Friday, April 28, 2006

public service announcement

I had a reservation for a Largo show today, but word on the street is that Jon Brion is suffering tendinitis, so all his shows are currently on hold. Though this makes me very sad, I hope he gets better and comes back healthy and happy. Also, it gives me an opportunity to dig up an old e-mail I wrote about my first full-fledged Jon Brion show.

Jon Brion, Largo, December 17, 1999: My Largo roots are somewhat murky. I know I initially came for Grant Lee Phillips's shows, but the main bone of contention has to do with the year. I can't recall if it was 1998 or 1999. Regardless, I believe my friends and I saw Jon Brion pop in at three separate Grant shows before we took the plunge and checked him out for ourselves. The edited report follows.

Subject: Jon Brion
Dec. 21, 1999

[Jon] did a bunch of songs from his album, most of which are piano-driven numbers, though he took up the electric guitar for a few of them. The tunes are very songwriterly, ranging from delicate, introspective tunes to barroom rockers, but they're not really Jon's selling point. Simply, Jon is the most amazing musician I've ever seen. I've attended other shows where he's pitched in and added all kinds of flourishes and touches to other people's songs. The highlight of his set was a medley of songs, with him on the piano and Butch (from the eels) on drums. They started off with some Chuck Berry-esque song, went into the Pink Panther theme, segued into Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water," threw in a touch of Foreigner's "Hot Blooded," and rolled into the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" (and those are only the songs I could identify) before a circuit blew by his piano, at which point he screamed, "Y2K!"

Jon also created his own wall of sound for the very last song. He had a full band setup on stage, but he also had two little contraptions that made a hell of a difference during the set. He used both of them throughout the show, but I noticed it the most at the end. One looked like a tiny Casio keyboard. On the last song, he sang a range of notes into it, then combined all of his vocals into a choirlike effect, so that he was basically backing himself, though there was no one else onstage. The other little gizmo was a sampler of some sort. He created his own rhythm tracks with this one. It's kind of hard to describe, but he sampled something from the piano for the last song, and all of a sudden, he had a wall of sound behind him (again, he was the only person onstage). Then he started an old record player with a scratchy needle and ran a couple of music boxes, all for this one song.

It should come as a surprise to no one that the the last description refers to a breathtaking version of "Voices," still my favorite performance of it ever.

Do you want to hear the kicker? Apparently, the week before, it was Jon's 36th birthday, and just about every Largo-related superstar showed up. Hey, it only took me another five years to finally see Neil Finn at Largo! But I've been able to find a cool bootleg of the show when I want to relive the memories. Thus, I present you with an MP3 of the medley described above:
» Jon Brion, "Be My Baby" medley

Enjoy! One of these days, I'll put up the "Mission Impossible/Now I Know My ABC's/Baba O'Riley" medley from the same show.

See also:
» public service non-announcement
» top 5 Largo memories
» the Book of Brion 2 has landed
» top 10 concerts of 2005
» Take Me Home, Country Pigeon

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

high above a sea of cars

It goes without saying that I would--and perhaps already have--cut back my gig schedule severely if it meant I could see as many Jon Brion and/or Wilco shows as my heart desires. But not living in Chicago or Los Angeles, I have to figure out other ways to bide my time. So though it seems as if I've devoted myself to Wilco-related activities, I haven't seen the entire band in action since last September. It took that long for my schedule and my rock tourism requirements to come together and allow me a trip back east to this bizarre venue.

Nels Cline and Jeff Tweedy, Starland Ballroom, April 21, 2006Wilco, Starland Ballroom, April 21, 2006: After a mostly smooth drive and a nearly disastrous line procedure, Heidi, Paul, Sooz, and I took our usual places inside this wood-panel bar. For all our misgivings, though, I think we have to admit that we love these places, even the ones in the middle of Soprano-land.

I'm subject to doubts too, and I often wonder how long my fascination will hold, but "Hell Is Chrome" silenced those thoughts as a familiar shiver and sense of elation came over me upon hearing the song's delicious two-guitar volleys. From there, we enjoyed a relatively loose set that even had some small surprises. I didn't expect to enjoy "Forget the Flowers," but Nels's guitar changed everything, and there's no way I'll pass up "Monday," especially with horns.

During "Shot in the Arm," Jeff stared angrily and intently into the audience at a loud, obnoxious fan who wouldn't shut up. Sooz and Paul warned us that with his haircut, Jeff looked like his 1995 self, but this episode made me wonder if we'd see the 1999 face as well. Fortunately, he eventually turned it into a joke but not before giving us a fright; it also helped that the band followed his tirade with the warm, fuzzy "Jesus etc."

Highlights of the show include the always lovely "In a Future Age," a somewhat reworked "Spiders" (hey, I haven't checked out the band in seven months--cut me some slack) that saw Mike momentarily losing and breaking his glasses, and a short tribute to Bruce Springsteen. Ordinarily, I'd defer to Master P(aul) on these matters; he said the show was OK, though a bit on the short side. But I had a blast, and even better, we visited Mart and Patti afterward. I left my heart in New Jersey!

The openers were called Morricone Youth, and their band members had ties to both Mike and Nels. They claimed that their sound was influenced by films and film soundtracks, as their name might suggest. They had a great song about Mothra, as well as tributes to James Bond, cop, and sci-fi movies. Their CD turned out to be great road-trip music, as well.

Wilco, College of William and Mary, April 22, 2006: It bears repeating: For a while now, Wilco shows have been about much more than seeing the band or even hearing a lot of the songs. Instead, we use the gigs as an excuse to see each other and to visit new places and to try on new adventures. And that's pretty much all you need to know about this show, though I'll explain further.

Heidi and Paul bestowed upon me the onus of deciding the day's fate: driving five hours to see what we knew would be, at best, an average show or stopping in DC to gorge ourselves at some wonderful foodie destination. I doomed us to the open road, though none of us had high expectations for the gig. Even more telling, we were in full casual mode for the show, Heidi and I without makeup, and Paul wearing his glasses instead of his contacts, even as the students surrounded us in their Saturday night best.

We already knew that the college's students got first crack at the floor, so we took our seats a little behind the soundboard. By the time the staff opened the floor to the hoi polloi, it wasn't worth fighting the mobs to gain a crappy, cramped view, so we stayed put, though to our relief, the standing/sitting question was put to rest early on, with tons of people taking to their feet from the outset.

We were suspicious with the first song, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," but as veterans, we knew that the second song, "War on War," sealed the deal: This would be Wilco Setlist 101. I know why the band does these things, but it was easily the most vanilla setlist I've heard from them. Still, the show had its highlights, the most prominent of which was Nels's transcendent solo on "Ashes of American Flags." Overall, Jeff seemed to be in a better mood than the night before, pulling goofy faces during the show, and the crowd ate up the entire performance, even turning in a great sing-along to "Hummingbird." And more importantly, I got some quality time with wonderful pals.

I never regret going to these shows, and I've been to enough of them to know that they can't all be intense club experiences. But collectively, the gigs give me a reason to come back and try again, the former reminding me of what a show can be, and the latter egging me to not let that memory be my last of Wilco.

The opener was a three-piece out of DC called French Toast. Heidi's friend said that one of the guys in the band was in Fugazi, and they delivered impassioned, strident music. They even made a full rotation, switching instruments and vocal duties, and I heard hints of '80s-era British guitar bands in their music. But they lost me after the fifth song or so, as it sounded not unlike most of the other tunes they played.

See also:
» every day is dreamlike
» i don't want to leave this waking dream
» you change all the lead sleeping in my head

Sunday, April 23, 2006

i'm the stuff of happy endings

I admit it--I rang Largo just in case the "very special guest" slot turned out to be Neil Finn, but once I got the callback for Aimee Mann's show, I couldn't resist. At the least, I could strike another signature Largo event from my scorecard. At best--and this is a hell of an upshot--I'd get to see one of my favorite songwriters extremely up close and personal.

Aimee Mann, Largo, April 19, 2006: Besides Jon Brion, Aimee is perhaps the performer most closely associated with Largo, but I've never seen her there, not in the heyday of the Mann/Brion perfect-pop machine, nor even hanging around the kitchen. The closest I came was the Acoustic Vaudeville tour that she and Michael Penn took on the road, inspired by their nights at Largo. That's still one of my favorite shows of all time, helped along in no small part by Patton Oswalt's hilarious banter.

Patton wasn't around tonight, and frankly, I wasn't sure Aimee would deliver in such close quarters. I've seen lackluster shows from her in the past, but following Flanagan's intro, Aimee set the tone. She's always claimed onstage banter isn't her strong point, but she seemed to be in a chatty, relaxed mood from the outset, when, immediately after taking the stage, she announced, "I am completely full of Largo food," vindicating all of us who've faced the $15 challenge. I was pretty much smitten at that point, Zagat rating notwithstanding, and over the course of the night, she would make fun of her bandmates, her "guest list friends," and herself.

Aimee started out by herself on acoustic guitar with a new song that she warned us was not yet fully written; I have to agree with her, though she had a cool refrain on her hands. From there, her bass player and pianist joined her, and they would duck in and out as needed for the rest of the evening.

I can't complain about her song selection--to my surprise, she didn't lean on her last two albums, as you might expect from a typical promotional show. Instead, she dipped again and again into the back catalog. I was delighted with the different treatment for "Lost in Space;" instead of the distinctive organ intro, the song began with the piano and bass before the guitar came in. But the next song was the showstopper of the night: "It's Not Safe," solo acoustic guitar, with more than a passing node to Joni Mitchell and far removed from the frothy pop you'll find on I'm With Stupid.

Aimee sat down at the piano for the next tune, with the disclaimer that she couldn't really play the instrument but wanted to prove that she, too, could write a song on it, just like Fiona Apple. She was right--she's not very good at piano, but she gave us a simple upbeat structure adorned with sassy lyrics, something along the lines of a lover calling her a bitch when she left him. When she requested help from her bandmate Jaime, he pulled up a chair to the other of the piano and sprinkled in a gorgeous, sparkling riff.

Watching them together, I finally understood what Aimee does best. She has an undeniable gift for killer hooks, natural melodies, and indelible characters, and she incorporates them in what are, at the core, basic, straightforward songs that other musicians--be it Jon Brion, Elvis Costello, Bernard Butler, or any number of major talents--can't help but contribute to and build upon. Most of us don't get to see that exchange between artists, but at Largo, I was again allowed to watch this process take place right in front of my eyes.

Though her onstage manner was far from improvisational, Aimee had her own ideas for her catalog. For instance, she paid tribute to Jon Brion's jury-rigged percussion on "Frankenstein" with her own arsenal of unusual instruments and a corral of comedian/writer friends. I'd even go so far as saying she flew without a safety net on her new songs, especially the Fiona Apple-inspired number, and as is often the case, she reserved the encore for audience requests (subject to her veto).

I always temper my expectations for performers at Largo who aren't Jon Brion, but it was impossible to not think of him during the show, especially since Aimee's setlist favored the albums with which he's most closely associated. Truthfully, I didn't expect to hear the "Born to Run" glockenspiel on "I've Had It," and Paul and Jaime's background vocals were nothing to complain about, but a girl can fantasize about the two of them eventually working together again.

Paul Bryan opened, and he should be familiar to anyone who's seen Aimee on tour for her last couple of albums. He plays bass in her band, and quite honestly, he's adorable. As it turns out, he's a singer/songwriter too, and he even did a song he wrote for Bettye LaVette but that didn't make the cut. He has a fine voice, but on the whole, his music wasn't too distinctive.

See also:
» you're my favorite faith healer
» top 5 Largo memories
» green typewriters
» the Book of Brion 2 has landed

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

waiting for the rainbow sign

For all my hustling and bustling and sleep deprivation, I made it back to San Francisco at a decent time Sunday--only to find out that the concert I had planned to attend that night was sold out! D'oh! I'm kicking myself, but to tell you the truth, I'm not sure I would've been in the moment. At least I managed to get out the door the following night.

Fruit Bats, The Independent, April 10, 2006Fruit Bats, The Independent, April 10, 2006: It's true--I'm not the concert goer I used to be. Besides the incident listed above, I missed the Fruit Bats the last time they were in town. This night, I had no excuse, as they were basically playing only a couple of miles away from my apartment, and the skies held their ground for a few hours. Frankly, I was shocked that the Fruit Bats were playing the Independent. The two other times I've seen them were at Bottom of the Hill, and the club was far from full. But by the time the band came on, a decent crowd had turned up.

Previously, I've seen the Fruit Bats with a very spare setup; on one occasion, it was just Eric and his then (?) girlfriend. I believe it was at that show where he closed with a moving and surprisingly viable cover of "Purple Rain."

Now, there was a whole band onstage, and as it turned out, they brought the rawk. In fact, if it weren't for Eric Johnson's sweet voice and lovely tunes, you might be forgiven for not recognizing the band. Eric played electric guitar for the entire show (no acoustic!), and he made a couple of jokes distancing himself from "bittersweet folk rock" and comparing himself to Jimmy Page. The energy level was a far cry from the very low-key shows at Bottom of the Hill. At one point, while emphatically bending his chords, Eric's glasses flew off, and in that endearingly awkward indie rock way, they had to take a moment after the song to locate them.

They played a couple of songs from the first album and a lot from the new one, but to my delight, they did a bunch of tunes from the divine Mouthfuls, my favorite, though differently than the last time I heard them live. Besides the electric treatment, most of the harmonies came from a dude (the drummer). And it's worth repeating: I love Eric's voice. He kind of reminds me of Neil Finn, not so much in sound or even style but in warmth and emotion. And I don't say that about very many singers.

Often, I see a really good band and wonder if they'll ever gain a foothold in the industry. Fruit Bats were certainly in this category, but I'm glad their move to Sub Pop seems to be paying off; I'll be back if they will.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

every day is dreamlike

Last year, we could barely believe it was happening. This year, we weren't as nervous and, instead, turned it into the big party that we were all looking forward to. Even as I sit here at Midway on three hours' sleep, I couldn't imagine a better time.

Jeff Tweedy, Hotel S'n'S, April 8, 2006Jeff Tweedy, Hotel S'n'S, April 8, 2006: Such was the informality of this year that we didn't know exactly when Jeff and Susan were due to arrive, and the opener Two Cow Garage ended up canceling. Fortunately, our dear friends Dave Mirabella and Martin Rivas warmed us up for the night with fine original compositions and rousing covers. Heck, I think they convinced us to stick around for the headliner.

The second-timers were a lot more sanguine about the song list this year, so it was only fair to let the newbies have their say, even if it required some, ahem, creative math. Also, it helped that many of us had seen Jeff's recent solo shows and heard our fill of certain songs that would've otherwise been a great treat. However, the song selections were presented as "suggestions" since we knew there'd be some deviation during the actual show.

I believe Jeff came on around 8:30, armed with a couple of acoustic guitars, harmonicas, and a small collection of printouts. He started off with some fairly customary songs ("Someday Some Morning Sometime," "Not for the Season," and "All the Same to Me"), but he eventually made his way to our more esoteric requests.

Jeff Tweedy and Dave Mirabella, Hotel S'n'S, April 8, 2006On his way out with his dad, baby Miles was serenaded with "I'm Beginning to See the Light"--I had my fingers crossed the whole time for that one. I was thrilled when both Dave and Mart played with Jeff for "Fatal Wound" and "Kamera," respectively, and dammit if they didn't sound awesome. Even better, Jeff claimed that it was the first time he had ever played "Fatal Wound"--score one for all of us! About halfway through the set, Jeff's parents called, so he played a few songs for them (and their dog). And as would be expected from a group of die-hards, we were probably the most thrilled with the older songs, such as "The Long Cut" and "We've Been Had."

In between songs, Jeff tried to quiz us by letting us take over the singing, and I'm sad to say that we turned in a shameful performance, forgetting many of the lines we supposedly love and requested. And I haven't mentioned the snippet of "Hey Chicken," the aborted "James Alley Blues" (one of the printouts Jeff carried), and the Neil Young cover.

About three hours later but much too soon, we bade good-bye to the Tweedys and the 2006 version of the basement show. But the night didn't end when the headliner left. Dave, Chandler, and Mart put up with our requests, our caterwauling, and our left feet until 4 a.m.

It's impossible to resist comparing this year's and last year's shows. Though we were more relaxed (yet less drunk) this year, the show itself felt a little more formal. For one thing, our setup got a major upgrade, thanks to a rented PA and a full recording rig. Also, Jeff pretty much stuck to the song list, but give him credit for trying a bit of "Hey Chicken" per Kris's shout-out. In exchange, our group welcomed great new, beautiful faces. And when you get down to it, when everyone is beaming and singing along, nothing has changed at all.

The full history
» i wish that i knew what I know now
» people say i'm crazy doing what i'm doing
» the message
» all the ladies and gentlemen
» that year
» springtime comes
» turn our prayers to outrageous dares
» it's been a while