Wednesday, November 21, 2007

what's a wonderwall anyway

There are certain shows, I realize, I've imbued with much more significance than nearly anyone else would deem reasonable, and one such gig is the Ben Folds Five/Travis double bill back in 1997, which I happened to catch at the Fillmore almost exactly 10 years ago (give or take a week). OK, there are likely numerous Ben Folds fans who consider the band a major stepping stone in that particular singer/songwriter's development. But Travis? Weren't they just Oasis wannabes or, just as bad, forerunners to Coldplay? Didn't they, like, cover Britney Spears once? Has the NME ever considered them cool? And which one is Travis? Regardless, I stand by my proclamations.

Travis, The Fillmore, November 20, 2007: This show had originally been slated for the Warfield, which surprised me on two levels: That the promoters would schedule a Travis show at a venue of that size when the band hadn't exactly rescaled the heights of popularity they enjoyed back in 2001, which remains the only time they've played the room; and that Travis was coming back to San Francisco at all! When they were last here in May, they didn't sell out the Fillmore, despite the buzz around their long-awaited (by some) return.

Travis, the Fillmore, Nov. 20, 2007

As a fan, it didn't bother me one bit, and by all appearances, it didn't affect the band either. Their enormous lighting scheme was clearly meant for a larger room, but that may have been the only vestige of greater expectations. In fact, the band proceeded with what I gather to be their original plans for a grand opening: They dimmed all lights in the room, save for the massive spotlights onstage; cranked up the intro music (the 20th Century Fox theme, followed by the Rocky anthem); traveled the perimeter of the dance floor; and emerged at the opposite end of the stage in bright boxing robes. They had no plans to back down.

Travis, the Fillmore, Nov. 20, 2007

From there, they launched into a similar set to the one they did last May, though with maybe a slight emphasis on material from The Boy With No Name. I can't recall the exact differences, though I remember being struck by the inclusion of two tracks from the often overlooked 12 Memories ("Re-Offender" and "Beautiful Occupation"), and Fran said they were trying out "3 Times and You Lose" for only the second time or so that night. He did, in fact, mess up one line, but he took it with a self-effacing grin. We managed to get in a hearty singalong to "My Eyes," but apparently, the old favorite "Why Does It Always Rain on Me" was less familiar to the audience, which probably says something about Travis's changing fan base.

Travis, the Fillmore, Nov. 20, 2007Another welcome title revisited was "20" unplugged, but the audience had an odd reception to it tonight. In May, we listened raptly to pick up Fran's every word and note, but this evening, a few voices in the audience were less willing to go along with the premise, loudly (and drunkenly) posting their protests. Fran took it in stride, though, and simply sang. In the process, he attained the desired effect: the room's full attention.

Early in the show, when it looked like not too many surprises were in store for the night, I thought to myself that I don't mind not traveling to see them anymore. Then they had to work their magic and pull out a few asides that gave me some pangs and made me sort of want to hit the road again.

Top of that list would have to be the busker-style "Flowers in the Window." After "20," the other band members rejoined Fran onstage and gathered around a single mic. While Neil kept time on the tambourine, Fran sang the verses, and Dougie, Andy, and Klaus (the keyboardist) joined in on the chorus; of course, we in the audience helped out when we could. This unvarnished performance not only revealed the song's melodic lilt, but also highlighted the chemistry and--I'm gonna say it--love among the band members. Hands down, it was my favorite part of the show.

Travis, the Fillmore, Nov. 20, 2007

The other element, which permeates every second of nearly every Travis show I've seen, is the band's exuberance. Actually, it goes beyond exuberance; it's their bonhomie, as well as the evidence of their ties to each other, and in my experience, no other band comes close to matching their levels of joy and delight in simply sharing the stage with one another.

Travis, the Fillmore, Nov. 20, 2007

I suppose you could make an argument about, say, musicianship trumping these warm 'n' fuzzies, and I'd understand where you're coming from. But at this point in my concert-going life, I know that what moves me to catch repeat performances from specific artists is the spirit they bring to the stage. When it comes together, it's as real as any instrument the band is playing or any note they might hit.

Travis, the Fillmore, Nov. 20, 2007OK, enough of my sputtering and back to the music. I would've loved to hear "Battleships" again, and I missed "Happy" too--not so much for the song itself, but for the Mexican jumping bean impersonations it brings out in Fran, Andy, and Dougie. Alas, there was no "U16 Girls" tonight, but they wisely kept "Good Feeling," complete with mid-song spotlight on Klaus. Of course, "All I Want to Do Is Rock" made the list as well, but I don't think they'll ever stop doing that one--nor would I want them to.

Before, during, and after the show, we heard lots of people talking about how many times they've seen Travis and how far they've traveled to make the gigs. We allowed each other snarky asides, but I hardly blame those fans, and this is a band I can't feel jaded about. I'm unlikely to join these fans in their long-distance endeavors, but I'll certainly be back to see the band again.

Travis, the Fillmore, Nov. 20, 2007

Maximo Park opened the show, and though I wanted to like them, they did little for me. I couldn't even remember their one song that caught my attention a couple of summers ago, though I think it might have been the penultimate song on their setlist. To their credit, though, they grew on me as their show proceeded. What I originally interpreted to be preening and grandstanding on the singer's part came across as less of an ego exercise and more of an attempt to bring the audience into the show by the end of their performance. Mainly, though, their show drove home the point that an entire generation of British music has pretty much passed me by--and I don't regret it one bit.

See also:
» give in, into that good feeling

Friday, November 16, 2007

not going to get too sentimental

I was sharing a flight with a number of disgruntled USC football fans, still in shock over their team's loss to Stanford the night before, when this show went on sale. Fortunately, friends took care of the hard work of getting tickets (to the second show, of course) and waiting in line. Tonight, I was more than happy to reap the rewards.

Elvis Costello and Clover, Great American Music Hall, November 8, 2007: Ordinarily, I'd use this space to gloat about Elvis Costello's affinity for the Bay Area, but I'll put my pettiness aside to simply be thankful that Elvis has established roots deep enough to grace us with this gig to help out a friend, 30 years in coming.

Elvis Costello & Clover, November 8, 2007

The friend was Austin De Lone, who I had seen play with Elvis at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival last year, and the impetus was his son Richard, who suffers from Prader-Willi syndrome. The glue that held it all together was their long friendship. The pleasure, meanwhile, remained all ours.

In addition to learning more about Prader-Willi Syndrome, this show also schooled me on Clover, the band that backed Elvis all those years ago. I admit it--I had no idea that Elvis played with anyone in any significant measure before the Attractions or that the band was from the Bay Area or that they were responsible, in part, for forcing Huey Lewis and the News upon us. But as a music nerd, I'm glad to finally stumble upon that nugget of rock history, and I'm sure I'll make an obscure reference to it in the weeks and years to come.

Elvis Costello & Clover, November 8, 2007I don't know who came up with the idea to put on concerts of albums in their entirety, but bless 'em for it, 'cos it makes all of us High Fidelity types weep into our limited-edition gatefold colored vinyl. The truth, once again, is that I'm not even a huge fan of My Aim Is True (This Year's Model, however, is another story), but you don't have to be a die-hard to be familiar with the truly classic tracks from the album. The band, understandably, turned them out exactly in order as on the record, and Elvis even remarked at one point that we were flipping over the album--an expression not lost on this older audience.

In fact, Elvis wasn't just engaging tonight--he was downright loquacious (just the way I like 'em)! I could share just his quotes with you all night, but I'd likely misquote them severely. He partly excused it by pointing out that the album itself is only 35 minutes long and he had to justify the ticket price somehow, but I don't think anyone was complaining, especially when he shared so many stories centered around My Aim Is True, from writing it to recording it to playing it on the road. I was especially amused by the numerous mentions of Nick Lowe; it's clear that the two are still good friends, and Elvis commented that these shows were supposed to take place last month, around the time of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which Nick played. The deal breaker turned out to be Bob Dylan, who asked Elvis to open a number of shows. Small mercies--that weekend was already far too busy, so I'm glad I didn't have to miss another great show.

Ah right, the music. As mentioned earlier, we were in for fairly straightforward renditions of the old songs, some of which (I'm told) hadn't been played--well, since 1977. For, say, "Alison," it was sort of refreshing to hear it at its most basic, after all these permutations through the years (I could hear the traces of "Tracks of My Tears" over the bridge). Of course, "Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes" got a huge reception as well, but so did the lesser-known tracks "Less than Zero" and "Mystery Dance."

Elvis vowed to not do any song that predated 1977, the album's release year, so he reached into his repertoire for a number of rarities that I, frankly, didn't know. You didn't need prior knowledge, however, to enjoy the tunes. He downplayed a lot of them by explaining that they offered less of an insight into his evolution as a songwriter as they better revealed who he was trying to ape. The songs easily demonstrated, nonetheless, the influence that American country and folk artists held over him in the early years, before he was swept under the "punk" label.

Elvis Costello & Clover, November 8, 2007

Despite all the great music, the highlight of my night came when Elvis spoke from his heart and explained how he got involved in this benefit. As he heaped praise upon Austin and Lesley de Lone, you could see Austin standing offstage, the tears in his eyes clearly visible. Later, Austin gave as good as he got and duly credited Elvis for the evening's success.

There was some talk about Bonnie Raitt's early involvement with the band and how she refused to join them onstage for the show. No hard feelings, though--we sang "Happy Birthday" to her and Elvis's longtime manager. After two or three encores, in which Elvis played solo as well as with Austin, the whole roster (Elvis, Pete Thomas, Clover, Austin, and Bill Kirchen) reassembled for "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding," which not only closed out the U.S. issue of My Aim Is True but this night as well. Elvis and Austin mentioned taking this show to other cities to raise funds and awareness for Prader-Willi Syndrome and the Richard de Lone Special Housing Project. I hope they make good on that idea because a lot more people need to see this show.

Elvis Costello & Clover, November 8, 2007

See also:
» now I try to be amused

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

you're changing your heart

Several years ago, I saw a show at Largo where Jon Brion closed the night with Flanagan's request for Prefab Sprout's "When Love Breaks Down," one of those songs I used to put on repeat for days on end. Of course, it's a natural fit at Largo, and it's no shock that Jon and Flanagan would appreciate such a composition, but the song has never exactly enjoyed heavy rotation anywhere, even during the band's heyday in the '80s. I've reported this incident to many people, but very few have known the song well enough to share in my appreciation of the commingling of talent. Fast-forward to 2007 and one of those rare people, a very good friend I hadn't spoken to in about four years, found me in line at Largo. It's a small, beautiful world after all.

Jon Brion, Largo, November 3, 2007: In fact, this whole weekend, and especially this third night, at Largo drove home a point that I've been very fortunate to confirm time and time again: that hitching my wagon to this music thing has yielded much greater rewards than I ever thought possible. In addition to reveling in the company of my own posse and reuniting with the aforementioned pal, I was welcomed by a small gallery of other familiar faces. Not to get all "it takes a village," but this little room on Fairfax felt a lot like home for a night. (Birthday girls are allowed to get sappy, right?)

On to the music: No shark talk tonight, just an anti-Viper Room rant from Flanagan before Jon set himself at the piano for a good 20 minutes of nothin' but instrumentals. Our table detected hints of "Danny Boy" and some of his soundtrack material in the first tune, decided that the second number must've been improvised, and giggled with the rest of the room at the third selection.

Properly primed, Jon ducked over to the drum kit to start a song build of "Further Along" that came complete with some wailing guitar. Another original, "Excuse to Cry" followed, and I jotted down something about different vocal phrasings and guitar style, but more than a week on, I can't tell you what they are. I also can't guess at how we next arrived at the Love Story theme performed à la AC/DC, so feel free to fill in the blanks yourself.

Oh wait, I remember part of it now--metal mania descended when Jon was tuning his guitar and must've heard something in the chords that brought up that song. In any case, the guitar reverted to its untuned state after that song, but Jon asked for requests anyway and dove into "Who Loves the Sun," with a little help from Scott in the soundbooth on the rhythm track. Though you could clearly hear the wonky chords, it added a psychedelic feel to the tune.

Scott's contributions weren't finished yet; when our continuing song requests floundered, Jon asked Scott to step in. Thus, he threw on some spoken-word recording that asked, "Why are we so attracted to things that are bad for us?" Jon responded with jags of abstract guitar but eventually settled on a song with lyrics ("Get hurt and you'll learn"). Song sleuths, your input is welcome, as I have no idea what its provenance might be.

It was back to the piano, this time for music and lyrics--even some of Jon's own. He teased out the intro of my request for "Amateur," but it gave way to Kermit the Frog, Burt Bacharach, and Billie Holiday. Well, I can't complain about the last two.

The first set ended with an audience request that snowballed into a Pink Floyd medley, and I'm relieved to report that our roars of laughter were not accidentally sampled in the loops for "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" this time out.

Jon landed at the piano once again for the opening of the second set, where he polished off a triumvirate of his own songs, including (finally!) "Amateur." Sorry for the overkill, but dammit, I love that song.

An audience request for the Monkees sat well with Jon, inspiring the next two tunes and reacquainting us with the console. He went nuts with the electronics here, but he had already taken the songs so far from their original form that the extra blips, bleeps, and scrawls of sound didn't hurt at all. More amusingly, Jon also confessed to a period in his childhood when he would answer only to "Mickey"--as in "Dolenz."

The ridiculous is to the sublime as the Monkees are to Benmont Tench, who returned for his third show as well. The two set off on a familiar course, but on the second song in, they hit a lull. They were engaged in an oblique discussion when Benmont took the lead and launched into Feist's "1234." We managed to overcome our shock soon enough to join him on the chorus, even as Jon peeked over Benmont's shoulder to learn the notes. Jon grabbed the baton from there and segued seamlessly into "All You Need Is Love," "Daydream," and "This Will Be Our Year."

Our requests were once again bombing with the performers, though Benmont couldn't stop himself from tickling out a few bars of various titles, even as Jon batted them away. The decision, thus, went to Flanny, and he got his first suggestion. The second request didn't seem to arrive intact to the stage; where Flanny asked for "Tom Waits for our Detroit friends," Jon must've heard only the geographical element, but even that common thread was loosely defined in the tremendous medley that followed.

You can bet your bottom dollar they hit the more predictable touchstones, such as the White Stripes, Kiss, and even Motown, and of course, this being a Jon Brion show, he and Benmont had no qualms about throwing in some Beatles and Bee Gees riffs as well. But also crammed in there was an Oasis reference for a song I had requested on Thursday and had never heard in all my visits to Largo, and then they tied it up in a lovely little bow, reprising Feist's hit. Really.

But please don't assume that the musical maelstrom was anywhere as mannered as my catalog of artists might have you believe. First of all, half a dozen or more songs probably went right over my head. And I haven't even mentioned the real-time mashup of Kiss and the Stooges ("I wanna be your dog/And party every night"). Or the original vocal arrangement for "My Girl." Or how "Seven Nation Army" and "Detroit Rock City" served as the co-anchors of the whole endeavor.

But wait, there's more! There was some debate over whether the time change would add another hour to the show, but the executive decision had been made--we'd have to scram soon, though we had already enjoyed more music in the last 20 minutes than some people hear all year. Thus, Jon serenaded us with "From Me to You," which started out with gospel inflections but morphed into sultry, R&B-style voicing at some point after the bridge. For the weekend's concluding note, they returned to Randy Newman, finally satisfying the guy who requested "Political Scientist" [sic] several times that night.

Set 1
--piano piece 1
--piano piece 2
--Home on the Range
--Further Along
--Excuse to Cry
--Love Story theme
--Who Loves the Sun
--Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way
--The Way It Went
--Over Our Heads
--It's Not Easy Being Green
--I'll Never Fall in Love Again
--Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key
--Bike/Welcome to the Machine/Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Set 2
--Strings That Tie to You
--Love of My Life So Far
--What Am I Doing Hangin' Around
--Star Collector

--Dayton, Ohio 1903
--1234 [vocals = Benmont]
--All You Need Is Love/Daydream/This Will Be Our Year
--Walk a Thin Line
--7 Nation Army/Detroit Rock City/Devil with the Blue Dress/New York Mining Disaster 1941/I Wanna Be Your Dog/My Girl/Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing/Baby You're a Rich Man/Tomorrow Never Knows/Supersonic/1234
--From Me to You
--Political Science

See also:
» Night 1: i'm younger than that now
» Night 2: play a song for me

Sunday, November 11, 2007

play a song for me

We were eager to take in this show for all the usual reasons, as well as with one specific goal: to find, come hell or high water, an earworm to replace "Cruel to Be Kind" in our heads and on our tongues.

Jon Brion, Largo, November 2, 2007: In his intro, Flanagan informed tonight's audience of the situation with the sound man/shark victim, and like clockwork, Jon jumped in with the Jaws theme before easing into his typical improvisational warmup. "Ruin My Day" followed, but instead of plain old piano, Jon went to a clunky console his assistant had lugged onstage. We had a million guesses as to what it could do, but what we ultimately heard were blips and bleeps that, frankly, detracted from the otherwise gorgeous song.

It was back to analog for an obscure cover that Jon heartily recommended, but when it didn't get much of a reaction from the crowd, he played his own anti-industry diatribe, "Into the Atlantic." I hope he unearths it more often--it's always a bright spot in a show.

The built-up "Happy with You" featured some bluesy notes, but the song came to an abrupt end when Jon's guitar strap broke. This probably had nothing to do with Jon's subsequent call for requests, but that's exactly what we got next. Someone, perhaps a repeat customer, yelled out for "Every Little Thing," which we had heard the previous night. This time, it was all instrumental, and he ran it through a variety of styles. It struck me as something you'd hear at, for example, a soundcheck, though such a treatment is fairly de rigeur at Largo.

The next song kept me guessing for a while. Jon poured on the layers, and when he hammered out the song's percussion on the piano's backboard, I still wasn't sure where it was going. It turned out to be his own "Not Long for This World," from the Grays' album. The console got another workout during this song, and it fit this cacophony better than it did the plaintive "Ruin My Day." But Jon still didn't--literally--have a handle on it yet, as it slipped from the piano's mantle and threatened to crash to the floor. Jon held on to it long enough to place it safely atop the celeste, and maybe for good measure, he gave it a good shake to extend the instrument's sustain. Long story short: Maybe that thing had a purpose after all.

This technological terror once again inspired an earthier touch ("Trial and Error"), but it was time for more guitar anyway. He picked up a small acoustic and instructed Scott in the soundbooth (not gnawed by sharks, fortunately) to take him back in time. Scott obliged with a recording of pops and scratches, and Jon unveiled yet another original take on "More Than This." I geeked out accordingly.

We were now in a covers episode, and Jon breezed through Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, and a couple of Brian Eno songs. "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More" was more of an exercise, as Jon strummed a few bars and sang a few lines off mic, mostly to himself; it still made me want to squeal, though. "Here Come the Warm Jets," however, got the full treatment, bringing in the drums, guitar, piano, vocoder, celeste, and that damn console. In this case, the third time was the charm.

Yes, Jon next played "Knock Yourself Out" on piano and harmonica, but let's skip to the good part: the medley that closed out the first set. Much as he did Thursday night, Jon pieced together a massive song cycle based on the requests that came his way. Thus, we got the opening notes of "Don't Stop Believing," leading to "Hey Jude," leading to the Cheers theme (and the first bona fide singalong of the night), a ragtime-y "Back in Black" that channeled Tom Waits, and a bunch of other great songs (see below).

Jon eased into the second set by limbering up on the guitar. It sounded improvisational, but I wouldn't be surprised if some tunes were hidden in there. Once he was satisfied with what he heard, he wandered back to the drum kit and started laying down a slow, languid beat. I thought we were in for "You Made the Girl," but it turned out to be the jazz classic, "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)." It's been a while since I've heard him do that song, but I don't think I've witnessed such a torchy rendition before.

Jon then called Benmont Tench to the stage, and this is where it got more interesting. As Benmont made himself comfortable on the piano, Jon chose to be a true spectator. That is, he picked up his Guinness, retreated to one side of the stage, squeezed himself in behind the big speaker stack, and gazed appreciatively upon Benmont. In fact, just before Benmont's second number, Jon did something that was pretty unusual (as far as I've seen): He looked directly at the audience, even making eye contact, and beamed. There was no mistaking his pleasure in the moment.

Benmont, meanwhile, turned out a couple of vintage tunes. His "Someone to Watch Over Me" enjoyed a jazzy, unhurried pace, and "Wouldn't It Be Lovely" sounded as natural as sunlight. Benmont, of all people, makes everything sound effortless and tasteful, even when it's a cheesy cover. Give him a couple of classic tracks, and there's no argument that you're in the company of a maestro.

Halfway into "Paper Moon," Jon returned to the mix, lending vocals and guitar to the irresistibly charming song. Perhaps finished with their warmup, Jon invited another player to the stage: Paul Bryan, who had been watching the show from the back of the room. More recently, Grant-Lee Phillips has recruited Paul for his backing band, but Paul has been a longtime sideman for Aimee Mann, even producing her Christmas album and the record that's set for release next year.

The latest hastily assembled power trio to grace Largo's stage debuted with a couple of tracks that you could reasonably expect to hear from Jon and his guests. The Joe Jackson song, however, was new for me, and I'm happy to say we kicked in very respectable backing vocals during the chorus. Yay us!

The group underwent its first personnel change when Jon asked if any drummers were in the audience. A young-ish guy, whom we had seen checking out the gear earlier, volunteered. They got off to an inauspicious start, as Jon stopped them shortly in the first song selection (not that he had informed anyone of the actual title) and advised, "Let's find the 1s." From there, though, they ripped into a set that any garage band would love (and that the new drummer could follow along).

I kind of lost it when Jon picked out the distinctive opening notes of "Mr. Tambourine Man"; it's an obvious choice, but we don't hear it enough at Largo, and quite honestly, how can you not love that jangly riff?! It soon became my "Cruel to Be Kind" substitute for the next 24 hours. Also, it was very cool to see Paul Bryan share the mic for the song's multipart harmonies, letting the audience in on what he brings to many other artists' touring and recording ensembles.

"You Really Got Me" was a little slower in starting; Jon asked for someone to sing it, and a table of guys confidently claimed they'd take on the task, but they just as quickly chickened out. Thankfully, Largo regular Gonzi saved the day; he snapped up the mic as if he owned it, and though he couldn't entirely recall the second verse, Jon was there to help, shouting lines in his ear. I especially loved the showman's flourish ("Jon Brion!") with which he left the stage. Jon and Paul finished out the song's vocals, crouching to reach the manhandled microphone stand.

We probably could've left the gig on that giddy note, but the four players sealed the set with a couple more rockers. Despite the brevity of their set, I suspect this group outlasted the vast majority of garage rockers tinkering away out there.

Set 1
--Jaws theme/piano noodling
--Ruin My Day
--Starry Eyes
--Into the Atlantic
--Every Little Thing
--Not Long for This World
--Trial and Error
--More Than This
--Any Major Dude
--Burning Airlines/Here Come the Warm Jets
--Knock Yourself Out
--Don't Stop Believing/Hey Jude/Cheers theme/Back in Black/Benny and the Jets/Rhapsody in Blue/But Not for Me/Our Love Is Here to Stay/Someone to Watch Over Me/Cheers theme

Set 2
--electric guitar noodling
--I've Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)
--Someone to Watch Over Me *
--Wouldn't It Be Lovely *
--Paper Moon *
--I Go to Pieces *
--My Baby Left Me **
--Is She Really Going Out with Him/Sherry **
--Revolution ***
--Mr. Tambourine Man ***
--You Really Got Me ****
--Dirty Water/Open My Eyes ***

* = w/Benmont Tench
** = w/Benmont Tench and Paul Bryan
*** = w/Benmont Tench, Paul Bryan, and Matt on drums
**** = w/Benmont Tench, Paul Bryan, Matt on drums, and Gonzi on vocals

See also:
» Night 1: i'm younger than that now
» Night 3: you're changing your heart
» hidden hand
» i'm the stuff of happy endings

Saturday, November 10, 2007

i'm younger than that now

Not that anyone asked (or suspected), but I haven't, in fact, spent the last week passed out in an LA motel room with a party hat affixed to my head, an empty bottle of Midori lodged in one hand, and my little book of setlists in the other. I would've certainly filed these Jon Brion concert reports earlier if I could, but unfortunately, real life interfered. Hopefully, they're worth the wait.

Jon Brion, Largo, November 1, 2007: I'm not sure what it says about me that I spent my birthday this year standing on the sidewalk, eating a Largo salad, and trying to be heard over the PA's ever escalating volume (not simultaneously): that is, doing exactly what I do, oh, two or three dozen other times during the year. Being in the company of very dear friends, as well as snagging a table despite our lack of reservations, however, kicked the day up several notches. And oh yeah, the promise of the first of three performances by Jon Brion didn't hurt either.

Flanagan handled the introductions, per usual, and mentioned that one of the Largo sound men had been bitten by a shark while on vacation in Hawaii (I think). This led to Jon's first selection, an instrumental "Mack the Knife" on piano, which in turn moved Evonne and myself to mouth "Shark Week," a highlight of another Largo show just a couple of months before. The shark theme was not yet over, however, as Jon threw in a nod to Jaws as well.

Music superseded lyrics, as Jon unfurled a couple more piano instrumentals, the first of which may have been improvisational, while the second was the theme from Eternal Sunshine. The piano remained in the spotlight for "Someone Else's Problem Now," what I believe was an instrumental version of "Over Our Heads" (or, at least, something from the Huckabees soundtrack), and "Same Thing."

The last song, of course, is a staple of Jon's sets, but tonight, it was all piano, without the distinctive percussion that's so often its calling card. Jon's voice, too, took on a more wistful and confessional tone; the song, so often delivered as a defiant comeback to an ex, sounded more like capitulation or at least some sort of admission. I gotta say, though, that it worked.

A song build of "Girl I Knew" followed, finally moving Jon to the other instruments, and I noted less melody and choppier, more forceful bursts of guitar. None of this carried over to the next song, "Why Do You Do This to Yourself," though Jon decided to append his faithful rendition with distorted guitar that touched briefly on "Jesse's Girl" before settling on "Gigantic," featuring his fingerpicking style for the bridge.

Back to the piano, he went with "Trouble," and we noted an angrier tone to the song than we're used to. But even as Jon slammed down the notes, he also offered a change in tack with a soft, retreating bridge (my favorite part of the song).

At this point, Jon asked specifically for requests, and the first option on the table was his own "That's Just What You Are." Ordinarily, he doesn't do much to this song, playing it fairly straight on either the piano or the guitar, though he sometimes adds a bit of harmonica. For this show, however, he decided to pull out all stops and build it up, starting with huge, resounding drum fills, then sprinkling in a bass-like undertone from that goofy little Korg. Through the course of the song, he also wrung out some notes from the harmonica and threw in some ragtime piano. Toward the end, he picked up the main melody on the Yamaha synthesizer, but the song was already changing once again. He stuck some picks between the Yamaha's keys to sustain the drone, layered some classical piano over the reverberations, then presented "Moon River"--as you do.

The next call for requests was less than satisfying, but Jon made hay with the suggestions. Taking up the vocoder, he strung together snippets of a bunch of silly songs. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I suppose, as Jon threw caution to the wind and asked us to bring it on. Starting with my request for "Don't You Want Me" (I had just seen the music video the other day), he managed to hit most of the songs called out by the crowd, for one of those mega-medleys that he makes look so easy. Sigh.

Back on the traditional tip, Jon built up one of his new songs. I've heard it once or twice before now, but tonight's arrangement was heavier and sludgier, with a more psychedelic spin. The song is still young, though, so I imagine we'll hear more permutations as the song matures.

As Jon casually tried out some notes on the guitar, a knowing voice yelled out, "Oh ho, 'Purple Rain'," but Jon was having none of that. Instead, he stepped up to the mic and informed us that it was, rather, a song from Tommy Keene's first EP, and he proceeded to play it out for us. But the seed had been planted, and "Purple Rain"--à la Les Paul--joined the night's song list.

The second set started out once again at the piano, where Jon rolled out a couple of Nilsson numbers, a couple of his own compositions, and a Cole Porter title before bringing out Benmont Tench. At first, they let the music do the talking, perfectly happy to bask in their wordless communication and soulful instrumentals. I might've liked to hear "Girl" with vocals, if only so that we could contribute those deep inhalations as needed, but the opportunity will surely arise again.

I swore I heard Benmont playing, for a moment, while Jon was tuning, a fragment of the Cure's "Friday I'm in Love," but the two settled in more familiar territory. They substituted "Tequila" for "Juanita" when the lyrics wouldn't come to either of them, but the words eventually returned.

This extremely casual second set featured some more instrumentals between the two of them until Benmont decided to sing a couple of songs himself. It's been a real pleasure to watch Benmont branch out and take advantage of Largo's open invitation to do whatever the hell he wants; tonight was just another example of how much he adds to each show, and I, for one, love it whenever he shows up.

For the very last number, Jon asked for that show-closing request, and the one that finally perked up his ears was Nick Lowe. After some give and take, and our rather mixed vocal contributions, Jon finally figured out a way to harness our voices to the best advantage. Thus, "Cruel to Be Kind" turned out to be a huge hit, as we were able to get in a respectable singalong that our table, at least, couldn't put a stop to for another 24 hours.

Set 1
--Mack the Knife
--Jaws theme
--piano piece
--Eternal Sunshine
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Over Our Heads (?) instrumental
--Same Thing
--Girl I Knew
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--That's Just What You Are
--Moon River
--Mr. Blue Sky/Styx song/Kraftwerk song/Funkytown/Cars/Fame
--Don't You Want Me Baby/This Will Be Our Year/ Sweet Home Alabama/Born to Run/Walk Away Renee/Same Old Scene/Her Ghost
--new song (Get Over Yourself?)
--Back to Zero Now
--Purple Rain [Les Paul style]

Set 2
--Good Old Desk
--new song (Please Get Away from Me?)
--Here We Go
--Every Time We Say Goodbye

w/Benmont Tench
--Tennessee Waltz
--You Win Again
--Every Little Thing
--My Back Pages
--Sin City
--You Can Leave Your Hat On
--Can't Say No
--They Can't Take That Away from Me
--You Like Me Too Much
--Corrina, Corrina
--Cruel to Be Kind

See also:
» hidden hand
» Night 2: play a song for me
» Night 3: you're changing your heart