful fingerpicking, whereas Jon went more experimental and almost atonal. Nels switched up, playing only the bottom strings of the bouzouki for a chiming effect, while Jon responded by drumming on his acoustic. In unison, they built to a crescendo.

From there, they slowed down the song. Nels continued with the fingerpicking, while Jon took the opportunity to mess with his acoustic, at times playing only the top and bottom strings, scratching the strings, applying the slide, and drumming on the strings.

Song 4: Nels didn't hesitate; he picked up the cherry-red 12-string guitar that we saw last time. Meanwhile, Jon headed to the drums, and the rawk was on. The tune was pure California, made for a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway.

Jon added some piano and Casio for a more psychedelic sound before picking up a hilarious-looking clear guitar. Despite appearances, it served him well, allowing him to channel Hendrix and drop a shameless Byrds reference into the song.

But don't let the '60s roots fool you; Nels and Jon weren't tied to any decade. At one point, Jon and Nels were both on the ground, slapping whatever button, pedal, or knob seemed to speak to them--which made their final transition all the more implausible (at least in print). Nels introduced a pensive melody, while Jon scratched out complementary notes. To these ears, it could've been an ambient Air song. Considering the musical territory they covered over the course of the night, you almost had to wonder why it took them so long to get there.

See also:
» three-god night
» i'll be back again
» i like jon brion. a lot. (part 1)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

how can I deny what's inside

With every impending Largo reservation, I ponder the possibility of growing tired of these Friday nights. The verdict for now: not bloody soon.

Jon Brion, Largo, March 24, 2006: We numbered only two tonight, so Evonne and I got the best fucking table in the house--an arm's length separating my seat and Jon's big Casio keyboard, inches away from the miasma of electrical cables that would surely be condemned by any self-respecting fire official. I was both thrilled and concerned--not about the potential inferno but about how silly my note-taking might appear at close range. Fortunately, such superficial matters tend to slip away when I'm at Largo.

For the intro, Flanagan buttered up the crowd and made fun of his own hair. Jon followed, looking oddly casual in a sporty jacket, a t-shirt, cords, and Reeboks, yet managing to not match at all. He joked about his hair being one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon's (indeed, ideal floppiness levels have once again been attained), then jumped into a song build of "Walking Through Walls." If I had the knowledge and/or the vocabulary to describe the instrumentation changes, I would. Instead, I'll tell you that he threw into the mix a resounding guitar solo filled with screechy notes, then went classic rock on the outro. Next was "Excuse to Cry" with a delicate, twangy bridge. Staying on electric guitar, he played an instrumental passage that he presented as "E minor." In response to the applause, he commented that we needn't react so, as it got plenty of attention in the '70s.

He landed at the piano, and adding harmonica, he gave us "I Believe She's Lying." He threw in some vocoder on the chorus and celeste for the bridge--you won't hear those on the Rhett Miller version. Jon launched into "Here We Go" for what could've been one of the more straightforward, workmanlike versions I've heard had he not breathed life into it with a unexpectedly downbeat "laying low." I swooned. Again. Dammit.

Jon asked for requests and took some time to ponder the choices that flew at him. Finally, he went with the Who's "Baba O'Riley." I vividly recall hearing the song at least twice in my early days at Largo and the giddy sing-alongs it provoked. We didn't get that effect this time, but we saw Jon putting just about every piano-derived instrument through its paces for the tune. He laid down the backing tracks on piano, celeste, and the big keyboard; sampled weird vocal effects to create yet another layer of sound; then chose a smaller sampler for the electronic opening notes. Somewhere in there, he crafted it in ragtime style, and we got a touch of vocals, partly through the vocoder, but lyrics were clearly not the focus. I think we were all singing along inside anyway.

For "Girl I Knew," he worked in a guitar bridge and intonations ("fun of you-oooh-ooh") whose variations were noticeable to *ahem* only the most obsessive; also, the guitar outro echoed the main melody. He played a few familiar licks suggested by the audience before settling on Randy Newman, albeit with crunchy guitar. He continued to ask for requests while casually strumming a Jobim song in the background. He registered shock at the call for Phil Collins but good-naturedly humored us with a few lines of "Invisible Touch" to the tune of "Girl from Ipanema."

We were in for a request-heavy night, as Jon remained at the front of the stage and carefully considered our numerous suggestions for what should come next. Someone asked for Prefab Sprout, which made me really excited. Again, reaching back into my memory, I'll never forget the Largo show where Jon closed with "When Love Breaks Down" at Flanagan's behest. I've been meaning to ask for the song for a while, but Jon is hardly lacking in midtempo lovelorn tunes of his own. Jon resorted to the "songbook I-Ching" he keeps on the music stand, and as it happened, he landed on Prefab Sprout anyway. Thus, "Knock on Wood" went out to the "nine people" who appreciated it.

Quite a few audience members--including myself--had been requesting Jon Brion songs throughout the night, but apparently, he didn't feel like doing them. I can only guess that he was inspired by "Political Science" and current events that he finally justified my existence by playing my request for "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding." He worked out the foundation on piano, then kicked it into overdrive on drums. Returning to the piano, then picking up the guitar, he topped off the song in a mostly faithful but slightly askew manner. I couldn't stop grinning at Evonne, even if it was nothing compared to her request bonanza from a few weeks ago. I'll never know if it was anything like hearing it the first time Elvis and the Attractions adopted it, but I'm a fan of both versions.

For something completely different, Jon followed up with a piano-based improv that incorporated the Casio, sampled vocals, and a spoken word record, the last of them courtesy of Scott in the soundbooth. At points, this became white noise, and I wondered if he was prepping for the Nels session the following night. After a somewhat abstract transition, "Trouble" started off calm and mellow, a slight change from the wistful, imploring tone of the studio version, but by the end, Jon had made it into a cathartic, Lennon-worthy rendition. Finally, he closed the set with more requests: small snippets of the themes from The Simpsons, as well as its antecedent, The Jetsons. And in what seems to have become a new tradition, he went Les Paul on our asses but with the unlikely choice of Billy Joel (a request).

Jon came clean as soon as he returned for the second set and confessed that his throat was sandpaper and his head mush, so he asked for ideas. He immediately picked up on "September Gurls"--one of my favorites from the Largo vaults--on piano, then transitioned into a jazzy and mostly traditional "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," though with a vocoder. Still on piano, he switched off between two harmonicas and pulled yet another haunting rendition of "I'll Be Back" seemingly out of thin air. "The Way It Went" was exactly as you'd expect: simplicity itself. "I'm Further On" extended the piano's reign, though with harmonica, celeste, and vocoder too.

Jon made the move to electric guitar and a Billie Holiday tune, alternating between jazzy swing time and fuzz-drenched jags, as is his wont. At some point, a woman in the audience yelled out, "No!" This prompted Jon to ask which aspect bothered her, but he likened the combination to a little "chocolate in [his] peanut butter."

Jon took this opportunity to invite the divine Benmont Tench to the stage. As I had predicted to Evonne and Zach, we got "Waterloo Sunset" to kick off their collaboration. But our bliss was interrupted by a voice from the crowd requesting the dreaded "Freebird" for the third time that night. Per Jon's rules (and taking a cue from Candyman), he had to do the song. Initially, Jon sounded rueful, but Benmont didn't blink an eye at this or any other point during the set--he is truly the most unflappable guest I've ever seen at Largo. They laid into "Freebird" with gusto, Benmont manning the piano, of course. Jon started out on drums but ended up playing just about everything else on the stage. Highlights include Jon on slide guitar, on kick drum and lead guitar simultaneously, and on his knees to play the celeste, which he had pulled away from its usual spot so as not to overcrowd Benmont.

Benmont drove the changes as well, his riffs branching away from the original path but his concentration and commitment never letting up over the course of what would become a megamedley. The musical foundation set, Jon dedicated himself to vocals. Atop the sonic maelstrom, Jon sang some verses of "For Your Love," and with one hand pulling down the mic, he kneeled to intently play the Casio. In the same pose and completely devoid of irony, he switched to "Tainted Love"--yet another chestnut I haven't heard from him in a long time. He straightened up and stood with his back to us--looking seriously sexy and rock'n'roll with one hand on the mic and the other on his hip--as he decided where to go next. He turned around; louchely draped himself across the microphone; and belted out the Monkees tune. He picked up the guitar again for a blip of a Stooges reference and brought the medley back to the theme with which it started; what had begun as a representation of the worst of dinosaur rock concluded with the hoariest title of them all.

With five minutes left until 2am, Jon thanked Benmont and bade us goodnight. It's worth repeating: not bloody soon.

Set 1
Walking Through Walls [song build]
Excuse to Cry [electric guitar]
electric guitar instrumental ("E minor")
piano noodling
I Believe She's Lying [piano, harmonica, vocoder, celeste]
Here We Go [piano]
Baba O'Riley [piano, keyboard, celeste, vocoder]
Girl I Knew [song build]
Sunshine of Your Love/Only Shallow/2 (?) other songs [electric guitar]
Political Science [electric guitar]
Invisible Touch [electric guitar]
Knock on Wood [piano + hammer]
(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding [song build]
Trouble [piano]
It's Still Rock 'n' Roll [electric guitar]

Set 2
September Gurls [piano + harmonica]
Let Me Call You Sweetheart [piano + vocoder]
I'll Be Back [piano + harmonica]
The Way It Went [piano]
I'm Further On [piano, harmonica, vocoder, celeste]
Easy Living [electric guitar]
Waterloo Sunset*
Freebird/For Your Love/Tainted Love/I'm Not Your Stepping Stone/Real Cool Time/Stairway to Heaven*

* = with Benmont Tench

See also:
» there was no way of knowing
» get a load of the lengths I go to

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

i am in paradise

Sha la la.

Jon Brion, Largo, March 3, 2006: Flanagan read off a list of the seven best things to come out of New Zealand (including Neil Finn, Tim Finn, and hobbits) and introduced what he considered to be the eighth: Flight of the Conchords, the opening act. We got two youngish guys on stools with guitars. One had sideburns the size of pork chops (albeit fluffy ones), the other looked like a sturdier Jeff Goldblum, and I realized they had been sitting at the table next to us the night before. Within seconds, we were laughing hysterically at their catchy, goofy folk-rockish tunes. I won't ruin their work by trying to retell their tales; check out their MySpace page and/or their special on HBO.

After that short set, Flanagan returned to the stage and reminded us why he loves LA, the only town where you can drive down Sunset and wait at a stoplight next to Sly Stone. On cue, Jon Brion stumbled onstage and looked adorable declared the show over, as it was impossible to follow any band who could write the lyric "you would probably be one of the top three best-looking women on the street--depending on the street." But he gave it a try, sounding chipper and getting a jump on the night's prodigious Guinness intake.

Evonne and I had to laugh aloud at the piano intro, which included the Little Rascals theme, a holdover from the gig with John Doe. Perhaps in another nod to Thursday night, "I'm on a Roll with You" stayed simple and true, though Jon appended to it a gorgeous solo piano outro. I apologize to everyone who's had to endure my endless rhapsodizing over "Here We Go," but as long as Jon keeps playing with it, I'll keep a-preachin'. Tonight, we got little changes in phrasing, an ad lib of "there you go," and from my vantage point, a view of Jon's subtle hand flourishes. I've always said the drums are my instrument of choice when I'm watching Jon because he plays the shit out of them, but I have a new favorite. If you ever snag a seat that affords you a view of Jon's expressions and gestures at the piano, guard that spot with your life. You won't unearth the secret of Jon's superhuman abilities, but you will witness, to a certain extent, genius manifested.

"Excuse to Cry" kept me guessing until the words came out, but Jon piled on a little more bass and a longer bridge than you'd hear on its sister song, "Why Do You Do This to Yourself." He fiddled at the piano for a bit, re-revisiting the Little Rascals and maybe some Duke Ellington, before settling on "Someone Else's Problem Now." Jon played a long celeste solo that may have been a song; I didn't recognize it until he hit "That's Just What You Are," complete with a divine tack piano treatment. He asked for requests, and despite pooh-poohing the call for "Morrissey produced by Eno," he jumped on it anyway. He cheesed it up with the vocoder and a quote from Flight of the Conchords, but to his credit, he also graced it with at least one gorgeous piano passage that I hope makes Johnny Marr proud. Clutching his half-full pint glass, he mused on the humor in the Smiths and proposed that Morrissey form a supergroup with Leonard Cohen--he'd see them. This might be a good time to mention that though Jon is no stranger to the Guinness, it seemed to me that he was imbibing a little more than usual this night. This wouldn't be the last diatribe of the show.

Still on the request tip, he played a long instrumental passage that took a while to register with me: It was "Lithium" run through a variety of styles, including classical, Latin, and ragtime. "Happy with You" resulted in a broken guitar string, but "The Way It Went" gave us brief, sublime respite. Jon went to town on the outro for "Walking through Walls," slipping in nods to the theme from Peter Gunn, "Sunshine of Your Love," and "Children of the Revolution," among many others foreign to my limited musical landscape. Once more, Jon closed the set with a tribute to Les Paul. He warned that it would take a little while, and for a spell, I thought we were listening to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly theme, but it finally dawned on me that he was playing Elton John.

Jon opened the second set with a long instrumental passage that featured a spare, sexy drum beat and, later, heavenly, languid slide guitar. I thought I heard "Blue Moon," but I've since learned that it's "Sleepwalk" by Santo and Johnny. When the words came in, Evonne nudged me in amazement--Jon took on Sam Cooke, a topic of conversation just the night before. From there, Jon segued into a song I don't know, except that the lyrics went "I spend another lonely day thinking of you/I spend another lonely night empty and blue/I keep crying for you." On the same theme, "I Cried for You" included heavier guitar than Billie Holiday had probably known, but the instrumental "Someone to Watch Over Me" was relatively traditional--if by "traditional," you mean varied time signatures and stylistic treatments. Jon picked up the ukulele for "It Could Happen to You," but his song was interrupted by interference from a cell phone (not his own this time). The crack team of Jon and Scott in the soundbooth made lemonade of the incident: Jon incorporated the interrupted transmission and buzzing in his singing, while Scott tweaked the settings to mimic a '20s-era recording à la Al Jolson.

Jon went back to the piano and the Guinness and asked for requests. He played a few bars of Arthur's Theme but reconsidered with an emphatic "No!" In fact, he chided us for our disappointing requests and made an example of a guy yelling out "Big Sky" all night. With tongue in cheek (I think), Jon delivered a spiel in therapy talk about how the requestor's tone of voice hurt him. But the wounded feelings gave way to indignation as Jon vowed to do every other song from that Kinks album. With that, he launched into an eight-song medley, topped off with "Waterloo Sunset." Jon gave it his utmost respect, but he added a couple of gorgeous touches: a slow, extended bridge and a shower of celeste at the end. Oh, there was also an incident with Jon flipping off the requestor, but I can't remember exactly when it happened.

I believe it was at this point that a tipsy Jon expounded on his admiration/jealousy of Ray Davies and the internal dialogue ("fuck that fucking Ray Davies") that continuously runs in his mind, even at his most externally polite. Scott sampled this and ran with it, playing the "fuck" over and over via the PA. Fortunately, the blue streak was interrupted by the arrival of Gabe Wicher. He graced "Sin City" with a fiddle solo, then suggested Billie Holiday for the last two numbers. Jon took a few seconds to work out the final song, and with that, they concluded the standards-riffic evening.

Set 1
piano noodling, including Little Rascals theme
I'm on a Roll with You [piano, celeste, harmonica]
Punch-Drunk Love Theme/Here We Go [piano]
Girl I Knew [song build]
Excuse to Cry [electric guitar]
Someone Else's Problem Now [piano]
That's Just What You Are [piano + celeste]
Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now [piano + vocoder]
Lithium [piano, celeste, vocoder]
Happy with You [song build]
The Way It Went [piano]
Walking Through Walls [song build]
Paper Moon [guitar]
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road [electric guitar]

Set 2
Sleepwalk/Bring It on Home/??? [song build]
I Cried for You [guitar]
Someone to Watch Over Me [piano]
It Could Happen to You [ukulele]
This Is Where I Belong/Starstruck/Do You Remember Walter?/Where Have All the Good Times Gone/Go to Sleep/Sunny Afternoon/Better Things/Waterloo Sunset [piano, celeste, vocoder]
with Gabe Wicher
Sin City [piano]
Fooling Myself [acoustic guitar]
Easy Living [acoustic guitar]

See also:
» top 5 Largo memories
» the Book of Brion 2 has landed
» get a load of the lengths I go to

Saturday, March 04, 2006

falling, yes i am falling

December spawned a monster--though for better or for worse, I'm unqualified to judge.

John Doe plays and presents Jon Brion and Ben Weaver, Largo, March 2, 2006: A mouthful, isn't it? My research turned up no hints as to what the night would entail, and the message on Largo's machine wasn't very helpful either--as if I'd pass up this wisp of an excuse. Even better, Evonne was kind enough to let me crash her reservation (and on her couch).

The crowd at Largo was much sparser than I expected. In fact, there were still a few empty tables at the start of the show--a nice change of pace from a bustling Friday night. First up was Ben Weaver, a "new friend," according to John Doe. He was a big Midwestern guy, with extremely earnest tunes. Largo tends to be the perfect place for such performers, and the crowd gave him its undivided attention. But after the third song, the tunes started to sound very much the same. For one song about a friend's affair with a married man, he could've been reading a student's short story straight from the page, as far as I could tell. He has potential, but based on the tunes we heard, he has some way to go.

Next up was John Doe, and two songs in, I understood why he's been respected and lauded for so long, not least because of the contrast with Ben Weaver. He knows how to tell a story, and he has at his disposal a wide range of styles, from simple and passionate to rocking and ironic. About five or six songs in, he called on wee Jon Brion to join him.

Jon started on piano, daintily feeling out the first song; maybe he doesn't know every song in existence, but he's certainly willing to try. He was more familiar with the second tune, which got his full backing vocals and thundering accompaniment. Not a shock, "Revolution" opened up the audience and maybe the musicians too. Jon switched to lead guitar for the last two numbers; his confident, variegated playing was a lovely complement to John Doe's rhythm work, and they looked like they were having tons of fun.

After a short break, John Doe rolled out an awesome introduction. He talked about how he's known Jon for a long time and how everyone who plays with Jon eventually reaches the "Jon Brion moment," where a big grin shows up on their face. I think I've been lucky enough to see that look--though usually preceded by glassy-eyed fear--a few times. He joked that Jon can sense a chord change from 10 miles away, which elicited a Karnak impression from Jon. (He also mentioned that Jon would be on TV with Rhett Miller that night, but that's another story.)

Jon started on piano and eventually arrived at the Solipsistics' "Someone Else's Problem Now," though with a slightly different ending than usual. At this point, Jon mentioned a discussion with John Doe about setlists. Jon, of course, is famous for never using one, but he admitted that it sometimes leads to him playing such things as the Little Rascals theme, which is exactly what followed; it drew big laughs from the audience (and the performer). During this song, it occurred to me that it could use some celeste, then I realized how bare the stage was, shorn of Jon's usual toys.

For the next three songs, Jon jumped to guitar, and it was only on "Love of My Life So Far" (featuring a longer than normal instrumental bridge) that I came to a realization: Jon had no loopers onstage. I couldn't see the floor of the stage from where we sat, but I didn't hear many--if any--effects either. In a sense, we were getting Jon Brion unplugged. On a typical Friday night, you get a lot of "naked" songs, but tonight, Jon had no other choice. And it was incredible. Stripped of its usual layers, "I Was Happy with You" was a revelation as well.

Jon called John back to the stage for "Dylan-o-thon '06," for the purpose of getting rid of Dylan wanna-bes; John took the vocals for the first selection and Jon on the second. To my delight, they next went with "Not Ready Yet," which had come up on my MP3 player earlier that day. It's been a long time since I've heard it at Largo, and I might've requested it on Friday night. Fortunately, they beat me to the punch. For the last song of the main set, Jon started on guitar but switched to piano, which worked out much better for the rollicking tune.

They finished up the night with more great covers. By coincidence (or not), Jon happened to have the lyrics of the Hank Williams song in front of him; no, it wasn't a spontaneous moment, but it was a glorious rendition. And for the closer, they traded vocal duties and added a slight twang to the venerable Beatles song. If every Largo show I attend ends with a Beatles song, I won't complain.

backing John Doe
--"sweet and still I'm holding you/Your breath is soft under my neck" [piano]
--The New World/Revolution [piano]
--Forever for You [piano]
--"Walk around this downtown/Send a thousand letters down the drain" [guitar]
--Beat Up World [guitar]

Jon Brion's set
--Someone Else's Problem Now [piano]
--Little Rascals theme [piano]
--I Cried for You [guitar]
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself [guitar]
--Love of My Life So Far [guitar]
--The Way It Went [piano]
--Knock Yourself Out [guitar + harmonica]
--I Was Happy with You [guitar]

with John Doe
--I Threw It All Away [guitar]
--Positively 4th Street [guitar]
--Not Ready Yet [guitar]
--Money [piano]

--You Win Again [piano]
--I've Just Seen a Face [guitar]

See also:
» top 5 Largo memories
» get a load of the lengths I go to
» the Book of Brion 2 has landed

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

twilight's all right

If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: The last night of any multiple-night stand will probably be the best. Mark my words.

Scott McCaughey, Thee Parkside, February 28, 2006: The gig was advertised as "an evening with Scott McCaughey," but it was a badly kept secret that the rest of the Minus 5 would show up, and it took only a brief gander across the small room to see their faces. Alas, Robyn Hitchcock couldn't make it, but considering his ties to the Bay Area, he probably has a full schedule around town.

Scott McCaughey, Thee Parkside, February 28, 2006Scott McCaughey and Thee Parkside are meant for each other. You may know Scott; now picture a neighborhood bar far from the hustle and bustle of downtown. It holds no more than 100 people but probably much fewer. In the corner is a sliver of a stage that's raised about six inches off the main floor and barely fits a drum kit. In fact, the majority of the band has to stand at ground level, directly facing the audience, who watch from less than a foot away. Also, the band has to perform with no monitors, as there simply isn't enough space. Thee Parkside makes Largo look like the Royal Albert Hall. Of course, I love the place.

Last night's gig was superfun, but it was definitely Robyn's show. In contrast, this was the Minus 5 I know and love. Surprisingly, they were nowhere as drunk as I've seen them in the past. There was no setlist, they took a ton of requests from the audience--though they passed over my call for "I Wish I Was Your Mother," as they couldn't remember it--and they invited Roy Loney (formerly of the Flamin' Groovies and the Phantom Movers) to the stage for a couple of roaring songs. Their choice of covers ran the gamut, but the majority could've been ripped right out of the liner notes from the Nuggets box set. My favorite was probably the Beatles' "You Can't Do That," but of their own songs, I loved hearing "Got You." If I had felt more enterprising, I might've requested "Great News Around You," but I was pretty happy with the choices. They did "Rifle Called Goodbye" for the first time ever, according to Scott, and they attempted "Aw Shit Man" as fast as they could.

Larger rooms can be cool, but I've found that the smaller the venue, the more intense the gig. At the least, I notice certain details more readily at these intimate shows. Maybe it was a product of listening to Joe rave about the rhythm section before the show, but at Thee Parkside, I heard Bill Rieflin's drumming loud and clear in a way that Jon Wurster hadn't delivered the other times I've seen the Minus 5. In turn, Bill Rieflin was a far way off from Glenn Kotche, who conveys a lot more subtlety and nuance than just about any drummer I've seen. John Ramberg was excellent as always, adding to the team at every level, whether on guitar or vocals (lead and harmony). Scott was his normal jocular self, making up stories and fielding banter. However, Peter Buck showed little of the fire he had the night before. It's kind of fun to see him on bass, but he didn't seem quite as engaged as the other guys in the band. Also, he wore head-to-toe black leather, including a ruffled shirt. Ummm, yeah. To his credit, however, I think he suggested "Teenage Kicks," which was loads of fun.

If the Minus 5 stays on track, they should be back in the Bay Area around 2010. See you then.

See also:
» you won't have an atom left