Wednesday, June 07, 2006

just keep counting the stars

I'm nothing if not efficient, so barring extenuating circumstances, one trip to Los Angeles usually equals two trips to Largo. There was no reason this weekend should be any different.

Nels Cline solo and not, Largo, June 3, 2006: This show was originally slated to be the fifth installment of Nels Cline/Jon Brion improvisational series, but Jon's tendinitis altered those plans. Still, I never doubted that I'd make it to the gig.

As expected, Bobb Bruno kicked off the proceedings, and the stuffed animals were back (yay!). His set was really cool, once again featuring samples and other electronic sounds. It was a mellow, transcendent set, and besides, you can't beat a guy in a huge bunny head.

Back in November 2004, before I got this blog on track, I embarked on one of my favorite rock tourism runs of all time, catching seven consecutive Wilco shows between Portland, Oregon, and Tempe, Arizona. (It helped that three shows were in the Bay Area and two more were in Los Angeles.) Even better, we managed to cram one Wilco book signing and one Jon Brion show into the few idle moments!

That trip is memorable for many reasons, and I even wrote up a report on one of the two highlights: catching Glenn Kotche accompanying Jon Brion at Largo. The other highlight was meeting Jon Brion backstage at the Wilco's first night at the Wiltern, thanks to Sooz's mysterious and persuasive ways. I don't usually get nervous around musicians, but I was pretty much out of my mind with joy at that moment. In fact, I still think I look certifiably crazed in photos from that night.

I bring this up not to drop names but to emphasize the turn of events and to shed some light on how I felt when, after Bobb's set, Heidi and I spied a lanky, chapeau'd figure back by the bar. It was too good to believe, but we weren't mistaken. It was Jon fucking Brion in all his glory. How we managed to not dance on the table at that precise moment, I have no idea, but we held it together (barely), racing heartbeats, manic joy, and all.

I think it was Heidi who introduced the concept of setlist zen, of living in the moment and letting events and/or song selections work themselves out. It was in that spirit that we approached this gig, even if we couldn't admit that we invested all the aspirations that our guarded yet rose-colored outlook would allow into the "and not" billing. But still, what were the odds? Apparently, they were great.

Nels came on shortly afterward and rolled out a fairly lengthy introduction, explaining the circumstances that led to the evening's agenda. He mentioned Jon's ailment and said that Flanagan and Jon had pressured him into proceeding with the show. In his charmingly self-deprecating style, he warned us of his upcoming intentions to sing. He also claimed that the "lovelorn ballads" and "existential angst" we were about to hear had no reflection on his current emotional state. (Say what you will about Nels Cline, but I get the idea he's not that good a liar.) He also built up our expectations, promising a second set comprising entirely Neil Young songs, with the strong possibility of guest vocals by Jon fucking Brion.

I admit to some trepidation over the thought of a Nels Cline solo show, but this was unlike anything I've heard from him. For one thing, he sang. And in contrast to his shows opening for Jeff Tweedy, he opted for more conventional songs, though he put them through their paces. I didn't take notes during this portion, but I can report that he looped, tweaked, thrashed, and strummed in his signature style, even with the surprising choice of covers. I could see Low and Sonic Youth in his record collection but the Mamas and the Papas and Joan Jett (in a manner reminiscent of Iggy Pop and/or Tom Waits, no less)? Color me impressed. His voice worked better on some numbers than others--he sounded pretty good on the Low song, for example--but I love his fearlessness all the same. From my seat, I spied Jon fucking Brion watching the entire set from the side of the room.

During the short break, the band Mad Cow (a tribute to Crazy Horse) set up, and Nels once again took the mic: first, declaring his love of Neil Young, then singing the initial song, "Hippie Dream." For the second song, David Garza took over most of the vocals, while Jeff Gauthier of Cryptogramophone added violin and Nels contributed backing vocals. For the third selection, it was just David again, then came the moment Heidi and I had been waiting for: Jon fucking Brion took the stage. He traded vocals with David for the rest of the set, and that was enough for our table. And we were hardly alone in our celebration. I could see Flanagan whooping it up during "Walk On."

Throughout the set, Nels offered comments on each song's place in the Neil Young discography and his reasons for choosing it. And much later in the set, when he saw that we were still listening, he said apropos of nothing, "You guys are cool." If I could, I'd assure him the feelings were mutual.

In no way was this a Jon Brion show, though in keeping with the spirit of his gigs, he obviously hadn't rehearsed. All he did was sing, though we both noticed his stricken hand subtly miming some chords on one song. In fact, he used lyric sheets--not a common occurrence--and David had to prompt him a couple of times. We'll take it regardless; Largo is not the same without him.

Set 1 (Nels Cline solo)
Look Through My Window [Mamas & Papas]
Tom Violence [Sonic Youth]
I Hate Myself for Loving You [Joan Jett]
I Got No Answers [Joan Jett]
Little Argument with Myself [Low]

Set 2 (and not)
featuring Mad Cow, the backing band
Hippie Dream
Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)*
Don't Cry **
On the Beach ***
Walk On ***
Fucking Up ***

* = with David Garza and Jeff Gauthier
** = with David Garza
*** = with David Garza and JON FUCKING BRION

After the show, we were able to say hi to Nels, who, as usual, looked completely shocked to see us. It's amazing how little he takes for granted. And as a topper, we were able to ask Jon a couple of questions. Apparently, his arm is getting better, though it's still not there. However, he assured us that he would be ready for the Intonation Festival, which is all we wanted to hear anyway.

If I may step out of Girl Reporter mode for a second, I want to say that this weekend proved why Largo is so special, even without the Jon Brion factor (though that always helps). We saw some incredibly creative people doing their thing in their own way, and even better, there's an audience for it. I'm so glad to be able to witness it. For the last year or so, I've been sheepishly rationalizing my many visits to Los Angeles, but I don't think I'll do that anymore. Largo is the coolest place in the world, and I'll be back--without apologies--as many times as I can.

See also:
» and when you touch down
» mask


breaphene said...

Very, very, very cool. I've never seen Nels sing anything that wasn't howled into his guitar pickups, so that would have been something. Maybe he'll decide to bust out some boy band covers when I see him in Milwaukee. Oh, and good job luring Jon out of hiding as well.

hodie said...

Brilliant, Uyen! Thank you thank you, I think I'm going to take this entry, blow it up to poster size, and have it framed in gold.