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.
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]
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