Known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns: One of Donald Rumsfeld's worst obfuscations regrettably came to me when I was pondering, of all things, Jon Brion's concert appearances in Northern California. I've seen him exactly once in San Francisco, but I know I've missed his unannounced appearances with Critters Buggin' and Polyphonic Spree up here, as well as a Grays in-store from way back. That was then...
Nickel Creek/Jon Brion, Crest Theatre, May 6, 2007: By coincidence, my only other visit to the Crest was to see Travis in 2000. That story has a pretty good ending, but again, it was another time.
Besides, the arrangements for that show had little bearing on this gig. For one thing, the venue was now all reserved seating, and because Jon's participation on this bill was announced relatively late, we had nearly nose-bleed positions, or as nose-bleed as they can be in a 1,000-capacity grand old movie theater. (Truthfully, I think I've been further from the action at certain Asian weddings of first-born sons.)
Sara Watkins provided the introduction for Jon and let us in on what we already suspected: half the gear onstage was Jon's, including the carousel of guitars in the back and the piano-celeste-chamberlain setup occupying stage right. His multitasking would be slightly curtailed, however, as we noted no drums or, as we later discerned, looping gear. From our perch, we could also see well enough to notice that Jon had rid himself of the small woodland creature that had been occupying the bottom half of his face. Overall, he looked very nicely put together for the capitol crowd, sporting a tie, a black leather blazer, and very red shoes.
As Jon kicked off his opening set in the customary manner, I sort of held my breath to take in the crowd reaction. No need to resuscitate--they loved him, showing him the utmost respect and laughing at his description of "Why Do You Do This to Yourself" as his crack cocaine song. A few dedicated souls even piped in their adulation of him.
"I'm on a Roll with You" hasn't been a regular part of Jon's set lately, so it was wonderful to hear, and "Knock Yourself Out" got the divine celeste treatment that seems to turn it into a starry-eyed nursery rhyme. The other titles weren't too different, aside from tiny shifts in inflection (likely inaudible to most of the crowd but nonetheless pleasing to these ears).
We got a taste of the Watkins Family Hour when Sara and Sean took to the stage. "Trouble," I could've anticipated, though the harmonies from Jon and Sean were a sweet touch. On the other hand, I hadn't heard them tackle "Same Mistakes" before; Sara's voice was lovely on it, and though I never second-guessed their opinion of Jon's music, that song proved it beyond a doubt.
As Sara and Sean left, Chris Thile came up. I should know the name of the first song they played, but I can't pin it down. Blame the mandolin for its undue influence, but the only guess I can muster is the theme to Zorba the Greek (seriously). Chris and Jon sounded great playing with each other, but even better, they were a riot playing to one other. Respective instrument in hand, they stood toe to toe, perking up or stepping down in accordance with the notes and having a good ol' time while they were at it. I halfway expected to hear Marlin Perkins narration underscoring their actions: "Observe, two musicians of the highest caliber, away from their native habitat but making a place for themselves among the unfamiliar surroundings, foregoing dominance in a show of complementary equality..."
Jon disappeared for a while before joining Nickel Creek proper in the latter part of their show. He started stirring the pot with "Money," but he didn't seem to come into his own until the Radiohead cover, when he unleashed a ragtime piano bridge that you won't find on the original. He returned to the wings again for another stretch before resuming his place with the group for the last song of the night: a version of the Beatles' "Run for Your Life" on which he supplied the "Ring of Fire"-like guitar work.
Jon Brion's opening set
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--I'm on a Roll with You
--The Way It Went
--Knock Yourself Out
--I Go to Sleep [Pretenders] *
--Same Mistakes *
--guitar and mandolin instrumental **
--Fast as You Can [Fiona Apple] **
accompanying Nickel Creek [main set]
--Jealous of the Moon
--Money [Pink Floyd]
accompanying Nickel Creek [encore]
--Run for Your Life [Beatles]
* = with Sara and Sean Watkins
** = with Chris Thile
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