Sunday, April 29, 2007

let him read your palm and guess your sign

Coachella may be the best thing that's ever happened to the San Francisco concert schedule. The festival brings out a lot of names who wouldn't make it to the West Coast otherwise, and while the bands are out here, they often eye San Francisco for gigs, either to warm up or to fill out their itinerary and make the trip worthwhile. For my money, Jarvis Cocker--fresh off his Coachella appearance--is the coup of the concert season.

Pulp, Bimbo's 365 Club ticket stub, 1996Jarvis Cocker, the Fillmore, April 28, 2007: Contrary to the lip service I pay to anti-snobbery, I veritably wallow in that unfounded sense of superiority at times, and one of my favorite justifications is pictured above.

Yup, I'm geeky enough to have kept my ticket stub from Pulp's show at Bimbo's 365 Club in 1996, promoting the U.S. release of Different Class. For entirely juvenile reasons, it's one of the shows I like to drop into conversation when I'm sizing someone up as a music fan. (I told you it was snobby and childish.)

Jarvis Cocker, the Fillmore, April 28, 2007That Pulp show was a haze, yet simultaneously indelible, if that makes any sense. I remember clearly the mania of the crowd and being caught up in the sea of jostling bodies.

Other details I recall: a girl at the front of the stage pulling vintage unmentionables out of her bag and throwing it at the band (Pulp has a song called "Underwear"), the awesome merchandise I passed up, and the openers Elevator Drops, perhaps the worst band I've ever seen. What I don't really remember: the songs themselves! I managed to catch Pulp one more time at their Finsbury Park gig in 1998, but who knew that it'd take Jarvis more than a decade to hit the U.S. concert circuit again?

In the 1990s, Pulp was lazily lumped in with the Britpop pack, though if you listened to any of their recordings, their music had little to do with the '60s nostalgia that the other bands indulged in--at least, not the same swathes of the '60s. Where the other groups aped the hitmakers of the British Invasion, the Sheffield crew looked to Serge Gainsbourg, Scott Walker, and other equally idiosyncratic visionaries for inspiration.

These influences became more apparent with the albums after Different Class, and they show up again in Jarvis's solo record. And though British bands are making a commercial impact in the States again, few U.K. artists enjoy the same spiritual standing as Jarvis, who's regarded as a musical god of the highest order, no matter how many records he sells.

Steve Mackey, the Fillmore, April 28, 2007Sales figures aside, Jarvis has retained more trademarks than you might expect. Jarvis's lyrics aren't as self-referential as they used to be, but his sense of of humor and celebration of the underdog remain intact. Former Pulp bandmate Steve Mackey lends his familiar--and very dashing--presence to Jarvis's band, and the Sheffield connection remains strong, with Simon Stafford, formerly of the Longpigs, contributing keyboards and backing vocals. (If you need proof that it's impossible to overstate my erstwhile Anglophilia, that last reference should settle all doubts.)

Once the show started, Jarvis reinforced all the characteristics his fans have come to love about him. The angular dancing and inimitable gesticulation were met with squeals, cheers, and photo flashes; the extended banter (about the size of his head, San Francisco drinking laws, and David Letterman's taping schedule, for starters) brought laughs and retorts; and the thrift-store chic--well, it confirmed that our Jarvis was still our Jarvis. The sold-out crowd ate up every morsel--not bad for a guy who hasn't moved that many units in the States.

Jarvis Cocker, the Fillmore, April 28, 2007Jarvis and the band kicked off the show with "Fat Children" and eventually hit most of the album tracks, as well as a b-side ("One Man Show") and a song he had written for Lee Hazlewood ("Big Stuff"). "Don't Let Him Waste Your Time" and "Black Magic" got the biggest responses from the crowd, but the best all-around package may have been "Cunts Are Still Running the World." Jarvis launched into a long preamble about how it isn't a condemnation of all people--just the ones who happen to make the decisions. He punctuated the opinion with a particularly jaunty leap on the lyric "shit floats." With anyone else, that line would be inane; with Jarvis, it was both a condemnation and a celebration, and with it, he got us all worked up again.

They closed the too-short show with a cover of "Crystal Ships" as a tribute to the Fillmore and its hallowed history. The band seemed on top of the song, but Jarvis used lyrics sheets for his part. I'm not sure the tune worked, but it was a nice nod to the venue.

Jarvis Cocker, the Fillmore, April 28, 2007

In case you were wondering, no Pulp songs made the cut, and oddly, there didn't seem to be a huge groundswell for them either. I don't think anyone would've objected to a Pulp tune, but perhaps Jarvis's return was treat enough. Sometimes these newly solo performers need time to warm up to their back catalog; I'm willing to wait it out.

I'll be the first to admit that Different Class remains my favorite Jarvis project, but albums don't win my unfailing loyalty; amazing live shows do. On that basis, I'll always have time for Jarvis Cocker--even if I have to hold out until 2018.

Friday, April 27, 2007

hear all the bombs, they fade away

In general, San Francisco is a good town to catch national and international touring bands, but if you're planning a visit and want to guarantee the maximum number of concerts possible, you should avail yourself of two prime windows of opportunity: Noise Pop and the weeks buttressing either side of the Coachella Festival. First up: the Decemberists.

The Decemberists, the Warfield, April 26, 2007: Before I become an avid concertgoer (i.e., got a car and made it my mission to stalk see lots of bands), any group that I caught on more than four occasions had to be one of my absolute, tip-top favorites. Oh, how times have changed. Still, every now and then, it surprises me when I crunch the numbers and realize that I'm pushing the double digits for appearances with certain musicians. Case in point: the Decemberists.

The Decemberists, the Warfield, April 26, 2007

Certainly, I like the Decemberists, especially their shows. Unless you're a cold-hearted curmudgeon, it's hard to resist their affability and rapport with the audience. The thing is, I'm nowhere as big a fan as the numbers would suggest, and I feel like a fraud next to the truly devoted souls, especially the ones mouthing along to every lyric. I know, I know--what a non-issue! But when you're used to being the dorky fangirl who wants to hear obscure covers and b-sides, it's a weird position to be in.

Apparently, this was not reason enough to keep me away, though in a departure from usual practices, I opted to attend only one of the Decemberists' two shows in town (the second night, naturally). In return, I was rewarded with yet another fun, engaging gig by a band who clearly knows how to treat their audience.

The Decemberists, the Warfield, April 26, 2007In the surprise department, I'd have to nominate "The Island," which I don't particularly like on the album. Live, though, the song's ambitious arc worked better, starting out somewhere in the territory of "Come Together," then veering toward a grand organ solo that brought to mind "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," before the band regrouped to take the form of a chamber quartet backing Colin. I had been dismissive of "The Perfect Crime No. 2" as well, but in person, I read it as an homage to the Talking Heads, and they carried it off a lot more convincingly than on the record.

The Decemberists, the Warfield, April 26, 2007Oh yeah, another surprise: Colin calling me out for refusing to play along with his instructions for a specific hand movement (pictured left). He was so engaged with the fans upfront that I assumed he wasn't paying attention to us in the next tier. Wrong! Of course, I had to give in under his watchful eye and direct admonishment. Fortunately, he also noticed when I joined the chorus for the final refrain of "Sons and Daughters," so the transgression may have been forgiven. (He doesn't need to know I'm a sucker for a singalong.)

I expected more of an emphasis on The Crane Wife, but overall, we got a decent sampling, including a duet with Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond on "Yankee Bayonet" (which Trish was surprised to learn was about a dead soldier). The upshot: The rest of the setlist comprised old favorites, such as "The Bachelor and the Bride," "July, July," and "Shiny." Denise informed us that other classics, such as "Grace Cathedral Hill" and "The Chimbley Sweep," showed up the first night.

The Decemberists, the Warfield, April 26, 2007The band deserves some credit in at least one other category. Many groups, as they gain fans and play bigger venues, end up relying on a script and churning out a generic show. Not so here, at least from what I could tell.

Colin has definitely grown into his role as frontman (stalking the rim of the stage, offering his guitar to the front row, taking pictures of the band with a fan's cell phone, responding to audience banter, and perching at the edge of the stage), while the entire band has retained its looseness and sense of humor. Nate Query turned in 10 push-ups, John Moen (my favorite!) almost got a cover of Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" started, Jenny Conlee fell for the well-worn concert trick of returning from the encore first while the rest of the band waited backstage and let her squirm in front of the expectant audience, and Chris Funk donned an ill-fitting and not at all convincing tarp to play the role of the whale for "The Mariner's Revenge Song."

The Decemberists, the Warfield, April 26, 2007I have to admit I was prepared to pan this show before I even got there, but I can not tell a lie: It was a blast. Even the age factor didn't make a dent, as a lot of older fans (not just parents) came out for the gig. My venue snobbery may prevent me from seeing the Decemberists ever again, but tonight, they were just the ticket.

An odd event happened before the show tonight: A Town Car pulled up in front of the Warfield, the driver exchanged some words with the Warfield staff, and from the car emerged John Lithgow for a few moments. They got back in the car, and we assumed that they had the wrong address. After I told Maudie the story, she suggested that maybe they meant to take in the production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf instead. Sure, why not, right?

But shortly into the opening set by My Brightest Diamond, we noticed Mr. Lithgow on the main floor. As it happened, his son was the bass player in the band, and he was there as a proud father, snapping pictures. As for My Brightest Diamond, they seemed an odd match for the Decemberists. They showed no signs of the folksy songcraft the Decemberists are known for; in fact, they were balls-out rocking and rather abrasive. The singer's voice reminded me of Nina Hagen's, though their Nina Simone cover came off nicely.

See also:
» a writer, a writer of fictions
» down the hyde street pier
» have you tasted the finest of trout

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

it's all in good spirits

In my pre-rock tourist days, I was as crazy about Grant Lee Buffalo as a person could be, short of--errrr, doing what I do now when I'm crazy about a group or an artist. It was this impact that moved me to investigate Grant-Lee Phillips's solo work when the band broke up, and it continues to bring me back to his newest releases today.

Grant-Lee Phillips, Great American Music Hall, April 24, 2007: When I first saw this date on the Great American's calendar, I assumed that Grant was back in town for another round of promotion behind nineteeneighties, his collection of covers released last year. Little did I know that he had a new album of original material coming out! Thankfully, I was disabused of the notion in time, and this month's freelancing has been fruitful enough that I could afford a ticket to the show.

Grant-Lee Phillips, Great American Music Hall, April 24, 2007Last time I saw Grant, he was spreading holiday cheer as part of Aimee Mann's stable of merry elves. Of course, Christmas comes but once a year, and the vestiges of the season were gone, but he brought back at least one element of last December's shows to San Francisco: Paul Bryan, Aimee's longtime bassist, had joined Grant's crew. Rounding out the trio was Jay Bellerose, who apparently also has ties to Largo, Boston, and the talented artists who've put both on the musical map. This left Grant with lead guitar duties, and I was glad to see that he brought along the electric this time.

Together, they hit a good chunk of the new album Strangelet, including "Hidden Hand," "Raise the Spirit," "Johnny Guitar," and "Fountain of Youth." Since he was playing with a new band, Grant didn't have as much leeway to break out the audience requests, but he credited Paul and Jay with providing the impetus to unearth "Wish You Well" from the first Grant Lee Buffalo record. I wouldn't have guessed that we'd hear "The Shining Hour" and "Lone Star Song" either, though both "Mockingbirds" and "Truly Truly" were welcome staples. Inevitably, he reached for the acoustic for a significant segment of the set that included "Honey Don't Think," "See America," and "Don't Look Down," among others.

Grant-Lee Phillips, Great American Music Hall, April 24, 2007A complaint commonly lodged against my favorite band (you know which one) is that they don't rock anymore. I usually dismiss the accusation, and if pushed, I'll counter with the argument that they aren't the same band these days--apples, oranges, and such. Which is why I hate what I'm going to type next. I miss rockin' Grant, and I was hoping that Grant would use the electric to transform the songs on the new album, Strangelet, into something more dynamic than the studio versions.

To Grant's credit, he's clearly trying to change up his sound from album to album, and Strangelet shows off his glam influences more than anything I've heard from him before. Several tracks sound like unabashed homages to T. Rex, though the lyrics are certainly Grant's own. My beef, then, is that the album is oddly prim--as if it was recorded with residential decibel limits in mind. Grant has written some awesome songs for this album, but their full potential feels unrealized. Still, that left me with plenty of hope for the live show, which is where the magic happens anyway.

The gig fell short of those expectations, though Grant was in sweet, joking form and both Paul and Jay were able players; I especially liked Paul's smooth basslines and backing vocals. Despite Grant's solo turns on the guitar, the songs that stood out the most to me were from the Grant Lee Buffalo days. For example, "The Shining Hour" and "Lone Star Song" sounded amazing, whereas the new songs didn't quite pop.

Grant-Lee Phillips has always been a one-off for me. Grant Lee Buffalo was both rootsier than the indie bands, yet more rocking than the singer-songwriters I gravitated toward at the time. As a solo performer, he remains hard to pigeonhole, which may be his ultimate charm. I know this won't be the last I'll see of him.

Patrick Park opened the show. A few years ago, he seemed to be the opener of choice up here, drawing vague comparisons to Elliott Smith with his melancholy, melodic tunes. I recognized a few songs from the last round, and he introduced a handful of new titles as well. Though he's not my cup of tea, he's a talented, likable performer who deserves to find an audience.

See also:
» have you tasted the finest of trout
» it's not going to stop
» top 5 Largo memories

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

you can fall in love with every other soul you meet

You wouldn't necessarily know it from this broken record of a blog, but I welcome the opportunity to check out new bands, and I'm delighted when they turn out to be good. Admittedly, I'm not as susceptible to their charms as I used to be, which is why it's all the more satisfying when truly exciting new talent comes along. Enter stage right: the Broken West.

The Broken West, Cafe du Nord, April 16, 2007: Boy, did I luck out. Back in February, I missed the Broken West at this very venue--not due to my usual diversions (rock tourism) but because I completely lost track of time for one house-bound week, when I couldn't tell you what day it was to save my life. How pathetic! Even worse, I was in Chicago when they played there last month, but there was no way we could've packed any more music into that already ambitious weekend. Hooray for second (third?) chances and hard-working bands!

The Broken West, I Can't Go On, I'll Go OnI Can't Go On, I'll Go On has emerged as one of my favorite albums so far this year, but it didn't win me over right away. Rather, it snuck up on me via the Shuffle option on iTunes/the iPod. More than a few times, when an unfamiliar song came on, I'd note to myself how much I liked it, look to the display to see its stats (all along thinking that it might be some record I've owned for 10 or more years), and find that the Broken West was responsible for the lovely piece of songcraft.

It's pretty easy to play Spot the Influences on this record, so much so that I think it'd be pedantic to list them all here. Ultimately, influence-spotting is akin to talking about wine, roller coasters, sex, what have you: It's one way to get across the sensory explosion, but in the end, it doesn't compensate for the in-the-moment experience. Suffice it to say that with their mellifluous harmonies, jangly guitars, syncopated handclaps, and timeless songwriting, the Broken West follows in the tradition of many wonderful guitar bands both contemporary and classical, with maybe a surprise nod or two (Phil Spector?!?) thrown in. The result: a sublimely effervescent indie rock record, the kind that doesn't come around often enough for my tastes. By the way, if I sound smitten, that's because I am!

The Broken West, Cafe du Nord, April 16, 2007On to the gig: Since this was their first headlining show in a while, we got a longer set than usual that included a few songs they never do live; I believe these bonus tracks were "Abigail," "Slow," and "Like a Light," but don't quote me on that. We also heard a cover of Love's "No Matter What You Do," but the bulk of the set comprised the band's own glorious album tracks.

And how did I Can't Go On, I'll Go On's melodic mastery translate to the stage? Well, away from the mixing desk, the record's seamless vocals and multilayered guitars showed a little bit of fraying at first, but that's understandable. Besides, the band seemed to loosen up and gel as the night wore on. By the time they unfurled "You Can Build an Island," for example, I was totally swimming in the warm stream of their voices, and a day after the show, the song has supplanted "Down in the Valley" as my favorite tune on the record. Other times, such as with the more epic songs, they exhibited a raggedness that's absent from the record; it sort of humanized them as a band and showed that they aren't some superslick studio creation. Instead, you got a glimpse of four (actually, five, including the keyboard player they brought along) guys who started out making a racket in the garage and ended up with--well, still a racket but a beautiful one at that.

Two openers played tonight. Matt Lutz of the Herms took to the stage with an acoustic guitar, funny and deadpan tunes, and a few yarns about his in-progress horror movie screenplays (Fat Camp: Time to Diet, for starters) before he packed up to catch Willie Nelson's show at the Fillmore. Mezzanine Owls from Los Angeles were the other openers, and from the get go, they brought to mind many of the U.K. bands I've loved, taking a page from the poppier shoegaze bands, as well as one of my favorite movements: the gloomy guitar bands that came out of northern England in the early to mid-'80s (the Chameleons, Echo and the Bunnymen, Comsat Angels). It wasn't a bad way to spend a late Monday night in San Francisco.

Does the world need another indie rock guitar band churning out dreamy, earnest, irresistible pop melodies? I think you know my answer, but this time, I actually have evidence to support it: Go (Broken) West, young man or woman.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

time is round and space is curved

I shouldn't be so surprised that I've seen Robyn Hitchcock (in one form or another) as often as I have. It's really a function of the longevity of his career, his wonderful taste in collaborators and cohorts, and my venue snobbery that keeps me coming back. But I have to admit that Robyn is an acquired taste I've yet to fully embrace. Regardless, odds are I'll keep trying for a while to come, especially when he's accompanied by any of his stable of musically inclined friends.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, Slim's, April 10, 2007: Last year, a very similar configuration of this "if there were any justice in the world, they would be a supergroup" group came to Slim's and put on a fun, goofy show. That much, I could've predicted. What surprised me, however, was the extent to which I loved the album, Olé! Tarantula, that some of these same players put out later in 2006.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, Slim's, April 10, 2007And therein lies the difference. I don't think I was alone in wondering why the band chose to call themselves the Venus 3 on this outing--you don't have to squint too hard to see that the Venus 3 looks suspiciously similar to the Minus 5 sans one or two members. But that shouldn't even be an issue, considering the revolving-door membership policy at the very foundation of the Minus 5's existence.

About halfway through the show, however, I realized that, indeed, this was a different band backing Robyn. In fact, "backing" might not even be the right word. Granted, it was clear who played the role of front man, and any Robyn Hitchcock tour means that his songs--from any point in his career--will take center stage.

But this time out, it sounded to me that the band (Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck, Bill Rieflin) were more than overgrown fanboys supporting one of their idols and even more than buddies out for a good time. Though the friendships and collaborations between them stretches back for many years now, Olé! Tarantula is actually their first official release in which they share writing credits. This heightened participation really came through in the show--most notably on Robyn's older material, which they pumped up to refreshingly poptastic levels. In essence, they sort of Venus-3-ified Robyn's back catalog. And maybe I'm biased, as someone who's mostly seen Robyn going solo acoustic over the years, but it turned out to be one of the best times I've had seeing the man.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, Slim's, April 10, 2007"City of Shame" was so great that they did it twice. Well, they claimed that they were too slow on the first run-through, but I loved seeing Robyn and Peter standing shoulder to shoulder for the roaring double-guitar intro on both takes. And speaking of guitars, it was lovely to hear Peter favoring the 12-string Epiphone as much as he did, but I was surprised by Robyn's distinctive chops on the electric guitar and the accompanying effects pedal.

In other band news, I found it hard to believe that Bill Rieflin had played with Ministry all those years ago 'cos he sure knows his way around a pop backbeat. Scott McCaughey (in addition to his bass guitar duties) and Sean Nelson, meanwhile, lended their sweet harmonies to the mix. My favorites in the vocals department: "Brenda's Iron Sledge" and "Jewels for Sophia." But my absolute highlight of the night was easily "Queen Elvis," just because.

Amid this harmonic convergence, Robyn interspersed his typically convoluted yet effortless yarns. Tonight, he held court on matters regarding the cosmic relation between ourselves and our pets, fielding late-night calls from Karl Rove while watching Clint Eastwood movies, and crossing the river Charon for the price of 55 cents (U.S.) plus 11 cents (Canadian), among other topics.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, Slim's, April 10, 2007If pushed, I might lodge two complaints about the show. First, the band seemed oddly professional tonight (multiple takes, notwithstanding). As recently as last year, we got a hell of a send-off, wherein each band member took up an instrument they don't usually man (Peter Buck on the drums, dammit!). Tonight, even Scott McCaughey stayed in line. Then again, this wasn't, strictly speaking, a Minus 5 gig, so maybe the same mischief doesn't apply.

Second, the band didn't do very many songs off the new album, but then again, I realize Robyn has quite the war chest of titles. Maybe another 10 years from now (by which point, I'll probably have seen the band another dozen times), with a slightly different band lineup, they'll devote whole shows to Olé! Tarantula. I'll just have to stick around and find out for myself.

Opening tonight was Sean Nelson and His Mortal Enemies. I didn't realize it was the singer of Harvey Danger, which many of you may recall from their '90s-era hit "Flagpole Sitta." I should know better than to hold a musician's chart-topping singles against them, but I hated that song when it was all over the radio. Regardless, Sean was pretty funny, especially on a song about forming a supergroup, wherein he namechecked Velvet Revolver and the Power Station (!).

See also:
» you won't have an atom left
» top 5 albums of 2006
» twilight's all right

Saturday, April 07, 2007

singing songs about the weekend

I like my music recommendations to come with a personal touch--thus, my aversion to magazine reviews or even most music blogs, even in the age of downloadable MP3s, MySpace, and the like. Radio helps to a certain extent, but it has built-in shortcomings. So what's a new music junkie to do? Personally, I've come to rely on the word of trusted friends with a long history of music appreciation, many of whom I've met through the Wilco--if you will--community. These enthusiasts are some of the biggest music hounds I've ever met, and I love their dedication to seeking out new, unheralded bands and artists of nearly every genre, usually without reliance on dogma or regard to hipster cache or "buzz band" hype. Of course, it helps that we have relatively similar tastes, though we don't always agree. One area in which they've really opened my ears is with homegrown talent, which is how I made it to the David Vandervelde show this week.

David Vandervelde, the Rickshaw Stop, April 5, 2007: Greg over at captain's dead pimped out David Vandervelde a while ago, and after months of dilly-dallying, I finally got around to listening to the tracks. What I (and probably everyone else) heard: a major nod to T. Rex and the like. That opening track, "Nothin' No," is a scorcher, sounding a little like Wilco's "Kingpin," except without throwaway lyrics and backed by the Spider from Mars. (Some credit should probably go to Jay Bennett, who contributed to this recording.) The rest of the album is less blistering but ultimately more surprising, as it reveals delicate touches among its hot licks, culminating in an enchanting closing instrumental. The vocal similarities to Marc Bolan are undeniable, as well. Overall, this album has snuck up on me in the last few weeks.

David Vandervelde, the Rickshaw Stop, April 5, 2007As it turned out, the live translation had the subtlety of a sledgehammer. David and his two supporting players went for the jugular, forgoing the album's keyboards, bells, and organs in favor of raw, bluesy jams. The guitar solos, in particular, came on heavy and sludgey. If the album brought to mind Electric Warrior and Aladdin Sane, the live performance veered closer to the era's cock rockers. As such, the band got out only six or seven songs in their already truncated opening slot, and in fact, a couple of songs weren't even from the album. But we heard that slamming opening track, as well as the very lovely "Murder in Michigan," so the crowd was exposed to some of the band's range.

I just read the other day that David and crew are slated to open some dates with Spoon later this spring, and it'll be interesting to see how their live show evolves. I'd be up for revisiting this group.

I managed to catch a couple of songs from the first opener of the night, a local guy named Peter Walker and band, who churned out serviceable, hook-laden rock. I also stuck around for Richard Swift, the headliner--who turned out to be really good. My CD budget (and attention span) aren't what they used to be, so I most likely won't seek out the Swift catalog, but the group's full, bouncing tunes provided a lovely backdrop for the night and brought to mind the best singer/songwriters from the '70s.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

tell me that you've heard every sound there is

I've had the great pleasure to act as a Largo sherpa, if you will, for many friends over the years, but these past few months have yielded a bumper crop of trusting souls. Tonight, Rob and Lauren were the latest to subject themselves to the debriefing that accompanies that initial step known as the First Largo Visit, Usually to See Jon Brion. Who's next?

Jon Brion, Largo, March 30, 2007: There's a saying: You're only as good as your last record/book/haircut/etc. I'm not sure I believe in the statement to begin with, but it definitely doesn't hold true when it comes to Jon Brion's shows. Though Jon's Chicago shows were--in a word--stunning, you'd be a fool to assume that they held any indications of what to expect when Jon brought the show back to Los Angeles. And as it turned out, your assumption would be right.

On the heels of Flanagan's intro, Jon stumbled onstage, already sporting an acoustic guitar. Despite his choice of accessories, he was far from ready and definitely didn't have set plans, as we soon discovered. He gave it a shot anyway, with a short interlude that was half a tuning exercise and half a joke. The piano piece that followed started out just as amorphously, but it coalesced into something more tangible, with a resonant chord progression and light loops. I whispered to Evonne that it reminded me of Magnolia, while she cited I Heart Huckabees as her main touchstone.

Jon continued the piano improv until something in the music reminded him of the Charlie's Angels theme, which turned out to be the spark for one of his patented multisong medleys--you know, that stream-of-consciousness progression of tunes both classical and contemporary, frivolous and serious, interrupted by only thunderous claps of piano as Jon transitioned between selections. The parade didn't stop, but it eventually led into "Trouble." I can't imagine that I'll ever hear Jon squeeze as much pathos out of the song as he did in January, but tonight's version bore similarly withering qualities.

Jon took a little while to decide on his next direction, and even after he situated himself behind the drum kit, the song didn't take hold right away. He took his sweet old time working out the beat before leaving it alone to take the guitar. I'm pretty sure it was Jon's own song, which may or may not be called "Croatia"--I recognize it only because it always reminds me of Fleetwood Mac, then turns out not to be.

"Moonage Daydream" came in as a request and went out in Sun Records style, with tons of slapback and maybe a touch of Les Paul. Jon next build up a song I've heard at Largo before, but I can't figure out what it is. Regardless, it's turbulent, towering anthem, and it's a lot of fun.

Jon sat back down at the piano and donned a harmonica; it quickly became apparent that "Knock Yourself Out" was next, but Jon let the celeste butter up the crowd before the vocals kicked in. Because Jon was turned toward the celeste, he sang indirectly into the mic, sort of out of the side of his mouth and almost off the PA. There's something about the combination of that melody and the sound of the celeste that just screams charm. If Largo didn't keep its lights so low, we might've seen smiles all around the room.

At this point, Jon may have confessed that he had no idea what he was doing, so the requests were getting lots of play. "Here We Go" got a nice reaction out of Rob and Lauren, who recognized it from the Largo Web site; of course, it always gets a reaction out of me, but we've been through that many times already.

Jon dropped in a dozen or more Beatles riffs into "Tomorrow Never Knows," sort of like what he did with Benmont Tench and Greg Leisz back in November. As he ended the song, he confessed to visions of Cirque du Soleil's "Love" playing in his mind. He had more (negative) words about the Las Vegas production and reflected on the last 10 years he's spent creating Beatles mashups live onstage (sound familiar?).

Jon gave "Pachelbel's Canon" its due, but the next few songs were only snippets as he tested out requests. "Up the Junction" gave us the most amusing exchange. The gentleman in the back had yelled out for it more than once, but Jon wouldn't do it since he didn't know the words. Still, he played the general tune and even threw in a line or two from memory. When the requester offered to supply the words and lead the crowd, Jon batted him down more than once. Clearly, we weren't hearing the song tonight, but at least we enjoyed a good laugh.

Jon basked in a long lull filled with both good and bad requests before he gave in to the lure of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" on bass guitar. Strangely, he couldn't remember the lyrics, though he trots out the song often these days. "Strings That Tie to You" came next, and it should be noted that though Jon did both songs in Chicago, neither got the same treatment they did in the Midwest.

The first guest called to the stage this night was Benmont Tench, Largo's greatest team player. For their inaugural tune, Benmont humored Jon's exercise in prog; from there on, they tackled more straightfoward titles, including a very weak audience singalong on "Femme Fatale."

Next was Sara Watkins, who kicked off her contribution to the night with an old Kinks song. As I recall, Benmont's playing was especially gorgeous here--not that it's ever less than stellar. She moved to leave the stage after this song, but Jon forced her to stay, and with Benmont, they set about calling the shots. I think it was on "In Tall Buildings" when it seemed that Jon might leave the entire show to Sara and Benmont as he drank down his Guinness, but he eventually graced the song with a touch of bass guitar.

Not long after, they conscripted Sean Watkins for their merry band and a Gillian Welch cover. As they lingered over their next song selection, Flanagan took to the PA to command, "Benmont, play the shit out of that piano." Benmont picked up on the suggestion--and ran with it, slamming out "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." Stationed in the DJ booth, Flanagan commandeered the mic again, this time adding vocals to the song. The artists onstage sort of helped out with the chorus, though it sounded a lot like that Irish drinking song game from Whose Line Is It Anyway. Decorum vaguely returned with the next few songs; the first two featured Sara on vocals before she left the stage for the evening, and Jon resumed the reigns for "Only Love Will Break Your Heart" with Benmont and Sean.

Full disclosure: I spied Badly Drawn Boy across the street from Largo before the show, and we saw him get seated. But Damon being Damon, there was no guarantee he'd get off his ass and take to the stage. My vanity, however, wanted to believe that the short chat I had with him in Chicago might've jogged his memory or, at least, made him pick up the phone to talk to his old friend. Thus, my ego got a tiny massage when Jon convinced Damon to join them, but the feeling was nothing compared to the euphoria of watching one of my Largo fantasies play out.

I sort of feel like the girl who cried wolf; I've seen so many "dream" shows at Largo (with Neil Finn, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline, Michel Gondry, Kanye West, to name a few) that it might seem like I'm far too easily impressed. I won't deny that charge, but in my defense, I'll say that the odds happen to work in my favor. Considering that many musicians I love have connections to Largo, it would be more puzzling if they didn't show up from time to time.

Anyway, enough rationalization, more Badly Drawn Boy: I thought I had a decent grasp on Damon's stage persona. I've seen him cocky, sweet, sentimental, insulted, bratty, and genuinely flattered. Tonight, though, he displayed another facet altogether. Granted, he was incredibly drunk, but he was also wickedly hilarious.

After he finally acquiesced to Jon's invitation, Damon strapped on the acoustic guitar and almost immediately managed to insult everyone onstage. For example, though he and Jon hugged warmly, Damon confessed to a lie. Damon had told someone outside that he had played with Jon 10 times or more, but in truth, it was more like 2 times--it just felt like 10 because Jon went on for so long. Later, when Damon started on a song that he hadn't revealed to anyone (though it was readily apparent he was building up to "Donna and Blitzen"), he ordered Benmont to keep up with him. The story behind "Donna and Blitzen" was hilarious as well; I can't do it justice, but I'll mention that it involved a conversation with Santa and Damon on the first Christmas Eve ever in 1969. On at least one occasion, Damon referred to Santa as the "fat fuck in the red suit," while Santa preferred to use Damon's nickname ("Damo") when they were together.

In the end, the song featured Damon and Sean on acoustic guitar, Benmont on piano, and Jon on drums, after which Damon left the stage--to have another drink, if Jon was to be believed. For the last song of the night, Jon made an executive decision and logged his own request: barrelhouse piano from Benmont.

The maestro went to town, and his energy proved hard to resist. After watching on, Jon had a change of heart. He sidled up next to Benmont, cleared some space for himself on the bench, and threw himself at the keys. The two of them pummeled the piano, taking to their feet and bobbing their heads when they couldn't sit still anymore. Benmont momentarily ducked out and ceded the bench to Jon, only to swoop back in on the other side. Not only had Jon and Benmont done it again--that is, completely confound and astound us--they had done so in a way I've never witnessed before.

Only at Largo. Only at Largo.

--Smoke on the Water
--piano noodling
--piano megamedley (Charlie's Angels theme/Keystone Cops theme/Electric Avenue/Incense & Peppermint/Rhapsody in Blue/etc.)
--Moonage Daydream
--??? ["It's high time...with you/What I been through.../When you left me"]
--Knock Yourself Out
--Here We Go
--Tomorrow Never Knows [w/ numerous more Beatles riffs]
--Pachelbel's Canon
--lull [Love Will Keep Us Together, Up the Junction, Somewhere Over the Rainbow]
--Don't Think Twice, It's Alright
--Strings That Tie to You
--Chris Squire prog exercise*
--You Better Go Now* [title?]
--Walk On By*
--Femme Fatale*
--I Go to Sleep**
--In Tall Buildings**
--And Your Bird Can Sing**
--Caleb Meyer***
--When Irish Eyes Are Smiling*** [Flanagan lead vocals]
--Tennessee Waltz*** [Sara lead vocals]
--Why Can't He Be You*** [Sara lead vocals]
--Only Love Can Break Your Heart*** [Jon lead vocals]
--Donna and Blitzen ****
--Benmont (and Jon) barrelhouse piano

* = with Benmont Tench
** = with Sara Watkins and Benmont
*** = with Sara and Sean Watkins and Benmont
**** = with Damon Gough, Sean, and Benmont

See also:
» like a dream in the night
» we could steal time, just for one day
» i remember finding out about you
» come see what we all talk about