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