Monday, January 29, 2007

we could steal time, just for one day

We didn't have reservations for Jon Brion's show tonight, but bless Heidi for making the trip anyway. Even without a table, we found our favorite perch and a fantastic view. The only sacrifice may turn out to be my notes on the show, as I forgot my usual supplies, but here are the details, to the best of my knowledge.

Jon Brion, Largo, January 26, 2007: You know you're off to a fine start when Bobb Bruno opens any show at Largo. From where we sat, I couldn't tell if he brought his customary array of fuzzy friends, but I can report that the bunny suit was fully present. Bobb had his usual setup of the electronic drum kit and sampled backing tracks, and this time, he started out on a languid note before the cacophony came in. He brought it back down for the outro and left the stage no more than 10 minutes after he arrived. I totally apologize for the cursory description, but I lack the knowledge to report further.

Jon took the stage shortly after, looking rather dishevelled. He immediately confessed that he was "in a state" and compared the potential for night's performance to turn into a "trainwreck," though hopefully one at which we wouldn't mind "rubbernecking" (Zagat, don't sue me). I have to admire Jon's candor; for some reason, his frankness made the show's melancholy tone easier to accept.

Jon began with a big hollow-body Gretsch (I believe) and opened up with some improv that almost coalesced into a known song--or at least, we wanted to think it did, though we couldn't tell you at all what that tune might've been. He stayed on electric guitar for the next couple of covers by the Buzzcocks and Duke Ellington, then commented on the artists' writing talents, hoping that Pete Shelley was being mentioned alongside Duke in some music class somewhere.

For the Eternal Sunshine theme, Jon of course took to the piano, and he stayed there for a sublime "Trouble" that was torchy, naked, wrenching. "Trouble" already has some of my favorite Jon Brion-penned lyrics ever, but his phrasing this evening revealed another level of loss and devastation. I'd compare it to the first time I heard Jon do "Amateur," when I could hardly bear the desparation, it was so acute.

Jon concluded this session on the piano with "It Could Happen to You" before jumping over to the drums for a build of "Girl I Knew." He then proceeded with a languid instrumental punctuated by a spare, smokey beat and equally minimal, slinky guitar.

"I'll Never Forgive Myself" is an old song that you can hear on the Jon Brion demos that have been floating on the Internet for some time now. On a similar tip to the past, he followed up with a tune that came with two caveats: Jon claimed he wrote it with a friend when he was 8 or 9, and it was one of the few things that still had the power to amuse him.

Both Heidi and I noted the song's similarity to "Girl I Knew," at least in terms of the arrangement, and we speculated that certain elements may have been added to the tune in the 30-plus years since its inception. We tried to recall the lyrics and came up with something about "last night when I went out to play" and the couplet "will this love last until we're old/that's a mystery we cannot solve."

A spacey piano and celeste intro led into "Same Mistakes," but Jon switched to acoustic guitar for a slower, downbeat version of "Knock Yourself Out" and a sterling "Tangled Mind."

The requests finally started pummeling the stage, and Jon took them all in with a subtle smile. When it looked like he had made up his mind, he sat down at the piano and checked to see if Dan McCarroll or Benmont Tench were in the house. With neither present, he played snippets of a few requests, including a couple of lines of "Let's Stay Together." Ultimately, he had other intentions; thus, we were graced with "Jealous Guy." He invited us to whistle along but jokingly took back the offer upon hearing our tepid and strained (but earnest, I swear!) response.

There were indeed some Largo regulars among the crowd, and Jon called on them to join him: Fiona Apple and Dave Palmer. Together, the three of them tackled a couple of standards and some of Fiona's original tunes, with Fiona on vocals, Dave on piano, and Jon first on understated guitar, then switching to the harmonium. Dave left the stage so that Jon and Fiona could go to work on their final song: the guileless "Tonight You Belong to Me," featuring shared vocals and Jon on the ukulele.

The night drew to its conclusion with a build I actually recognized fairly quickly this time out: "Heroes," one of the greatest songs ever written. It's easy to be amazed by both the song's original incarnation and Jon's take, and on a purely visceral level, Jon delivered. I was jumping up and down by the time he layered on the piano, and the two false endings kept the anticipation coming. During the first seeming break, he trailed off a cappella before dashing over for another helping of piano, keyboards, and crotales. On this second build, the intensity returned in both the instrumentation and the vocals. Jon clutched and tugged at the big, old-fashioned microphone hanging over the piano and belted out the final cathartic lines, which eventually gave way to the true coda on mellotron.

Ordinarily, when I think of "Heroes," exactly two things come to mind: David Bowie's incredible lyrics and Robert Fripp's searing lead guitar. Jon stayed true to both, but he added an awesome keyboard fill that highlighted the majesty of the song. It reminded me of what he did with "More Than This" not so long ago, except to completely different effect. Where "More Than This" is sensual and smooth, "Heroes" is harrowing and beseeching, but somehow, the keyboards work in both. In the case of "Heroes," those uplifting notes were the perfect contrast and denouement to the song's--and the night's--overall forlorn feel.

--Bobb Bruno opener

--electric guitar noodling
--You Say You Don't Love Me [el. gtr]
--Solitude [el. gtr]
--Eternal Sunshine theme [piano]
--Trouble [piano]
--It Could Happen to You [piano]
--Girl I Knew [piano]
--guitar and drum instrumental
--I'll Never Forgive Myself [el. gtr]
--song Jon wrote when he was 8 or 9
--Same Mistakes [piano]
--Knock Yourself Out [acoustic gtr]
--Tangled Mind [acoustic gtr]
--piano medley
--Jealous Guy [song build]
--I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)*
--When I Get Low I Get High*
--Blue Skies*
--Slow Like Honey*
--Fast As You Can*
--Tonight You Belong to Me**
--Heroes [song build]

* = with Fiona Apple and Dave Palmer
** = with Fiona Apple

Monday, January 22, 2007

let your helmet warm your skull

Marfa, TexasI'm not sure who most willingly took the bait to see Jeff Tweedy play a show in Marfa, Texas: Paul and Brianne, on a tip from Jeff; me, after an innocent inquiry from Brianne; or Evonne, after I casually mentioned I had an extra ticket to the sold-out show. I guess it doesn't really matter; we're total pushovers.

Jeff Tweedy, Liberty Hall, January 21, 2007: Sometimes you think that you go to enough gigs that you know exactly what to expect from any given show, especially one by an artist you've seen far too many times to count. And then you hit a town like Marfa (population: 2,121) and the 200-capacity Liberty Hall. Of course, we had to make the three-hour drive from El Paso to get there and another three-hour drive to Midland/Odessa to get out, but fortunately, we boast a strong record of negotiating logistical (and logical) details.

I'm not sure I can convey the intimacy of this gig. Sure, I've seen Jeff Tweedy in close quarters, but that was with a very dear group of friends, not the general public and certainly not in the remote Texas town where they filmed Giant.

Jeff Tweedy, Liberty Hall, January 21, 2007We were told that Liberty Hall is a venue behind Ballroom Marfa, but how could we have known that it looked sort of like a shack--perhaps even a converted garage? Aside from the heat lamps, there were no frills here: Staff members has to manually slide open the wooden doors to allow us and themselves in and out. The concrete floor turned out to be the perfect conduit to transfer the cold from the ground to our legs. And the stage couldn't have risen more than a couple of feet off the pavement. In keeping with the low-key feel of the evening, all lights were kept very dim, though there was a disco ball in place. And of course, we loved every inch of this spot.

Jeff kicked off the show with one brand-new song, a couple of more familiar selections, and a bunch of titles from deep in the catalog. But early on, he also declared his love for the venue and the opportunity, and he promised to go without the PA as often as possible. He also asked for requests from this crowd, and it was perhaps a testament to the size of this gig that the song request process didn't degenerate into an incoherent roar. Instead, people raised their hands and waited their turn to be called. I think Jeff managed to squeeze in about a half-dozen suggestions from the crowd via this method.

Jeff Tweedy, Liberty Hall, January 21, 2007In the end, Jeff did three songs off the mic, since he claimed that most of our requests needed amplification, and when he flew without the PA, he basically stood smack dab in the center of our group--as if we weren't already freaked out by the promiximity of the stage. Along the way, he took care of a couple of Evonne's requests ("Radio King" and "Dreamer in My Dreams"). The banter was fun, with more local flavor than usual. He alternated between taking potshots at Marfa and vowing to move down there some day. He also unloaded a truckload of his Texan impersonations, which sort of made me cringe. Then again, I'm from California and a completely different set of stereotypes.

By now, it should be clear that there are lots of songs I don't mind hearing ad infinitum, but there were clear highlights for me. Of course, the unmic'd songs were a huge treat, especially "Dreamer in My Dreams." Also, I don't know if I'll ever get tired of "Blasting Fonda," though I sort of miss Nels Cline's touch on that song. And I'll never turn down hearing Uncle Tupelo or Being There tunes, which were fairly well represented among the requests.

Toward the end, Jeff promised that we should do this again every year, with the same group of people. Though we couldn't agree on the secret form of identification, I don't think a single person turned down the offer.

Marfa, TexasI hope that I'll get back to Marfa some day, though I can't guess when or why. Suburban girl that I am, I've never visited any other town as small or as remote as Marfa. Unfortunately, a lot of places seemed to be closed the one day we were in town, but we managed to swing around the perimeter a few times, just to take in the surroundings. And with a restful night's stay at the Hotel Paisano and a couple of delicious meals at local establishments, I think we did a decent job of dipping our toes in the water.

See also:
» every day is dreamlike

Monday, January 08, 2007

done well is so much fucking better

Say what you will about arbitrary dates, but there's something about the portents of the new year. I'm hoping that seeing Stephen Malkmus--perhaps my Socratic (if not platonic) ideal of the indie rocker--and the Jicks for my inaugural show of 2007 is a promising sign of great things to come.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Bimbo's 365 Club, January 5, 2007Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Bimbo's 365 Club, January 5, 2007: If you've read this blog more than a few times, you've probably noticed that a large degree of the musicians/bands/artists I cover qualify as "must see" performers in my book. What can I say? Besides being prone to sentimentality, I've reached (surpassed?) the point where I'm more likely to spend my limited entertainment dollars on my true favorites instead of putting up with yet another flash in the pan that the teenagers will eventually spoil for me anyway. (Man, I'm going to regret admitting that.)

Pavement, though, enjoys a hallowed spot on my list of all-time faves. They were kind of my indie Beatles; though they certainly weren't the first or the only band I've loved, they sorta set me on the musical path I mostly follow these days. Heck, I even borrowed one of their song titles for the name of this blog. So when Stephen Malkmus comes to town, I'm there.

For all my adulation, I don't turn a completely blind eye. Case in point: I wasn't crazy about the last Jicks show I saw. Though John Moen was hilarious that night, Steve didn't seem particularly engaged, and that remains my overwhelming impression of the gig. Of course, it's not exactly the same band anymore, now that John has joined the Decemberists and Janet Weiss (formerly of Sleater-Kinney) has stepped in to replace him.

In fact, I think I'm going to have to get used to the fact that there's now more than one indie legend in the band and that she has her own adoring fanbase. Actually, Janet's devotees might be a little more rabid at this point, as Sleater-Kinney's run was recent enough that most of their fans got to see them in concert. Judging from conversations overheard at Jicks shows, I'd guess that a lot of the Stephen's current fans were too young to have seen Pavement. As it turns out, I'm just the girl to gloat that I have. (Man, I'm going to regret admitting that.)

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Bimbo's 365 Club, January 5, 2007I was never a Sleater-Kinney fan, though I saw them in concert a couple of times. But you don't need to be a fan to know that Janet Weiss is a powerhouse on the drums, and her effect on the Jicks' sound was evident from the first note. Watching John Moen, even at his most intense, I could never shake the idea that he could step out midbeat and dance a little jig--not so with Janet. She was forceful, steady, and all those things that a drummer is supposed to be, and though she wasn't as playful as John (is anyone?), she joined in the festivities with rim shots and asides to Joanna, Mike, and Stephen. She truly anchored the heavier songs, and at times, hints of Led Zeppelin came through--something I've never heard from the Jicks before. She definitely passed the audition.

Oh yes, the man of the hour, Stephen Malkmus, my alpha indie rocker and forever my fantasy of the hot TA that you totally want to catch in office hours. (Man, I'm going to regret admitting that.) Since I've already embarrassed myself with too much attention to physical attributes, I'll damn myself a little further by reporting that there was some 'stache sportage. Oy. And his plaid boxers stuck out between his trousers and his polo shirt for much of the show. But the chiseled profile is intact. OK, enough of that.

The set was about evenly divided between old favorites and brand-spanking-new songs. I would love to offer some catchphrase to sum up the new songs, but I don't think any single statement applies. At first, I thought they might be poppier than the last album, but as the show progressed, we heard a lot of the longer, psychedelic jams that seem to pop up quite often on Jicks records. In short, they were all over the place. I'm just going to wait to hear them in their final form before I pass judgement.

Joanna Bolme of the Jicks, Bimbo's 365 Club, January 5, 2007The old songs saw some inspired Malkmus twists, none more revelatory than a breezy, irresistible version of "The Hook." The version we heard tonight was so striking that I pressed Julie for a description of the song, and she suggested that it sounded almost like a '70s country rock hit, which was somewhat in line with my idea that Steve reminded me of middle-period Dylan on it (a pretty ridiculous statement coming for a Dylan dunce like myself). Regardless, it was cool. Later, we also got the band's attempt at "I Nearly Lost You" by Screaming Trees in response to a challenge by Joanna.

Stephen was in good spirits, with his typical successive non-sequiturs and supremely laid-back manner. The topics of discussion tonight included James Joyce, the Gettys, the SF MOMA and its current exhibits, sports (of course), and his facial hair. Stephen and Joanna are obviously the core of the group, now that John's gone, and she gave him hell as needed. In the intimate confines of Bimbo's, there was more banter with the audience than I recall from previous shows, and that's always a treat. Mostly, though, I was glad to see/hear that Stephen continues to follow his muse, wherever it may lead him and us.

The opener was a one-woman band called St. Vincent from Austin, Texas. She looked a tiny bit like Winona Ryder, and she switched between electric guitar and an old Rhodes keyboard. In lieu of a rhythm section, she stomped on what looked like an amplified wooden panel that sort of filled in for a bass drum. Her sound was fairly eclectic, and though I thought we might be in for another sensitive girl singer/songwriter, she quickly proved she had a sense of humor and knew how to use it.

See also:
» penny rich & dollar dumb

Saturday, January 06, 2007

top 10 concerts of 2006

If my calculations are correct, I saw exactly 70 shows in 2006. Here, then, are my favorite gigs of the last year.

1. Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, and Greg, Largo, October 13, 2006: One tiny stage, seven musical luminaries, three-plus hours of music, a brilliant setlist--what's not to love? Sweet dreams are made of this.

2. Scritti Politti, Slim's, November 2, 2006: In the weeks following this show, I exhaustively Googled all matters Scritti Politti (fun fact: Elvis Costello, Sasha Frere-Jones, and the New York Times share my Green Gartside fixation), watched a lot of old videos, put the albums on permanent repeat, and started assembling this list. That is, I obsessed. Surprise surprise.

I've concocted a thousand rationalizations for why I've gone so gaga: nostalgia, (arguably) latent Anglophilia, the rarity of the event, Green Gartside's entirely swoon-inducing presence. But the truth of the matter is the music stayed with me for weeks afterward.

3. Jon Brion, Largo, July 13, 2006: Early 2006 looked to break my previous record for Largo shows attended--then Jon Brion was hit with tendinitis. This was his first full-fledged show at the club in three months' time, and he returned in grand style. And I shattered my Largo attendance numbers, all the same.

4. Elvis Costello, Speedway Meadows, October 6, 2006: Life doesn't get much better than a free Elvis Costello show in your backyard--unless, of course, Elvis plays a beautifully varied list of new songs, old favorites, and relative rarities, then invites a few famous friends to join him onstage. I love this town.

5. Wilco, 9:30 Club, October 19, 2006: I didn't clock my usual number of Wilco shows in 2006, so that makes my decision a little easier. I suspect, however, that even if you doubled my year-end tally, the 9:30 Club would've come out on top.

6. Jeff Tweedy, Henry Fonda Theater, February 12 and 13, 2006: The aforementioned Wilco absence was ameliorated in part by a wealth of Jeff Tweedy gigs, including a six-show run in California alone. These shows justified my claim that not all L.A. audiences suck. At times, it felt like the whole audience was holding its collective breath while Jeff sang.

7. World Party, Great American Music Hall, August 12, 2006: I just noticed this is the second show on my list by a brilliant, reclusive Welsh singer/songwriter with a DIY attitude and a philosophical bent who finally emerged after a long hiatus to sweep through the States and delight longtime fans (whew). How come I never noticed this trend before? And where would I be without them? This show would've clinched a spot on the list purely on the strength of the singalongs, but it turned into a great reminder of Karl Wallinger's awesome talent.

8. Aimee Mann, Largo, April 19, 2006: Believe it or not, I don't go head over heels for every act I see at Largo, which is why it's in the mix with all other venues (for now). But I have a serious bias toward the club, reinforced by gigs such as this one. As much as I love Aimee Mann, I've never been particularly evangelical about her, partly because her live shows haven't measured up to the albums. But this time, I got to see her in a rarified and revealing light, and I'm pretty sure I'm now hooked forever.

9. eels, the Fillmore, May 31, 2006: The eels confirmed their track record for inspired novelty at this goofy, spirited show. Krazy Al for president!

10. Nels Cline, Largo, June 3, 2006: This show wins for the most surprising gig of the year. We got Nels Cline singing a bunch of covers, dedicating a whole set to obscure Neil Young songs, and coaxing Jon Brion out of his tendinitis-plagued hiding.

Honorable mentions
Jeff Tweedy, Hotel S'n'S, April 8, 2006: It's impossible to think of this show as anything approaching a "normal" gig. It's a treat, a celebration, and a lot of fine music, but the people with whom I get to share the event keep me coming back.
Jon Brion, Largo, December 22, 2006: I had total lister's remorse last year when I realized that I was premature in assembling my annual concert roundup. If I had had the patience to let Jon Brion's last show of 2005 marinate in my brain, it would've found a slot somewhere near the top. So I'm hedging my bets this year and making it an honorable mention instead.
Neil Finn, Largo, December 6, 2006: It's going to be a while before I digest all the events of this day. For now, mentioning it here helps a little.

See also:
» top 10 concerts of 2005
» top 5 albums of 2006

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

the way that he sings

I'm not usually a fan of going out on New Year's Eve, and of late, San Francisco's abysmal end-of-year rosters haven't helped either, but the close of 2006 saw the local bookers scoring some major shows. Still, I probably would've opted for a quieter night in if it weren't for Evonne's invitation to join her for My Morning Jacket at the Fillmore--and boy, am I glad for the offer.

My Morning Jacket, the Fillmore, December 31, 2006My Morning Jacket, the Fillmore, December 31, 2006: I had heard much of My Morning Jacket before I heard a note of their music. The most striking description was from a coworker who said they were a cross between My Bloody Valentine and--errr, I forget, except that it brought to mind the unlikely idea of a shoegazing/dinosaur rock hybrid. Further pushing the genre-bending metaphor, I first saw them open for Doves in the kind of label-defying double bill you don't get often.

The staying power of that initial description has exceeded my expectations because even now, after having seen My Morning Jacket more than a few times, I can't help but think of the band in any terms apart from their seeming contradictions. Visually, it's all about the cock rock: the unfettered and unashamed head banging, the flying V guitar, and the hair--oh so much hair. But even the most perfunctory of listeners can easily pick out the sonic elements that place them apart from their more predictable counterparts. Yes, you have searing guitar solos, but they're paired with deep, rubbery grooves that bring to mind more Barry White than Great White. And I love that MMJ favors impressionistic, reverb-heavy singing in place of the screeching, histrionic vocals more often associated with "rock."

Generally speaking, you expect Americana-type bands to be (forgive my stereotyping) extremely earnest and authentic. And though both adjectives apply to My Morning Jacket, again they bring something different to the mix. The last time I saw the band, that wink and a nudge took the form of a fake parrot attached to Jimmy James's pirate-style jacket. This time, the joke extended to the whole room, not a corner of which had been left unturned in preparation for the night's theme.

My Morning Jacket, the Fillmore, December 31, 2006Of course, multiple banks of balloons hung from the ceiling, ready for the midnight drop, but we also saw (fake) rocks, taxidermy, and foliage onstage; huge decorative screens around the walls; and paper icicles hanging from the balconies. But amid this winter wonderland, the masterminds had inserted more jarring features: skeletons on the stage, a huge "Heaven" sign hanging from the ledge outside the band's dressing room, and the merch table in the back, claiming to be the Donner General Store.

And then the band emerged, hidden behind a scrim, in full Western costume and lip-syncing and hamming it up to a pre-recorded exchange between the members of the Donner Party. They ended up sacrificing their bass player to their appetites, but he miraculously returned--in a white suit, no less--on loan from Heaven (a.k.a. the aforementioned dressing room ledge). Only then did the scrim drop away and the show officially begin.

It's been a while since I've really listened to My Morning Jacket (though it's hardly a commentary on the band itself), but I recognized a bunch of old songs, including "Phone Went West" and "The Way That He Sings," among others. Much of the setlist was unfamiliar to me, but I didn't care, as I fed off the crowd's energy and the band's complete commitment and passion. I wasn't alone; even the guest list friends hanging off the balcony and the band's own staff, who can be notorious in their jadedness, threw themselves into the festivities. I especially couldn't keep my eyes off Bruce/Pocahantas, their tech guy who, when he wasn't tuning guitars, taking care of all matters electronic, and manning the bass on the band's cover of "Highway to Hell," danced the night away at the side of the stage.

My Morning Jacket, the Fillmore, December 31, 2006

At midnight, we did the countdown, but the show was only half over. Instead, the band launched into a seemingly unironic selection of covers: "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang, "All Night Long" by Lionel Richie (which I'm ashamed to say I recognized immediately), "Careless Whisper" by Wham (an ode to bananas, according to Jim), and later, "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" by Prince--my favorite--as well as the aforementioned "Highway to Hell." Elvis Perkins's backing band, Dearland, also returned to contribute some brass action to a number of MMJ's songs.

I wasn't sure the show would ever end, nor was I sure I wanted it to, but even I knew that "Mahgeeta" signalled the evening's close. Coming full circle, Tommy exacted revenge on his cannibalistic pals, taking them out with a shotgun. But they were reunited in the afterlife, as their sound engineer ticked their names off St. Peter's list, allowing them to ascend to the dressing room to the strains of "Stairway to Heaven."

My Morning Jacket, the Fillmore, December 31, 2006

A band called Wax Fang, also from Louisville, opened the show. Like the headliners, they shared a serious debt to '70s rock, but they were more on the more traditional glam tip. But like just about everyone else under the Fillmore roof that night, they didn't hold back, coming out onstage in cheerleader outfits, complete with ponytails, pantyhose, and lots of makeup.

Happy new year, everyone. Thanks so much for reading.