Thursday, August 31, 2006

a verse, then a verse, and refrain

The ads for these 826 Writing Centers benefits claimed that the shows would address the age-old question of which is better: words or music. OK, maybe it isn't Sophie's Choice, but a lot of us would be hard-pressed to cite one over the other.

Revenge of the Book Eaters, Palace of Fine Arts, August 28, 2006: Maudie, Trish, and I speculated about the format of the evening's proceedings, but not too surprisingly, it rolled out a little like a variety show, only without dancers or ventriloquists. Even Jonathan Richman stopped short of turning on the twinkle toes.

What we did get was the perpetually hilarious Patton Oswalt as the master of ceremonies, opening the show and interspersing short comedy routines between acts. Over the course of the evening, he brought out Dave Eggers and Sarah Vowell for the literary content, as well as Zach Rogue, Mark Kozelek, the aforementioned Jonathan Richman, and Aimee Mann for the musical component.

To be more specific, Dave Eggers introduced a film about the writing centers, whereas Sarah Vowell read an essay about her new favorite explorer, with Patton Oswalt pulling overtime in the role of the beloved pioneer. During the intermission, the two publishing titans offered hugs (Dave) and buddy punches (Sarah) in the lobby for anyone willing to pay the price.

The musical guests were what really drew me in, and they ran hot and cold. I haven't seen Zach Rogue since Rogue Wave opened for Spoon a few years ago. Tonight, he was in good voice, and his indie pop definitely translated to the solo acoustic treatment. He even dared to subject us to a song with admittedly awful lyrics, and overall, he kicked off the proceedings with charm.

I can't say the same for Mark Kozelek, whose music and delivery, we all agreed, were way too soothing for a room of that size. He also confirmed for me that I need never see him in concert again, if the two previous shows I've seen hadn't already convinced me.

Patton was pretty gaga over Jonathan Richman, but to be honest, he's a taste I haven't acquired. To these uninformed ears, he sounded as he always does, and you either love him or you don't.

Aimee Mann, Revenge of the Book Eaters, Palace of Fine Arts, August 28, 2006Patton had introduced Jonathan Richman as a living legend, and he poured on even more love for the headliner, Aimee Mann, whom he called one of the greatest songwriters we have. Considering he and Aimee have longtime professional ties, his words were somewhat expected, but he might as well have been reading my mind; in my highly suspect opinion, no other modern artist epitomizes the words/music balance as well as Aimee.

This is actually the third time I've seen Aimee since April, a pretty high concert count for me. Though I always look forward to her gigs, I'm wary of potential disappointment. I'm happy to say that the Palace of Fine Arts was a much more hospitable environment for her than Stern Grove, but of course, it was no contest compared to Largo. (I know, I know--always with the Largo! Make it stop!)

As the headliner, Aimee got a little more time than the others, so she and Paul Bryan (a fixture from her touring band) hit six songs, almost evenly distributed across her discography. In the hushed room, we didn't miss a syllable of her finely wrought wordplay, and tonight, her voice had more of a growl than I've heard before, especially during "You're With Stupid Now," thus better punctuating her barbed lyrics. Aimee herself said she was honored to do what she could for the writing centers, and among other compliments, she revealed that Dave Eggers was a "world-class whistler." Unfortunately, his wife and Sarah Vowell talked him out of joining Aimee onstage for a whistle solo.

I don't think we reached a definitive answer on the question that kicked off these shows, though I wouldn't say we expected one either. Maybe we'll just have to do this again before we find out.

See also:
» less a deluge than a drought
» i'm the stuff of happy endings
» you're my favorite faith healer
» the Book of Brion 2 has landed

Sunday, August 27, 2006

it should be boredom by now

Upon entering Largo, we joked about being rusty that night, Jon Brion's first Friday appearance since April, when the tendinitis initially flared up. The staff had forgotten to separate Evonne and her ubiquitous cup of coffee, the waiter had given us the correct number of menus, and Dance had to remind me to get out my little notebook. I'm not sure if this influenced our perception of the night, but apparently, the affliction wasn't ours alone, as the events of the evening would bear out. Regardless of the portents, we were totally excited to be there.

Jon Brion, Largo, August 25, 2006: Flanagan took to the stage in his summer uniform, not a hair out of place, and told us to "have a fun." Jon strolled out immediately after, looking very relaxed and pulled together. (Hair 'n' pants content: Clean shaven; suitably tousled; adorably cherubic; wearing a long-sleeved madras shirt that actually fit, black jeans, those sharp black shoes, and stripey socks that kinda matched the shirt. Swoon.)

Just like the old days, he started out on piano, keyboard, and celeste for, I'm guessing, an old standard. After another short piano preamble, I heard a familiar beat, a suspicion that was confirmed when Jon picked up the hammer to set up "Same Thing." As normal, Jon added flourishes, including a mellotron solo in the middle, but to these ears, it sounded rougher than usual. Maybe it had to do with the tendinitis, maybe it was simply the night's performance, but it was definitely different from the dozens of other times I've heard it.

Jon stayed on the piano for "Ruin My Day," then hit the drums to build "Happy with You." During the course of the song, the hammer tumbled from its perch on the piano and took out the hallowed pint of Guinness on its way down. While Jon continued to build the song's guitar outro, Samy carefully cleaned up the mess. He not only picked up the broken glass and scanned the piano keys for stray shards, Samy came back with a brush to sweep away the possibly hiding remnants. And following that, he replenished the Guinness supply. In the process, he confirmed that good help is, indeed, hard to find.

For the next song, Jon rifled through a small pile of songbooks onstage but resisted Samy's suggestion of the Jingle Man collection. Instead, he went with "Solitude" on electric guitar, followed by a request for "Strings That Tie to You," then "The Way It Went." With that, the request floodgates opened.

Finally, Jon formally asked for requests but took a long time to settle on a suitable selection. Rather, he played bits of them or, at least, reacted to them before moving on to the next. Thus, we got a snippet of "Bear Necessities" and other tunes (including my call for "Baba O' Riley"). My favorite: the request for Wolfmother was answered with Jon's wordless howl. When the shout for a Muppets song came up, Jon claimed he knew only one and invited the crowd to join in. As it turned out, we were utterly useless, but Jon managed most of it anyway. Surprise surprise.

A request, "This Boy" started on the vocoder, but by the time Jon hit the soaring bridge, we were bathed in his mostly unadorned voice. The song nearly segued into "I'm Not in Love," which featured the piano and a wall of sampled vocals.

As the requests continued to bombard him, Jon calmly sat at the piano and drank in his unblemished Guinness, again playing refrains from some of the titles. The night had a palpably disjointed air, and perhaps sensing it himself, Jon declared that he was going to take it back to the early days of Largo, when he expected awkward silence, and he encouraged us to "embrace the lull." He claimed, "Dead air is my calling card"--though I'm sure we could think of other trademarks he's better known for.

By now, the Bowie requests had built from a murmur to a groundswell, so Jon encouraged us to throw out even more Bowie titles and asked Samy to look for the accompanying songbook upstairs. The sweet spot turned out to be "Moonage Daydream" draped in one of Jon's seamless piano medleys; I'd love to identify the million allusions within, but sadly, that's beyond my powers. Meanwhile, Samy returned with the Liberace songbook, and Jon conceded that there were corollaries between the two. When we put our heads together, our table managed to come up with a few: ambiguous sexuality, hair statements, predilection for manmade fabrics.

Jon warned us that the next song would take a while to get to and that he was courting "public failure," but bless the man, he jumped in regardless. The mystery was soon revealed, exposing "Fantastic Voyage" from Lodger, and with that, the Bowie session reached its conclusion.

The spark for "Hook, Line, and Sinker" came from the audience, and Jon honored it, as simple as can be. Strangely, I think it was my favorite song of the night. I don't always love it, but tonight's rendition sounded incredibly heartfelt. "Dirty Water" may have been Evonne's suggestion, perhaps chosen for its Boston reference or just its garagey feel.

Jon returned to the drums to build "Walking Through Walls," a song that always starts with a bang and can go in just about any direction. The fireworks truly ignited toward the end, when Jon practically deconstructed his guitar in front of our eyes. Crouched on his knees, he untuned the strings to the point where they all broke. The guitar head was a veritable Medusa, each cable shooting off in its own trajectory--not that it stopped Jon from playing them. In the interim, he also drummed against the guitar, dangled it by its whammy bar, and coaxed feedback from it by maneuvering it toward the amp. At the very end, he posed the unstrung guitar at the edge of the stage while playing with the array of pedals in his setup.

We knew a second set wasn't scheduled, but Jon came back for an encore of the perpetually sublime "Here We Go." Before calling it a night, he said he'd be back soon, though there's no indication of exactly when. If tendinitis is still the issue, the only hint of its lingering presence came before the mellotron solo, when Jon tugged at his hand briefly.

Tonight's gig had a very different energy from the last two Jon Brion shows I've seen. There were no surprise guests (though Sean Watkins could be seen taking in the show from the side of the room) and none of the current preferred standards, yet Jon certainly seemed to be in good, playful spirits. Fortunately, I know that one Jon Brion show is never any indication of another. For now, we can't tune in at the same bat time, on the same bat channel to find out for ourselves, but the next chapter will play out soon enough. See you there.

The setlist:
piano, keyboard, and celeste noodling
Same Thing [piano]
Ruin My Day [piano]
Happy with You [song build]
Solitude [electric guitar]
Strings That Tie to You [piano]
The Way It Went [piano]
It's Not Easy Being Green [electric guitar]
This Boy [piano + vocoder]
I'm Not in Love [piano + keyboards]
Moonage Daydream [piano + celeste]
Fantastic Voyage [song build]
Hook, Line and Sinker [electric guitar]
Dirty Water [electric guitar]
Walking Through Walls [song build]

Here We Go [piano]

See also:
» "My name is Jon, I'm from Connecticut"
» the power of suggestion, the element of chance

Saturday, August 19, 2006

hoboes in the hizzy


I used to blame the demands of my profession for robbing me of the ability to read for pleasure, but now that I've screwed myself out of that alibi, it's time to come clean: I'd rather surf the Web and/or watch TV, preferably simultaneously (the wonders of wireless technology).

John Hodgman, The Areas of My ExpertiseBut now that I no longer have to wake up at a set time every morning, I can stay up to read at night. On that note, I'm suitably chagrined to admit that I finally cracked open the pages of John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise, approximately three millennia after everyone else has been buzzing about it.

By now, you may recognize John Hodgman from those annoying Apple commercials (he's the PC who doesn't get the hot Japanese babe), but he's also a regular in all the usual left-wing media conspiracy outlets: he's shown up on The Daily Show fairly often of late, his segments have aired on This American Life, and he was a columnist for (In fact, the book's page design looks a lot like old McSweeney layouts.) Some time before that, he apparently graduated from Yale and earned a living as a Professional Literary Agent (his emphasis, not mine). Most tragically, he and Jon Brion took part in a show that Heidi and I couldn't get tickets to--though we were in town that very night!

Oh right, the book--as I and nearly every other media outlet have mentioned, hoboes play a large part in the, errrr, well, "narrative" is way too strong a word. So let's just say they play a large part. Actuaries and werewolves show up from time to time, though to my knowledge, no werewolf hobo actuaries are invoked.

But out of context, these glimpses don't do justice to the effectiveness of John Hodgman's hypnotically guileless voice. You know not to believe the hobo stories, but his matter-of-fact yet richly imagined prose makes you want to check the Encyclopedia Britannica and make sure your junior high history teacher didn't lie to you about Secretary of State Hobo Joe Junkpan. If you've seen him on The Daily Show, you probably know what I'm talking about. Maybe those appearances color my reading of his book, but he seems to be able to stay in character throughout, regardless of subject matter.

When I was in college, I desparately wanted to love Mark Leyner's books, if only for the titles (My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist and Et Tu, Babe, particularly) and, perhaps, the cool factor. I tried to read at least three or four of them before I came to the realization that they weren't doing much for me. Sure, I liked the wildly original premises, and I guffawed here and there, but I never got more than 2/3 of the way through any of them.

At the other end of the spectrum might be someone like Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote fairly absurdist stories but who always anchored them with very real, earnest, and straightforward emotions about love, acceptance, and human nature. Just as I'm a pop girl at heart, I'm a plot girl too. Call me zany, but I love being able to relate to characters and stories!

With only one book--thankfully not a thinly veiled semiautobiographical confession--under his belt, John Hodgman's place in this range is hard to tell right now. To his credit, he seems to exhibit more of Vonnegut's humility than Leyner's condescension, and that's a good enough reason to check back on his progress.

Blogger's note: This will be the first in a to-be-determined number of easily fooled book reports when my concert schedule is on the slow side. Check back later for the rawk or the folk or whatever it is I listen to.

See also:
» Areas of My Expertise: the blog
» "The (Wacky) World According to John Hodgman," interview from All Things Considered

Monday, August 14, 2006

save me from tomorrow

Do you ever wonder how your music tastes worked out as they have? I mean, now I can see what drew me to World Party: the solid songwriting and the classic influences (Beatles, Stones, Marvin). But at the time of their debut, my criteria for liking a band were substantially shallower, and World Party was far from cool--good, yes; hip, not likely. I guess I should just be thankful that a killer hook could penetrate my overly fad-conscious skull. Funny how music works that way.

World Party, Great American Music Hall, August 12, 2006: Two thoughts struck me as I arrived for this show:

  1. The place sure was empty. I could see why the gig was moved from the much larger Fillmore, but by the end of the night, the floor had filled out nicely.

  2. The crowd sure was old--not that I'm a spring chicken. Later, when I caught my first glimpse of Karl Wallinger, I had a better context for his fanbase. (This is what happens when your worldview is hopelessly mired in recollections of MTV's 120 Minutes circa 1994.)

Vanity aside, this was my first time seeing Karl Wallinger in any incarnation. I skipped the Waterboys reunion show a few years back, and I never made it to any of World Party's tours. Karl doesn't help the case, taking so long to complete his albums and return to U.S. shores. Yes, he can lay the blame on extenuating circumstances--both professional and personal--so let's call it even. I was just glad to finally see him, and after a truly shitty Friday, I needed this show.

On record, World Party is often considered a one-man band, thanks to the mostly solo accomplishment of Private Revolution, but tonight, Karl was accompanied by six other players. At times, there were as many as four guitarists onstage, and we saw liberal use of the violin, a touch of accordion, and a fair shake of the keyboards. Karl mostly played acoustic guitar, but he sat down at the piano for a couple of songs and switched to electric for the big hits at the end.

Speaking of hits, this show was all about them. I was surprised but tickled to hear them open with "Put the Message in a Box," followed by "Is It Like Today," or the history of Western philosophy in four verses, according to Karl. In fact, over the course of the 90-minute show, they did little new material, mostly sticking with the back catalog.

At first, Karl seemed to be in storytellers mode, charming us with his great accent (heh), friendly chatter, song explanations, and politically inflected comments in line with his reputation for socially conscious lyrics, though he made no overt mention of the current world powers. As the show progressed, he spoke less, though I don't think it was a reflection of flagging spirits. In fact, he and his band seemed quite jovial, sharing jokes and gibes and, in the case of the backing players, singing along, even when they were nowhere near the microphone.

For the encore, they brought out the two big guns: "Ship of Fools" and "Way Down Now." The already adoring crowd kicked further into gear, contributing spirited and heartfelt vocals. I felt the pull of the "whoo hoo hoo"s on both songs, especially the former, which I can't get out of my head. It makes me think that if we could bottle the power of a good singalong, the world would be a much happier place.

For the record, the show was taped, which means that this is the fifth time (to my knowledge) I've been captured on film at the Great American Music Hall. I guess every concert film needs a dorky Asian fangirl in the front row--casting agents, take note!

I missed the night's first opener, but I arrived in time for Elvis Perkins. Months ago, I heard Elvis's stunning track "Ash Wednesday" on KEXP, and it stopped me cold. I didn't catch him last time he was in town, so I was delighted to find him sharing the bill with World Party. Alas, the rest of Elvis's output didn't move me as much as that one song, though he and his band definitely looked like they were having a ball up there. I especially loved the gorgeous wood-carved harmonium that colored a number of the tunes.

Fun fact: Jim told me after the gig that Elvis is Anthony Perkins's son. I wouldn't have guessed, as Elvis somewhat resembled E from the eels circa Souljacker, though without the more overt Unabomber influence.

See also:
» Elvis Perkins live on KEXP