Wednesday, June 13, 2007

i remember standing by the wall

In a perfect world, barring my exercising some form of self-control, my favorite musicians would put their heads together and work out a schedule where I'd see at least one performance by any of them in a single month. I'm prepared, however, to double up until this arrangement presents itself. For now, the baton passes back to Jon Brion.

Jon Brion, Largo, June 8, 2007: Though I saw three delightful Jon Brion appearances last month, I didn't consider any of them to be true Jon Brion shows. They helped fill the interim, however, until he returned to Largo. Fortunately, that day came sooner rather than later.

We didn't have a reservation tonight, but thanks to Job-like patience and pure, dumb luck, we snagged the hot seat bordering the stage. I've had the great fortune (?) to sit there a number of times, and it never ceases to unnerve me because it's so close to the action. Even more disturbing, Jon's setup tonight was relatively bare--that is, no keyboard or chamberlain to mark the divide, though the forest of electrical cords was intact. Though they were no help to us, a bunch of guitars awaited at the back of the stage, and both the celeste and a smaller keyboard straddled the piano.

Flanagan's intro was equally minimal, paving the way for Jon's arrival. He took to the piano in good spirits for an extended instrumental, ending with a nod to Jiminy Cricket.

The second song dawned on me more quickly than usual (probably because I've fixated on it so much recently), and though I managed to keep it together, it still made me feel like the happiest girl in the world. I've been throwing out all kinds of descriptions for Jon's take on "More Than This," but with tonight's performance, I think I've finally hit upon a summation I can live with. Take the windswept original, then layer Tony Visconti's production, à la "Ashes to Ashes," on top. At least, that's how I hear it.

Jon remained on piano for "Further Along," forgoing the song build for a bare, soulful treatment that also featured harmonica and percussion, courtesy of his fancy shoes. The first piano segment of the night concluded with a frantic "Heart and Soul" fueled by Red Bull.

"Love of My Life So Far" held the distinction of being the evening's introductory guitar song. I thought the extended outro sounded more stylized and less jammy than usual. Heidi later confirmed these suspicions when she informed me that Jon had stuck in bits of "Rhiannon" and "Secret Agent Man" before settling on "The Letter."

The Les Paul interpretation arrived without a murmur, just those crisp, layered licks that turned a classic rock anthem into a breezy, country-inflected ramble. I thought maybe we were staying on a '60s tip when Jon took his place behind the drums and kicked out that rollicking beat from "The End," but it turned out to be a warm-up for "Girl I Knew." For a change, we didn't hear the song's typically ornate outro; instead, we got a sparer treatment, which seeped into a Clash tune.

The sound of a cocktail shaker in the back of the room triggered "Girl from Ipanema," before Jon picked up on the tired and unfunny audience requests for his next number: a medley of cliched monster rock. Guitar would've been too easy; instead, he opted for the vocoder, the tiny keyboard, and his own voice singing the shredding solos.

Celeste and harmonica were the instruments of choice for "Knock Yourself Out" in the twinkly style that Jon's been favoring lately, while "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes" was dusted off for the first time in a while, on this occasion with a spare solo guitar. Jon's variation on "All You Need Is Love" came from an audience suggestion before it slid into purposeful apathy.

I can't recall if the Al Sherman requests came from the audience; regardless, they set Jon off on an extended tutorial on "the original Weird Al" and Jon's own admission that he had listened to Al's songs for many years before learning they were parodies of other tracks. In the process, we got a singalong of "Hello Mother Hello Father," as well as Jon's take on Patsy Cline's "Heartaches" and its Al Sherman analog, "Headaches."

More requests followed, including Jon's epoch-spanning version of "Dancing Queen." "Everything's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" was squarely traditional and rocking, as was the always magnificent "Heroes," Jon's repudiation of all the dubious titles tossed about.

At this point, the side door opened, David Rawlings issued forth, and I went to Largo heaven. Jon greeted the beaming David and his gorgeous salmon-colored suit (not necessarily in that order) warmly before inviting him to peruse the guitars. David's arrival also marked the start of the unofficial second set.

If you've read this blog before, you may know that I saw David and Gillian Welch back in October for what is likely my favorite Largo show ever. I was hooked on the energy between David and Jon, so I knew that David's presence had to be a very good thing.

It's no rarity to attend a Jon Brion show and watch the headliner mixing it up with a guest, a friend, or even a complete stranger onstage and having a grand ol' time doing so. With David Rawlings, however, the dynamic felt different. Certainly, the talent that passes across the Largo stage is nothing to sneeze at, and I've seen a number of Jon's peers join him--Ethan Johns and Mitchell Froom, to name two. Maybe there's a novelty to David's presence, as he doesn't live in Los Angeles; maybe because of his association with a certain genre, David doesn't seem like an obvious choice as a foil or a counterpart to Jon. (Or maybe I should stop rationalizing and just enjoy it.)

In any case, David strikes me as the closest thing to a honest-to-goodness equal I've seen play with Jon. His deep knowledge of music history, his wide range of abilities, the pure joy projecting from his face, and most important, his willingness to throw himself into the maelstrom were all a fitting match for Jon. Together, they are a delight, a treasure, an addiction.

This collaboration commenced in a low-key manner, as they picked out guitars, loving adjusted each other's straps, and finally settled on a Neil Young song. Part way into their second number, Benmont Tench strolled in unannounced, sat down at the piano as if he owned it (as well he should), and planted himself right in the swing of the song. Less sure on his feet though clearly just as involved, David lost his balance and ended up tumbling into the amps and guitars lining the back wall. Both he and the suit, I'm happy to report, escaped unscathed.

At Largo, lulls are often a harbinger of treats to come as the performers dream up some unlikely song to pull off next; it's also a prime opportunity for audience suggestions, which is why I yelled out for "Cortez the Killer." The artists seemed to approve, but perhaps they didn't have the chops tonight. Rather, they went into "For the Turnstiles," a song I know well, thanks to my years amassing Grant Lee Buffalo covers and b-sides.

Back in October, the covers flowed freely, whether traditional or off-beat in nature, so I figured this was a chance to hear one of my favorites from that evening. Once again, the song got off to an unassuming start, as Jon (this time) took to the microphone to sing nearly a capella, "The phone rings in the middle of the night," with a much straighter face than David managed last time. David soon took his cue, and the song became a sort of duet, culminating with the two of them swooping to and from the microphone as they cooed the final refrain.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, they handled a Dylan tune before what turned out to be the rest of the Various and Sundry tour arrived. We sang happy birthday to the beautiful Sara Watkins (with an adorable new haircut!), who in turn belted out the Beatles, and Benmont took to the microphone for the Ramones ditty. Jon and Sara bonded over their mutual confusion on "Why Can't He Be You" and "She's Got You," they brought up Glen Phillips for a few tunes, and Luke Bulla joined in as well. Somewhere in this hot mess, David took to the drums for a short stretch and revealed at least one slight shortcoming among his lengthy list of talents.

Jon had settled into a background role by this point, most notably on "Exit Music (For a Film)," when the whole group stood back to listen to Glen. For the Hank Williams number, he confessed to not knowing the song, but Sean offered simple instructions: During the instrumental jam, "bash on E." Voilà, instant hootenanny!

[Editor's note: Earlier in the evening, we had learned that E is "the friendly key," as opposed to G, "the people's key."]

The collective gradually dissipated, until the last clutch of songs comprised merely Jon, David, and Benmont. Jason Boesel from Rilo Kiley, at David's urging ("Get the fuck up here"), joined them for "Ballad of a Thin Man," and I gotta say it was great to hear a real drummer after that haphazard but exhilarating run with the big group.

Benmont's pipes came out again, when he amended David's confusion with some of Dylan's verses. The final song of the night was all Jon and Benmont. I've heard them do "Waterloo Sunset" several times now, and two things keep it fresh. One is Jon's unadulterated admiration for the tune; the other is Benmont's magical touch. Tonight, he sent aloft a minimal play on the melody that perfectly drove home the wistfulness of the number and capped the 3-plus hours of entertainment.

--piano noodling, ending with "When You Wish Upon a Star"
--More Than This
--Further Along
--Heart and Soul
--Love of My Life So Far/Rhiannon/Secret Agent Man/The Letter
--Baba O'Riley [Les Paul style]
--The End/Girl I Knew/Police on My Back
--Girl from Ipanema
--Freebird/???/Whole Lotta Love [instrumental]
--Knock Yourself Out
--Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime
--All You Need Is Love (Pretty Much)
--Al Sherman tutorial
--Dancing Queen [through the ages]
--Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey

with David Rawlings
--Tired Eyes [David]

with David Rawlings and Benmont Tench
--Nadine [David]
--For the Turnstiles [David]
--Femme Fatale
--Girls Just Want to Have Fun [Jon and David]
--It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

with David Rawlings, Benmont Tench, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins
--Happy Birthday to Sara
--And Your Bird Can Sing [Sara]
--I Wanna Be Sedated [Benmont]
--Why Can't He Be You [Sara]

with David Rawlings, Benmont Tench, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Glen Phillips
--Exit Music (For a Film) [Glen]
--It's Over Now [Glen]

with Benmont Tench, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, Glen Phillips, and Luke Bulla
--Man of Constant Sorrow [Glen]

with David Rawlings, Benmont Tench, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, Glen Phillips, and Luke Bulla
--I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome [Sara and Luke]
--Long Hot Summer Days [vocals = Sara]
--Short People [Sara and Sean]
--Political Science [Jon and Glen]

with David Rawlings and Benmont Tench
--Dayton, Ohio 1903
--Jolly Coppers on Parade [David]
--Ballad of a Thin Man [David and Benmont]
--Waterloo Sunset

brackets = lead singer

See also:
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg
» here's a working model
» please share my umbrella
» wherever there is comfort, there is pain


T.J. said...

Wow, I've never known anyone to do Randy Newman covers.

pneyu said...

Oh my god, Jon does Randy Newman covers all the time.

hodie said...

You can never have too much Randy Newman!

T.J. said...

Does he do "Sail Away"? That song in the right hands would make a helluva cover.
Is it just me, or do the plinky-plunky guitar parts almost ruin The Kinks' version of "Waterloo Sunset"? Otherwise, a gorgeous song.

pneyu said...

"Sail Away" is requested quite often, and it's almost always followed by an exchange where Jon asks whose version of the song the requestor wants. This often leads to some discussion about the various versions of the song, and oddly, I have yet to hear Jon actually perform it.