Monday, March 12, 2007

always counted us as lucky

Places I do not live: Los Angeles or Chicago, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Fortunately for me, though, both feel a lot like home, thanks to some of the kindest, warmest people I've had the pleasure to have met. Still, the Chicago (and Madison! and New York!) peeps went above and beyond when they humored me, Heidi, and our Jon Brion, errrrr, appreciation this weekend.

Jon Brion, Steppenwolf Theatre, March 9, 2007: I'm not sure if it says more about the show's star or its promoters, but it seems notable that two of the city's cultural institutions had to come together to bring Jon Brion back to Chicago: the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Intonation Festival. Based on the beautiful weather that welcomed us this weekend, I wonder if Mother Nature wasn't in collusion as well.

Heidi and I traded in lawn chairs at Union Park for front-left seats at Steppenwolf's very proper downstairs theater, while our friends gathered in a nice clump in the center rows. As for Jon, he temporarily upgraded from Largo's patch of a stage for the vast expanse of a professional performance space. We still had the clear blue sky, though, if only in the form of a painted backdrop this evening.

David Singer from the Intonation Festival introduced Jon, who emerged from the shadows in a trim seersucker suit, still sporting the beard I had first seen at Largo last month. He immediately started in on "Me, Myself, and I" on the acoustic guitar, and it almost felt like I had never left the Pacific time zone. The acoustic guitar remained in the spotlight for both "Meaningless" and "Same Mistakes," then it was over to the piano for the unmistakable improvised percussion of "Same Thing." Tonight, Jon took advantage of the gorgeous baby grand onstage, though he seemed to pluck at its shiny innards and bang on its pristine keys as indelicately as he does with Largo's weathered Starck. By the end of "Same Thing," he had punched away at and looped every keyboard-based implement around (a celeste, a chamberlain, and a little synthesizer) to create an orchestra of sorts. For me, this was nothing unusual, but I hope the first-timers were inching toward an epiphany at this point.

The theme to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind floated us back to earth, but the equilibrium was short-lived. After Jon had set down the drums, piano, and bass tracks for "Happy with You," the guitar amp decided to go mute. The ever resourceful Samy rushed to the rescue, but no amount of prodding and pumping could coax the sound out, so Jon did what he does best: he cheerfully, nonchalantly took it in stride. He sang anyway, while Samy worked his magic, and a verse or two later, all was good again. Perhaps to celebrate, Jon turned in a bluesy take, initially of the melody, then on some other musical element that I can't even begin to guess at.

The requests had started in early as the second song of the show, but now Jon asked for the next guinea pig to be subjected to the suspect amp. The lab rat turned out to be my request for "That's Just What You Are," and I can certainly say that it was the most garage-y version of the song I've heard. Still, it's gonna take a lot more than a fuzzy amp to mar its pop perfection.

During the opening notes of the next song, Heidi and I threw in our predictions. She said Dylan, I said Nirvana, and we were both right, as Jon did one of his signature mashups: "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" sung to the tune of "Lithium." It took Jon cursing at us before the audience really kicked in with the chorus, but after the giggles subsided, there was no doubt that the room had really come together.

"Waterloo Sunset" is almost a staple these days, but when you hear Jon's loving explanation of its appeal, you can guess why.

Jon returned to the piano, and as he sat down at the bench, he finally took notice of the indoor sky. He requested that the lighting person switch up the lights while he played some music in the background. He sampled his own nonsensical vocals and flitted about the keys, commenting that he was leading his "master class" on how soundtracks are made. When that diversion petered out, he segued into the always lovely "Ruin My Day," adorned with the tiniest of ad-libs that completely rejuvenated the song for me.

The next tune was requested by a group of fans from St. Louis that Jon had met on the street that day, but he warned them that it wouldn't sound like a standard. Rather, he planned to give it the White Album treatment. Armed with that information, I finally noticed that the song's slow, tortured build resembled "Sexy Sadie" from last month, but the vocals had to kick in before I realized it was "You Don't Know What Love Is."

What sounded like a request for Train was (thankfully!) a fan asking for "Trial and Error," one of Jon's most singer/songwriter-y tunes. The next selection took a completely different tack, however. Jon explicitly asked for an '80s rock song, but the musical school had been predetermined, thanks to Heidi's call--which is how we got "Back in Black" in the style of Fats Waller. Really. Then Jon finished out the main set with two of his own compositions: a song build of "I'm Further On," followed by "Knock Yourself Out" in its customary acoustic form.

Jon doesn't really do encores at Largo, so it was a bit odd to see him come back to the stage in response to the roar of the audience. All night, he had been cordial and animated, and it was perhaps the room's good cheer that helped him take on the late Elliott Smith's "Happiness." I haven't dared dream of hearing that song, but Jon himself tossed out an aside that enough time had elapsed. On the piano and the celeste, he served up a moving reminder of Elliott's formidable ear for melody and lyrics. It may be my favorite part of the entire show.

Somewhere in the center seats, Sooz's call for Prince rung out. There are certain artists that Jon can cover until the cows come home, without a single syllable of complaint from me. The Beatles and Prince may top that list, and for good reason, as tonight's Prince medley was a veritable tour de force. I've seen Jon do "Pop Life" before, and again, I was reminded of what he brings to the table for that song: lots of gorgeous, soulful piano in place of Prince's harsh, detached reading. I'll admit that both "Little Red Corvette" and "Sexy MF" were teases, but "Controversy" and "Kiss" got his full attention and our full approval.

The night concluded with one of Jon's own songs, "Stop the World," which I mistakenly told my friends was on the Eternal Sunshine soundtrack. It's actually unreleased, but it's not that hard to track down (nudgenudgewinkwink). Jon asked for two people--preferably anyone who's never played the piano before--from the audience to help out. He picked two young dudes to man the baby grand and the celeste, then advised them to hit the black keys. (He also joked that he was the weak link in the band because of his drinking and propensity for talking.) Jon himself took the acoustic guitar, and together, the three of them made some seriously beautiful music. However, Heidi later pointed out that the young man on piano clearly was not a novice, and even I noticed that the piano sounds were suspiciously polished. It's hard to complain, though, when his deception worked in our favor.

Jon offered one last token of appreciation. He explained that tickets had gone on sale before they could lower the price to his liking, so in return, copies of Meaningless were available for free in the lobby. Not a single disc remained by the time we made it out of the theater, so I'll take it as a good sign.

Another good sign: my buddies were buzzing about Jon as we left the theater, on our way to celebrate Kris's birthday with late-night Chinese food. The Chicago conquest was well underway!

--Me, Myself, and I
--Same Mistakes
--Same Thing
--Eternal Sunshine Theme
--Happy with You
--That's Just What You Are
--Don't Think Twice, It's Alright/Lithium
--Waterloo Sunset
--Ruin My Day
--You Don't Know What Love Is
--Trial and Error
--Back in Black
--I'm Further On
--Knock Yourself Out

--Pop Life/Controversy/Little Red Corvette/Sexy MF/Kiss
--Stop the World

See also:
» the power of suggestion, the element of chance
» nothing lasts forever


Kristina said...

Oh yes, epiphany was creeping up by oh... the second song or so. I am getting the chills and quivers just thinking of his Elliott rendition all over again. It brought tears to my eyes. The highlight I take out of this weekend is not only that you and Heidi are right on the money (not that I ever doubted you) but this guy really loves music, and he delivers it so well - maybe better than any other performer I've witnessed? Well, I at least know I will be making a trip with you to Largo at some point, I can tell you it will be much needed. Thanks again for showing us the way. Like many other musical treasures you've recommended, I am eternally grateful.

breaphene said...

You know, the seats at Steppenwolf were definitely cushier than Largo's. Of course, we also didn't have to sit in them as long.