Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg, Largo, October 13, 2006: Don't ask me how it happened that the Anglophile is reporting on her second bluegrass-associated event in the last week. But twang or no twang, I'm no fool, and after last week's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, there was no way I could pass up this dream bill.
I've never seen a Gillian Welch/David Rawlings show or the Watkins Family Hour before, so I can't compare tonight's gig to anything they've previously done. But I've attended a couple of Jon Brion shows. The obvious analogy would be Jon's second set, where high-wattage friends sometimes show up to amaze and delight. Those later sets are a good starting point, but tonight, we saw a one-of-a-kind gathering.
True to the billing, Gillian, David, Sara, and Sean were the headliners, trading off vocal duties. Jon was more of a background player, though he stepped up to the mic as the mood struck him. At many points during the night, he stood behind the main quartet, understatedly strumming his guitar and smiling beatifically at the musical goodness. Greg Leisz, for reasons unstated, didn't show up until about 1/3 of the way through the show. But with the unbilled Benmont Tench (maybe his name didn't fit on the Largo Web site?) on hand all night, who were we to complain? David Garza ducked in and out for a couple of songs--no more, no less.
Generally, they followed a very loose pattern: Group huddles; mulls over song choices; decides on song; pulls it off beautifully, usually with a solo opportunity for each musician; ends song; crowd begins whooping. Sara said they had gone through part of all the songs at least once, and Sean explained that they even had a short list, though they quickly realized it wouldn't do them any good. They carried a tiny tatter of a sheet onstage, but I can't imagine that it had every song they eventually played.
There was no clear leader, and the musicians simultaneously deferred to and egged on each other: moving out of the way so that the audience could view the soloist, for example, while calling each other out for spontaneous solos during the course of each song. Considering the lulls we witnessed, it's amazing that they managed to get in as many tunes as they did.
Sara and Sean honed in on covers, while Gillian and David did a few originals, mostly at the request of the other musicians onstage. With the seamless harmonies on the second song, my heart grew about a dozen sizes, and I wanted to cry every time Benmont touched the keys. Sara's voice was especially enchanting on "Different Drum," though the swooping vocals seemed to take a lot out of her. Evonne and I giggled like schoolgirls when Sean turned in "Moonshiner" with an arrangement that highlighted his bluegrass instincts, though he acknowledged that Dylan and Uncle Tupelo, among others, beat him to the punch.
Gillian and David were a complete revelation (groan) to me. Obviously, I didn't take their appearance with Elvis Costello last week to be representative of their sound or dynamic, but I suspect that what they pulled off at Largo would've surprised their faithful as well. Sure, we got tons of Dylan, as well as traditional folk songs. Though they've been known to pull off "White Rabbit" in past shows, it was still a hoot, and when David prodded Gillian into "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" (because, she claimed, he wanted to sing one of the lines from the song), it took a moment to absorb the full, delicious irony of the situation. At the end, nearly the entire group looked to Benmont, who declared that it was a great song.
Their years of collaboration showed, as you watched them communicate with looks and chords--no words needed. David would play a couple of notes from a specific song and peer at Gillian for a response, and that'd be it. Off to the races!
True to the spirit of Largo, Gillian took to the drums a few times. Sometimes, it was just a light touch on brushes and the kick drum, such as on "Write Myself a Letter," but she rocked hard on at least a couple of selections. After David silently mouthed "drums" to her and tipped his head to the back of the stage, she headed to the kit for "Positively 4th Street," and "Short People" had her banging away too.
In a night of eye-openers, David Rawlings was the most amazing of them all. Again, I plead complete ignorance of his work, but after the show, Evonne confirmed that he generally takes a more buttoned-down role with Gillian. In utter contrast to that image, tonight, he was an instigator and a ringleader--and a mischievous one, at that! He sang a lot and suggested a number of songs for Gillian. Of course, with Gillian, he turned in perfect harmonies, though his voice by itself was reedier. But he owned the last batch of Dylan selections, and "Country Girl" was right on target as well.
I think we should've been suspicious when David and Jon took the stage, tripping over each other's heels and laughing at some private joke. Not long after they started, Jon shared a short anecdote about walking past the bar to get to the stage and a guy yelling out, "I love you, David!" Jon informed the patron that David was only a few steps behind, and sure enough, as he continued to the front, he heard the guy repeat it to David. Jon added that he couldn't agree more.
Throughout the night, Jon and David could be seen in private conference, constantly in smiles and sharing a few hugs. Just as I was whispering to Evonne that Jon and David were BFFs and should totally make out with each other, they launched into "Positively 4th Street"--sharing the mic. It was a major RSBF moment. Swoon.
Jon and David don't particularly resemble each other, but they're about the same height with similar builds, and they certainly shared a healthy enthusiasm and sense of adventure onstage. Watching them play together, I had no problem seeing them as kindred spirits. Later, when Evonne told me that David did a lot of production work, it added another dimension to their connection.
If I had to choose a single highlight of the show, it'd be David's earnest, bare-bones rendition of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." I couldn't believe my ears, but he followed through, slyly smiling the whole time. Inevitably, someone in the peanut gallery called out for "Time After Time," and it proved to be a lesson to be careful what you ask for. Even as the rest of the musicians shrugged it off as an impossibility, Jon turned in a couple of licks, and they were on their way, though no one could remember the lyrics. Perhaps unsatisfied with the effort, Jon took the helm for a "Sun style" reading of "All Through the Night."
Oh right, the Jon Brion content: Jon sang only a few songs and didn't even add backing vocals to many of the titles. In my very biased opinion, the pace really picked up with Jon's first turn on lead vocals, the aforementioned "Positively 4th Street." It may have helped that Greg had joined them by then, but it was one of those communal, sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs moments that will forever bring me back to Largo.
Along with Sean, Jon was the most willing to chat with the audience, and he had a couple of zingers tonight. After "Look at Miss Ohio," on which he had played the drums, he came to the front of the stage specifically to declare, "Hots damn, I love me that song." Later, after another sparse, moving double harmony from Gillian and David, Jon held forth on the four things we should all do:
- Learn to write.
- Learn to sing.
- Learn to play an instrument.
- Learn to listen to each other sympathetically.
Before I truly lose everyone, I want to get in some words about Benmont and Greg. I've blogged extensively about Benmont, but this was my first time seeing Greg, who initially came to my attention on the Grant Lee Buffalo records. There's nothing I can say that a million other grateful music lovers haven't already, but I have to note that there was something very comforting about seeing these industry veterans anchoring their respective ends of the stage and the songs themselves. During "Tennessee Waltz," in particular, the two of them carved out a slice of heaven with their combined solos. And in a sure sign that the feeling was shared, Jon roared, "More!" at both of them during "My Baby Left Me."
I should've wrapped this up about 1,000 words ago, but before I release this to the Internets and my five faithful readers, I'll add a few details that I can't let go:
- In the middle of the first extended huddle of the night, Jon brightened considerably and declared, "It's our first lull!"
- Jon's blistering ukulele solo on "Positively 4th Street"
- Jon revealing the name of the band: WWWRBT, or WWWRBTL when Greg joined
- Not bothering to adjust the mic, Sean standing on his tiptoes to sing "Short People" with Jon
- Sean and David, respectively, taking the first two verses of "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" (yet another no-brainer request from me) but messing up the lyrics, recruiting Jon for the third verse, then handing off the fourth verse to Gillian
- David shadowing Jon and adding Elvis-parodying harmonies during "My Baby Left Me," while they grinned at each other nonstop
- David and Jon speaking in nonsensical shorthand about "baby," which turned out to be the last song of the evening: "Baby You're a Rich Man"
OK, I'm really done now. Thanks for sticking it out! Come to Largo more often!
--You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go [Sean]
--Early Mornin' Rain [Sara]
--I Hear Them All [David]
--One More Dollar [Gillian]
--Different Drum [Sara]
--Look at Miss Ohio [Gillian]
--Any Old Time [Sara]
--Wicked Messenger [David and Gillian]
--Throw Me a Rope [Gillian and David]
--Positively 4th Street [Jon]
--Write Myself a Letter [Sean]
--Country Girl [David]
--Don't Worry Baby [David Garza]
--Keys to the Kingdom [Gillian]
--Short People [Sara]
--Tennessee Waltz [Sara]
--Bury Me Beneath the Willow [Sean]
--Girls Just Wanna Have Fun [David]
--Time After Time [David]
--All Through the Night [Jon]
--White Rabbit [Gillian]
--My Morphine [Gillian]
--Stop Dragging My Heart Around [Gillian and David]
--Luminous Rose [David]
--Don't Think Twice It's Alright [Sean, David, Jon, and Gillian]
--Queen Jane Approximately [David]
--My Baby Left Me [Jon]
--Baby You're a Rich Man [David]
brackets = lead singer
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