Saturday, October 14, 2006

Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg

And Benmont! And David Garza too!

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:
  1. Learn to write.
  2. Learn to sing.
  3. Learn to play an instrument.
  4. 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!

The setlist:
--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]
--Moonshiner [Sean]
--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

See also:
» now I try to be amused
» top 5 Largo memories

Thursday, October 12, 2006

"A woman lives here who is fond of triangles."

Regular readers of easily fooled may recall that I lagged approximately five light-years behind much of the reading public when I blogged about John Hodgman's book Areas of My Expertise. Regular readers also know I'm a creature of habit, so when John Hodgman returned to promote the paperback edition of the almanac, I showed up this time.

John Hodgman and Jonathan Coulton, Cody's Books, October 12, 2006: As easily fooled is primarily a concert journal, I could blog about Jonathan Coulton's performance, but that would leave a lot of white space on the page. He furnished John Hodgman's theme song, and he turned in a reading of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" with newly unearthed lyrics that proved once and for all that the children's classic is actually a hobo call to arms. His subtle rendition of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" also served as an apt background to one of John's long passages about the fate of the hoboes.

But obviously, John Hodgman claimed top billing, and he filled the slot well. Actually, he did better than that--he worked the room like nobody's business.

During the course of this reading, my brain came back repeatedly to two thoughts:

  • How could I possibly blog this?
  • I gotta blog this.

John Hodgman and Jonathan Coulton, Cody's Books, October 12, 2006I mean, I could tell you about all the obviously funny parts, such as the fact that Jonathan Coulton could accompany him at all or the leisurely brandy break they took while we listened to a portion of his audiobook. I felt a little tinge when he disavowed the hardcover edition of his book for the new, improved, and updated paperback printing. We also saw John step out of character for the Q&A session, but to downplay the emotional nakedness of the situation, he made all interested parties pose their questions over a walkie-talkie. And even before the show started, he already had us eating out of his hand, as he pretended to disparage the smug San Francisco crowd while he tested the microphone backstage.

After reading the book and seeing him on The Daily Show, of course I expected him to be funny, at least when working off the written word. But I was surprised by his impeccable timing and the more off-the-cuff moments, such as his interactions with the audience. For example, he apologized to the teenager in the front row for swearing in front of him, then called him a bastard in the next breath. He talked a little about Dungeons and Dragons, simultaneously mocking the game and his own deficiencies in playing it. And when an audience member tried to initiate an extended conversation about Neil Diamond, John managed to cut off her ramblings in a manner that was forceful and hilarious but not necessarily unkind.

On the other hand, I think we saw a number of earnest moments too, most notably when he downplayed comparisons between himself and the late George Plimpton, as well as when he talked about working with They Might Be Giants, though he had very kind words for both parties. And while he joked about his more visible TV gigs, he acknowledged that he was in the nearly unbelievable position of holding several dream jobs.

John Hodgman and Jonathan Coulter, chalk, Cody's Books, October 12, 2006Overall, this free reading felt more like a show (though without the "Freebird" requests, thankfully) than a literary gathering. And just when I thought it couldn't get better, John not only signed books at the end, he took his time in talking to everyone who approached him. Alas, I opted not to get a picture with him, brandy snifter in hand, though plenty of others made most of the photo op. Finally, in addition to an autograph for my book, I left with a box of Areas of My Expertise chalk (useful for posting hobo signs on barn doors, train stations, and other points as needed). Truly, reading is once again fun(damental)!

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

Sunday, October 08, 2006

now I try to be amused

It's a good thing I'm not working these days, as I needed no excuse to stroll down to Golden Gate Park and check out Elvis Costello, one of my all-time favorites. The Blue Angels, overcast skies, and secondhand pot smoke aside, it turned out to be an incredible day.

Elvis Costello, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 6, 2006: One of the fun things about plodding on with easily fooled is that I finally get to blog some of my most beloved musicians, such as Elvis Costello. I'm far from the Elvis hardcore, but I've seen him many, many times, and I always look forward to his gigs. Venue snobbery is the main factor that keeps me from going to more of his shows these days, but when he's playing a few blocks from my flat for free, I can't refuse.

Elvis Costello, Speedway Meadows, October 6, 2006If I had been paying attention to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass lineup, I would've seen that we were promised Elvis in both solo acoustic form and with a band, but my attention span didn't even need that much information. I saw the two magic words--end of story.

Elvis wasted no time, launching into "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes" and sparking off a nice singalong to the fan favorite. He carried us through a few more songs from all phases of his career. This set the tone for the next two hours, which featured a truly varied selection of his own classics, newer releases, and inspired covers that still has my head spinning.

I have no problem admitting I was out of my element at the festival, especially when I heard the name "Bill Kirchen" mentioned about a hundred times around me. It turned out that he was backing Elvis on electric guitar and that his upcoming CD, The Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods, inspired the name of the band. They were joined by Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher, as well as local player Austin DeLone on keys. Though it was certainly Elvis's show, he turned over the mic to both Bill and Austin during the main set, and Austin's rendition of "Satisfied Mind" was especially moving.

Elvis Costello, Speedway Meadows, October 6, 2006They weren't the only guest players we'd see, though apparently I was the only person who was surprised when Emmylou Harris joined in. Never mind that we'd already been treated to a sublime "Good Year for the Roses" (which I never thought I'd hear live)--they had "I Still Miss Someone" in store for us. As if that weren't enough, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings dropped in for a couple of titles, including my favorite tune of the day: "Mystery Train," a hootenanny performed around an old-fashioned mic.

I thought for sure that Elvis had given us everything we could ask for, but he returned for an encore of "There's a Story in Your Voice" and "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding." And gluttons that we are, we ate up the return of Emmylou, Gillian, and David for the closers, especially the magnificent "When I Paint My Masterpiece."

Five years ago, you wouldn't have seen me at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Though my tastes have changed since then, it's safe to say that the festival's has too. Elvis Costello's performance was a perfect example of the futility of dogged reliance on genres. It's funny to think I was listening to "Indoor Fireworks" and "Good Year for the Roses" at a time when I shunned nearly everything that didn't have a synthesizer or some kind of dance beat. Fortunately, truly excellent music knows no timetable.

Friday, October 06, 2006

jonathan, why so heavy on the latin?

Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn't have gone to this show, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to reciprocate Evonne's endless generosity, see Maudie, and report back to Andrew. Besides, it's been far too long since I've gone to the fabulous Make-Out Room.

Jonathan Richman, The Make-Out Room, October 1, 2006: As visitors to my apartment can tell you, the price of crashing on my couch is enduring my parade of concert posters and, in some cases, setlists. (If you hold the debatable honor of having been born around the same time as me and sharing a history of Anglophilia, you're also required to feign interest in my Star Hits collection, but that's another story.)

And that's exactly what I put Evonne through before I realized how many times I've seen Jonathan Richman live. Of course, there was last month's show, and I'll always remember the string of dates with Wilco in 2001. But I had completely forgotten about the opening slots for Belle & Sebastian (also in 2001). By that count, I guess I've seen Jonathan Richman at least half a dozen times now.

Fortunately, it turned out to be a great time, and it was easily the best Jonathan Richman show I've seen. I think it had something to do with the fact that he was the headliner and not the opener, so my attention was squarely on JoJo and Tommy. But everything was just right: the crowd, the club, the pacing of the show. JoJo himself wasn't as talkative as usual, owing to a callous on his vocal cords, but he was, as ever, engaging and, of course, dancing. He did a mix of old and new songs, and I actually recognized a few (errr, the Something About Mary tunes, anyway). I'll probably never be a JoJo faithful, but this evening, I totally got it.

See also:
» a verse, then a verse, and refrain

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

her little heart it could explode

Three Jon Brion shows at Largo in three months--four, if you include the cameo with Nels Cline. By all indications, it seems that Jon's performance schedule is ramping up again, and his return couldn't be more welcome. Todd Carlin, a.k.a. the Naked Trucker, in his hilarious opening slot said something to the effect that Jon is back, and Flanagan echoed that sentiment in his introduction. If you didn't know better, you'd think that everything was back to normal, but I'm not ready to back off orange alert yet.

Jon Brion, Largo, September 29, 2006: We noticed a definite electricity in the air, long before Jon took the stage and even before Fiona Apple found her seat two tables behind us. I can't explain it, only that it didn't feel the same as last month's fairly low-key show, though it was still no competition for July's highly anticipated return. As it turned out, we were right.

Jon started out on piano for a lengthy instrumental passage that probably referenced a thousand artists and influences--none of which I could name, but I loved it nonetheless. When he seemed satisfied by that exercise, he reached up for the harmonica and breathed out an extended measure, kicking off "Ruin My Day." The crowd roared its approval as Jon delivered as soulful a version of the song as I can remember.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, Jon stayed on the piano for a couple of instrumentals, delivering "two cheesy covers for the price of one." He kicked about the keys-based implements and the crotales for a little while longer, but when he picked up the hammer, there was no mistaking what was coming next. Jon seemed more meticulous than usual laying down the rhythm for "Same Thing," but that meant we got to see more of him manipulating and tapping the innards for the desired effects.

The song build came next, and all sounded fine on "Happy with You" until the guitar came into play. Finally, Jon relinquished it and sat at the piano to sing, arms crossed. He hit the keys with abandon for a spell before trying the hollow-body guitar, but this time, the mic didn't agree with him, and he knocked it over--not the first time either. Somehow, Samy fixed it in time for Jon to turn in a few verses of "Pop Life," and I couldn't help thinking that the last time I heard Jon do that song, Kanye West had joined in. And then before you knew it, Jon was back at the piano, channeling Gershwin.

An audience member requested "Over Our Heads," and Jon gave it the usual treatment. That is, he sampled and layered his own voice for the background vocals, then piled on the vocoder for the actual melody. I think it's supposed to encourage an ethereal feel to the song, but I always find the vocoder detracts from the loveliness of the song.

For "Why Do You Do This to Yourself," Jon asked Scott in the soundbooth for more and more slapback, enough to "make both Sam Phillips proud." Jon dished out about a bar of "Stand By Your Man" (a request) on piano, while "Girl I Knew" featured a rock guitar outro that sounded new to me.

We had already seen Fiona, but we didn't know who else was hiding in the back, which is why I gasped when e from the eels emerged onstage. As anyone who reads this blog knows, the eels are one of my favorite live bands, and e is inextricably linked to my earliest Jon Brion shows. For six years, I've been hoping to catch e at Largo again, but the shows have eluded me--until tonight.

On the surface, e and Jon are an odd couple, but to see them together, you instantly pick up on their rapport and shared history. They threw faces at each other, told stories about each other, made jokes at the other's expense, and jokingly accused the other of sabotaging the show. If the setlist below looks abbbreviated, it's only because I couldn't capture the conversation between Jon and e.

Though they asked for requests, they didn't take most of our suggestions. On the bright side, they assured us it wasn't personal. E said he happened to learn "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" earlier that week, so they granted the request with a very funny version of the song. The subsequent call for "American Girl" inspired a mash-up with the lyrics: "American girl, you'll be a woman soon/Don't move to Europe."

We also got a number of eels songs and more guests. Dan McCarroll, formerly of the Grays and the same Dan in Aimee Mann's song "I've Had It" ("Dan came in from Jersey") joined them from "My Beloved Monster" and on, while Jon personally invited Terry Adams from NRBQ to join them for (my no-brainer request) "Not Ready Yet." Terry, of course, had never played the song in his life, but Jon unashamedly assured him that it had only three chords, and to prove it, he dictated the chords to him. Before long, Terry was throwing in his own embellishments as well; on the other side of the stage, Jon played bass and watched on with a huge grin on his face. When Terry seemed to take it down a notch, Jon roared at him to keep it going. For e's final song, they conferred for a long time until Terry suggested and kicked off one of his own, "Want You to Feel Good Too." Jon carried on with just Terry and Dan for "My Baby Left Me," and then with only Dan, he paid tribute to NRBQ with "Riding in My Car."

After Dan left the stage, Fiona was next, and the two of them spent a few minutes in a long embrace. From all indications, they hadn't rehearsed either, as they took a while to figure out which songs to perform. They settled on a couple of Fiona's usual standards but none of her own songs.

Jon closed with a song build, and lucky for me, it started with my favorite drumbeat ever. Tonight's rendition of "Tomorrow Never Knows" also featured Jon's amazing re-creation--courtesy of the slide guitar--of those chirping sounds on the original record. Somewhere around the middle, Jon asked Terry to return "to make some noise," which is exactly what he did. This went on for at least 15 minutes, if not longer. Toward the end, I heard references to "Peter Gunn" and maybe some other songs.

By then, it was almost 1 a.m. Friday nights may not be exactly the same yet, but it looks like we're getting ever closer.

The setlist:
--piano noodling
--Ruin My Day [piano + harmonica]
--Popcorn/Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies ("two cheesy covers for the price of one") [piano]
--Same Thing [piano, mellotron, celeste, keyboard]
--Happy with You/Pop Life/Rhapsody in Blue [song build]
--Over Our Heads [keyboard + vocoder]
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself [electric guitar]
--Stand By Your Man [piano]
--Girl I Knew [song build]
--Dirty Girl (with e)
--Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon (with e)
--My Beloved Monster (with e and Dan McCarroll)
--Not Ready Yet (with e, Dan McCarroll, and Terry Adams)
--Want You to Feel Good Too (with e, Dan McCarroll, and Terry Adams)
--My Baby Left Me (with Dan McCarroll and Terry Adams) [electric guitar]
--Riding in My Car (with Dan McCarroll) [electric guitar]
--On a Slow Boat to China (with Fiona Apple) [piano]
--Angel Eyes (with Fiona Apple) [piano]
--Tomorrow Never Knows (with Terry Adams) [song build]

See also:
» i like birds...and eels
» public service announcement
» it should be boredom by now
» i won't be denied
» top 5 Largo memories