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.
Walking Through Walls [song build]
Excuse to Cry [electric guitar]
electric guitar instrumental ("E minor")
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]
It's Still Rock 'n' Roll [electric guitar]
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]
Freebird/For Your Love/Tainted Love/I'm Not Your Stepping Stone/Real Cool Time/Stairway to Heaven*
* = with Benmont Tench
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