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)

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