Saturday, December 29, 2007

top albums and gigs of 2007

In the clamor of music blogs, online zines, and end-of-year publications, there's absolutely no good reason for me to chime in with my meager list of favorite releases of 2007. But hey, that's what blogs are for. This year, I managed to dig three whole albums (that aren't Wilco's Sky Blue Sky). Here they are:

The Broken West, I Can't Go On, I'll Go On1. The Broken West, I Can't Go On, I'll Go On
Hey, did you hear that one about that jangly guitar band out of Los Angeles? Yeah, so have I, but this one is actually good.

As a music fan, I'm ridiculously transparent and boring. Jangly guitars, multipart harmonies, and sweet, strong melodies comprise my holy trinity, but few bands pursuing that harmonic convergence make an impression on me. The Broken West manages to hit that magical formula wherein these disparate elements come together to create gorgeous, hook-laden tunes that aren't boring and have me singing to myself for weeks and months afterward. I can't wait to hear more from these guys.

St. Vincent, Marry Me2. St. Vincent, Marry Me
I don't like many female singers, but something about St. Vincent grabbed me the first time I saw her in concert, and I made a point of picking up her album when it came out later that year. The cool stuff she does onstage in her solo incarnation is pretty impressive, but the album's striking production and uncommon arrangements add another dimension to her sound. Also, it doesn't hurt that she brings to mind the magnificent Kate Bush in terms of talent, vision, and sheer ambition (minus the freaky dance moves).

Richard Hawley, Lady's Bridge3. Richard Hawley, Lady's Bridge
When Richard Hawley was in the Longpigs, I was into the singer, of all people. Man, how embarrassing--and what a cliche! I've been trying to think of another example of a favorite band splitting up, leading to the revelation that the singer was a bit of a sham and that an entirely unexpected band member was the unheralded talent held back by the group's limited scope, but the only example I can think of is Duran Duran and Power Station. So nix that.

I've been meaning to dig up Richard's single contribution to the Longpigs oeuvre, just to prove that I had every reason to be surprised that he'd turn out to be such an amazing solo artist. Ultimately, though, the only thing that matters is the music itself, and you can hear it in every gorgeous, atmospheric detail of Lady's Bridge.

Gigs, however, are more my milieu, and I indulged in them shamelessly in 2007. Whittling down that list to 10 concerts wasn't easy, but it was sure fun piling up the shows in the first place. Per usual, I have to exempt this year's private show with Jeff Tweedy, as well as Jon Brion's last shows of the year. Regardless, plenty of pickings remain:

Marfa, Texas (3)1. Jeff Tweedy, Liberty Hall, January 21, 2007: I'm unlikely to forget any aspect of this concert and road trip soon: Ciudad Juarez, the West Texas landscape, the Prada storefront, and the dark, rabbit-infested interstate roads, to name just a few. Then there was Marfa itself, especially the Hotel Paisano, the community party we missed, and our keys taped to the door. It's just too bad we didn't see the Marfa lights! The show had a lot to live up to, and it delivered. Of course, it wouldn't have been a fraction as fun without the company. Let's do it again, friends!
2. Jon Brion, the Hideout, March 11, 2007: Largo is a magical place that nurtures all sorts of musical dreams, and I always look forward to seeing Jon Brion play there. But I gotta say that another side of Jon comes out when he plays in different cities. Often, he's set to impress, which is what he did to jaw-dropping effect at the Hideout. What I liked best about this gig is that it was pure Jon, with no friends or other guests dropping in, but plenty of charisma and inspiration to go around.
3. Jarvis Cocker, the Fillmore, April 28, 2007: Posterity is not usually one of my concerns when I listen to music, but it's nice to see some old favorites reemerge and prove that they're still as great as you remember. The cult of Cocker lives!
Daft Punk, Greek Theater, July 27, 20074. Daft Punk, Greek Theater, July 27, 2007: It's official--I've become that insufferable prat usually overheard saying, "I saw [insert name of band] in [insert year, preferably from before the turn of the century] at [insert name of club, and all the better if it's now closed, especially under unsavory circumstances]." Yawn. But thank god for great bands who continue to excite and inspire years on, especially through the use of huge, pulsating pyramids! Why didn't anyone think of that during the rave years?!
5. Elvis Costello and Clover, Great American Music Hall, November 8, 2007: An awesome album performed in its entirety, my favorite club in San Francisco, a great cause, and oh yeah, none other than Elvis Costello himself made for an amazing night.
Wilco, Kesselhaus, May 24, 20076. Wilco, Kesselhaus, May 24, 2007: Singling out just one gig among all the Wilco shows I saw this year isn't easy (cry me a river), but this is the one my brain goes back to again and again. Not only was it the farthest I've traveled to see Wilco, it was my first time in Berlin, which I now urge everyone to visit. What an amazing city!
7. Jon Brion, Largo, June 8, 2007: To be fair to all the other concerts I saw this year, I have to limit myself to one Largo show, but in my heart of hearts, Largo could easily claim another five spots on this list. This particular gig rose to the top for a lot of reasons, but let's just say David Rawlings and his gorgeous suit helped seal the deal.
8. Richard Hawley, Cafe du Nord, December 12, 2007: Shows later in the year don't tend to make it on my list, but this concert has been haunting me for the last few weeks. I was skeptical of all the praise and adulation before the gig, but I soon became a believer afterward.
9. Badly Drawn Boy, the Metro, March 10, 2007: It was great to see Damon Gough back at his best: still cocky, but also joyful. I shouldn't have been surprised that the Chicago crowd would bring it out in him. Then I got to see him a month later at Largo!
The National/Broken West, June 27, 200710. The National/The Broken West, Bimbo's 365 Club, June 27, 2007: This was a great year for the National, and I'm just glad I got to see them in a reasonable venue. I suspect a lot of people feel the same way about Wilco that I feel about the National; that is, they pick up on the band's integrity and dedication, even if the music isn't entirely their thing. Still, it was exciting to witness that collective adulation, albeit a step or two removed.

See also:
» top 10 concerts of 2006
» top 5 albums of 2006
» top 10 concerts of 2005

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

she's lived it 10 times or more

For Jon Brion's last Largo show of 2007, we caught a sweet break, in which our slightly abbreviated party was not, in fact, banished to Glendale but instead landed at the very table we had hoped for. I can't vouch for Santa Claus, but I surely believe in Largo's magical minions!

Jon Brion, Largo, December 22, 2007: The first time was instantly the charm, the second time exceeded already high expectations, and now I'm just being greedy. Strap on the bib, loosen your belt, and dig in--this feast is far from over.

Jon appeared onstage to make the introductions for someone he called one of his favorite performers and people in the world. In our pre-show game of I Spy, we had already scoped out the individual in question, but we nonetheless welcomed Greg Proops with a hearty round of applause, even when he eviscerated us for the sympathies we supposedly harbored for Owen Wilson and the Police. That's all I'm going to say about his monologue, except that I also loved the Evel Knievel bit.

Thanks to Scott in the soundbooth, we weren't quite finished with Greg, even when it came time for Jon to take the bench. Scott weaved several Proopisms into Jon's abstract instrumentation, but ultimately, Jon brought Greg's declarations full circle. After tickling out hints of "Jingle Bells," Jon constructed a droning wall of sound to which he added the vocoder-treated vocals for--wait for it--"Roxanne." The Largo soundbooth, ever resourceful, was happy to lend a hand by, you guessed it, turning on the red light. At the end, Jon generously shared the blame credit by counting the song as a Proops/Fritz/Brion/Sumner composition.

The call for requests followed immediately, and I was more than ready this time. Granted, I didn't actually expect Jon to tackle "Do They Know It's Christmas," so the single bar he churned out was enough to put a disproportionately huge grin on my face. I don't know if the person who requested "The Underdog" felt the same way when Jon decided it meant the Underdog theme, but I suspect they took it pretty well.

With those two ringers out of the way, Jon got down to the business of a real request: "Life on Mars" on piano, in that simultaneously exultant yet weary tone so prevalent in Bowie's early work. Sigh.

After an equally unvarnished "Someone Else's Problem Now," Jon set the next chain of events in motion, first coaxing out various notes and melodies on the mellotron, then adding the analog synth and a murmur of drums. Topping it off were the piano and the guitar for "You Don't Know What Love Is." Twenty-odd wrenching minutes on, it was clear we weren't tuned into the Bing Crosby Holiday Special.

We weren't about to say it, so it's a good thing Jon cleared the air first by announcing that the show was ready for a turnaround and, thus, threw in a few reliable pick-me-ups. The streak stayed strong with "Girl I Knew," as well as Jon's charming Christmas song. But it really kicked up a notch with the arrival of Benmont Tench and David Garza.

While David made himself comfortable behind the drums, Benmont took his time unpacking the CVS bag he brought with him. The gifts turned out to be an electronic guitar and piano, intended as children's toys, but in Benmont's hands, they were good enough to rock a solo. More satisfying than any axe fest, however, was seeing the unadulterated glee on Benmont's face whenever the guitar or the piano hit a particularly inspired passage.

The instruments momentarily exhausted, Benmont took his rightful place at the piano, and the three of them rolled out the hit parade. David was the first to pipe up, contributing vocals to "Winter Wonderland," while Jon held the mic for him until the technical details were ironed out in the soundbooth. From there, it became a Benmont bonanza as he led the others through an extended series of segues and transitions. I gave up taking notes during this section because there was just so much stuff zooming by. I halfway expected the Flying Wallendas to fly out at some point!

Their escapade took a small turn when Jon started intoning, "E-L-F," and "I wrap more presents than you've ever seen," and David approached the front of the stage. The elements (the instantly identifiable bass beat, the smattering of piano) started lining up, and David and Jon broke into "Under Pressure", assuming the roles of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, respectively. And when that was done, we got another Led Zeppelin doubleheader. Because they can.

Jon whispered something to Benmont, who tore into the Ramones, and it moved me to request Feist in the lull that followed, just because I knew that Benmont launched into it last month. I wasn't alone in this recollection, as Jon looked instantly to Benmont and said, "You know the words." Ben claimed that his knowledge covered only four lines, but they jumped on it anyway. Ben certainly knew more than four lines, but at the same time, he had no problem improvising the lyrics when his memory failed him. Then again, I think I know the exact same four lines that Benmont does.

The trio played a couple more rounds of musical chairs, with David and Jon at first swapping roles, then David and Benmont switching up, leaving Benmont on the guitar. David's choice of "Come Dancing" was deliciously fitting, even if the audience didn't quite deliver on the singalong. Benmont, meanwhile, appeared less assured on a real guitar than he did on the toy, but no need to worry--he nailed both songs.

Jon thanked his friends, then closed out the show by himself with his own songs. Ordinarily, I'd be happy to see off the year with pure Jon Brion ringing in my eardrums, but I don't have to. Check back later for the New Year's Eve report.

--Greg Proops opener
--piano noodling/Jingle Bells/Roxanne
--Do They Know It's Christmas
--Underdog theme
--Life on Mars
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--You Don't Know What Love Is
--If I Only Had a Brain
--The Entertainer
--Girl I Knew/Peter Gunn/Sunshine of Your Love/Everything Works If You Let It/I'll Never Fall in Love Again
--Jon's Christmas song
--Winter Wonderland/lots of segues/Happy Together/Bad to the Bone/Under Pressure/Immigrant Song/Kashmir * [vox = David and Jon, intermittently]
--I Wanna Be Sedated * [vox = Benmont]
--1 2 3 4/Sunny Afternoon * [vox = Benmont and Jon, respectively]
--Come Dancing * [vox = David]
--Mood Indigo * [vox = David]
--??? * [vox = David]
--It Had to Be You * [vox = David]
--Mr. Sandman * [vox = David]
--Knock Yourself Out
--Strings That Tie to You
--Same Mistakes
--Over Our Heads

* = with Benmont Tench and David Garza

See also:
» it's been said many times, many ways
» i'm offering this simple phrase
» let your heart be light

Monday, December 24, 2007

it's been said many times, many ways

Back home, my Christmas is shaping up to be The Year Without a Santa Claus, but at least some things stay constant--such as Jon Brion's last Largo shows (plural!) of the year.

The Year Without a Santa Claus

Jon Brion, Largo, December 21, 2007: The cousin decided to fly off to Vietnam for Christmas and New Year, thus abandoning our--OK, my--self-declared holiday tradition of catching Jon Brion's last Largo show of the year. Fortunately, she'll be back next month to correct the error of her ways.

Before the show even began, we had already taken in a good measure of festivities. For example, the tables next to us filled up with a whole slew of Largo talent, some of whom don't drop in often enough for my tastes. And though we tried to play it cool, we were totally dorking out inside.

Meanwhile, under the spotlights, the Largo staff went to great lengths to mic a wooden stool occupying a good chunk of real estate onstage. We wondered if we should expect a Storytellers session (helmed by one of those aforementioned Largo singer/songwriters) in our immediate future, but apparently, we weren't thinking outside the (gift) box, as the spot turned out to be reserved for the first guest of the night: a singing Santa doll.

Jon watched with the rest of us before Santa's charge and welcome petered out. With that course exhausted, Jon sat down at the piano for a cacophonous opening that eventually meandered toward melody. From there, the audience requests kicked in. The separate calls for drums and the always awesome "Better You Than Me" dovetailed nicely, and Jon volunteered that the song was a prime example of the "self-indulgence" common of songwriters in their 20s (I beg to differ). Another mashup married Michelle's suggestion for the baroque style to someone's request for "Mystery Achievement," but that would be the end of the musical mix-and-match, as the cavalcade of stars was imminent.

Jon handed off the request for "Raspberry Beret" to someone he said would know it better: E from the eels. But unlike last year, they played it far from straight. E delivered the spoken-word version of the song, while Jon accompanied him on piano, celeste, and vocoder. Jon mostly took over the the choruses, to E's surprise, as it looked like he cut himself off a few times when he realized Jon had started in. I'd also like to mention that I tried to help when E forgot the "lightning seeds" line, but the two plowed on regardless.

E and Jon conferred shortly for the next selection, half-remembered by E and mostly improvised by Jon. In fact, after glossing over several portions of the lyrics, E closed it with the unforgettable line: "Blah blah blah blah blah."

I don't do justice to vast expanses of the Largo experience, and high on that "you have to be there" list are moments between Jon and E. I know there's a writer's strike going on, but you couldn't script the repartee flying between Jon and E even if you tried. E made a point of heaping praise on Jon and, per his yearly tradition, telling him that he loved him. E's deadpan delivery and reputation for dark humor beg you to assume he's kidding, but their mutual enjoyment trumps all. This lovefest, however, made for an awkward transition into their next attempt at Bacharach, the deliciously titled "This Guy's in Love with You," which saw Jon feeding E his lines.

The next run of titles were all eels originals, but just about every other aspect of the performance was up for grabs. While Jon remained on piano, E picked up an electric guitar, and Greg Leisz joined them on pedal steel for the kickoff track. The second tune saw Jon switch to drums, while Paul Bryan, cute as a button, sauntered in from stage left, bass guitar in hand to fill out the rhythm section. They joked about Paul wandering in from Canter's, a gag that E would run with later when he referred to Paul, whom I'm assuming he'd never met before, as "Canter's guy," but I, for one, love seeing Paul join the Friday night stable of guests. Then for the third song, it was Benmont Tench's turn to amble casually through the stage door.

This third number, "Not Ready Yet," shakes up the club every time, but I'm not sure it's ever been as entertaining as it was tonight. To begin, there was the rather mortifying situation before the song started when we learned that E doesn't exactly know how to tune the guitar. Pitching in, Jon stepped out from behind the drums, sidled next to E, and without removing the guitar from E's frame, tuned it to satisfaction. Ever helpful, Jon also instructed everyone on the three chords that comprise the song.

Greg was amazing on this song, bestowing upon it supple, penetrating chords that gave merit to Jon's quip that it was "about fucking time" he joined them on this particular tune. Benmont, meanwhile, rocked the piano so hard that he knocked over all of Jon's implements, including the massive analog synth Jon's been favoring for the last couple of months. Order was restored for the next song, "My Beloved Monster," just in time for Benmont to shine.

For some reason, E had been reluctant to delve deeper into his catalog, but he was persuaded to give the eels' Christmas song a go, and it turned out to be a wise choice. This last number gave us Greg's surprising but exceedingly harmonious touch, as well as Jon's "reprise remix," as noted by E when Jon unexpectedly led them back through the song. Oh, and Jon donned the Santa hat!

The movements onstage suggested that the band was about to break up, but rather, E and Jon simply switched places, and the group would, in fact, expand shortly. In the interim, the five-piece took care of James's request for "something from Some Girls," then welcomed Sara and Sean Watkins to the collective.

Now numbering seven, the players indulged in old and new selections. Highlights include the round robin of solo turns in "Paper Moon"; the Benmont-driven "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," which the rest of the band didn't seem to really know but were trying to figure out along the way; and the three-part harmonies on "She's Got You" and "If You Gotta Go, Go Now." And of course, there was "Jealous Guy"--enough said.

E, through this sequence, looked more comfortable behind the drums than he did at some points on the mic, and his ease with the skins provided the touchstone for the next songs. He and Jon went through a quick drumcheck, then dove headfirst into a Led Zeppelin medley. Jon and E pushed hard to amazing effect, but the more interesting measure may be the way the other players found places for themselves in the song, which clearly didn't include lap steel or fiddle in its original incarnation; then again, that's Largo for you.

The dinosaur rockers capped off the first set, and after a break, Jon picked up where he usually starts: with an improvisational piano segment touched by hints of "You Don't Know What Love Is," though not exactly the song itself. He ran through a bunch of his own songs, culminating in a build of "I Believe She's Lying" that started out primly but exploded toward the end.

Though Jon called the night "Largo in reverse" during the opening set, he brought back his friends to the stage. David Garza was up first, chanting "happy birthday" over an electronic beat Jon created, but the same band (minus E and the Watkins) reformed as David led them through a couple of songs. During "Kiss," a member of the Watkins's party threw a jangly bracelet onstage, and Jon incorporated it into the percussion, complementing the tune's signature scratchy guitar beautifully.

The last song of the night was a request for Mike, Largo's general manager, and though Jon prepped the band ahead of time that dramatic twists and turns were in store for them, they came through regardless. As I recall, they closed last year's show with this traditional tune, though in radically different styles. Still, a year on, it was the big, gorgeous bow atop a sparkling night.

--wind-up Santa
--White Christmas/Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
--Better You Than Me
--Mystery Achievement

w/ E
--Raspberry Beret [vox = E]
--We've Only Just Begun [vox = E]
--This Guy's in Love with You [vox = E]

w/ E and Greg Leisz
--Climbing to the Moon [vox = E]

w/ E, Greg Leisz, and Paul Bryan
--Railroad Man [vox = E]

w/ E, Greg Leisz, Paul Bryan, and Benmont Tench
--Not Ready Yet [vox = E]
--My Beloved Monster [vox = E]
--Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas [vox = E]
--Beast of Burden

w/ E, Greg Leisz, Paul Bryan, Benmont Tench, and Sara and Sean Watkins
--Paper Moon
--Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea [vox = Benmont]
--She's Got You [vox = Sara]
--Jealous Guy
--If You Gotta Go, Go Now [vox = Sean]
--Good Times, Bad Times/Stairway to Heaven

Set 2
--You Don't Know What Love Is
--Knock Yourself Out
--The Way It Went
--Get Over Yourself
--Love of My Life So Far
--I Believe She's Lying

w/David Garza
--birthday chant [vox = David]

w/ Paul Bryan, David Garza, Greg Leisz, and Benmont Tench
--The Wanderer [vox = David]
--Kiss [vox = David]
--The Christmas Song

See also:
» she's lived it 10 times or more
» i'm offering this simple phrase
» let your heart be light

Saturday, December 22, 2007

too awake to be famous

Any year bookended by Stephen Malkmus gigs can't be all bad. Come to think of it, 2007 hasn't been too shabby a concert year at all. Best of all: It's not close to being over yet!

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Great American Music Hall, December 19, 2007: Last time Steve and the Jicks were in town, he sported an awful mustache. Imagine the relief we felt, then, when he came out before the show to set up his guitars, sporting maybe a day's stubble (and a pair of squared-off wire-rim glasses that could've been ripped straight off Bill Gates's face circa 1988--but that's another story).

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Great American Music Hall, 12-19-07Of course, the state of Stephen's facial hair didn't comprise the only difference between the year's two shows. January's gig was a a trial run with new songs but no product to promote. This time, though the concert wasn't specifically tied to a release, some media outlets are already salivating over the arrival of the Jicks' next album, Real Emotional Trash, in March. In case you weren't aware of its impending delivery, the barrage of new songs that the band kicked out might've clued you in.

Though I can't recall the exact order of songs, I remember they opened with "Baby C'mon," and older tracks "Mama" and "Pencil Rot" also made it into the main set. The encore, in turn, would include "Church on White," "Post-Paint Boy," and (after much begging from an audience member) "1% of 1," but the back catalog ended there. The bulk of the setlist, however, hit up the new tracks, two of which I recognized: "Dragonfly Pie" and "Hopscotch Willie." But since my downloading days are mostly over, that's pretty much the extent of my knowledge of the new material. Also, I swear one of the new songs namechecked Richard Avedon repeatedly, but I'm willing to wait until March for the confirmation.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Great American Music Hall, 12-19-07

What I couldn't have known when I was an overly trend-conscious twenty-something music fan: That one of the musicians who, for me, defined the '90s American indie sound, in all its jagged, insouciant, and contrary glory, would, in his solo career, favor long, meandering jams seemingly inspired by '70s acid rock. Then again, that era doesn't make me cringe as much as it used to, and quite honestly, I'm willing to give Steve and the Jicks the benefit of the doubt.

For sure, the new songs rocked, undoubtedly abetted by Janet Weiss's presence on the drums. She is, in a word, a badass, and her muscular style marks a huge departure for the Jicks. I'm totally guilty of assuming a band is driven by a single presence, and the Jicks would seem to operate under that umbrella. Obviously, I don't know the band's inner workings, but the collaboration is a lot more prominent this time out. Sure, Stephen is still the leader, and you could see Janet, Joanne, and Mike zeroing in on him for cues, especially during the improvisational jams littered throughout the songs. But Stephen, when he wasn't in a zone with his own contributions, gawked in return, often at something Janet was doing.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Great American Music Hall, 12-19-07

For all his years on the road, Stephen remains an atypical frontman, but bless him for the lack of posturing, pandering, and predictability that often comes with the territory. Besides, we like him better as he is. Tonight, that meant he was in a pretty silly mood, as his continual wrasslin' with the sliding mic stand provided the physical comedy, while his repeated harping on Popscene, San Francisco's Britpop club, kept the music snobs (i.e., everyone in the room) giggling.

And lest I forget, Stephen also mentioned his French ex-boyfriend in an effort to get himself off the hook after making some anti-crepes comments. The French DJ team Justice warranted a reference as well. And in a completely different vein, he showed off his semi-local roots with an off-the-cuff composition called "Cupertino Blues" that dropped in references to a bunch of cities in the East Bay, including Hayward and Livermore. However, the song was not, as far as I could tell, a lament about the iPhone.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Great American Music Hall, 12-19-07

Blitzen Trapper opened the show, and despite their seasonal name, they didn't bear any Christmas trimmings, either in their stage setup or their songs. Many of their tunes leaned heavily toward country, but at the same time, they sported a pronounced rock edge. At one point, their drummer broke his snare drum. In a flash, Janet Weiss was up on the stage, lending them her snare. Hooray! Overall, they were pretty good and continued the longstanding trend of great bands I've seen opening for Steve and Pavement.

See also:
» done well is so much fucking better
» penny rich & dollar dumb

Saturday, December 15, 2007

where voices fill the air

For those playing along at home, I've reached the halfway point for gigs this month--only five more to go before the end of the year!

Richard Hawley, Cafe du Nord, December 12, 2007: Let's get the Boorish Pedant portion of this blog post out of the way first. I've witnessed Richard Hawley in two other incarnations: as guitarist of Pulp at the Finsbury Park show in 1999 and, less famously, with the Longpigs, who ruled my musical world circa 1996 to 1997. With Pulp, Richard seemed to be biding his time with old friends, but I got the impression that the role was a good fit at the time--especially on the heels of his tenure with the Longpigs.

I loved the Longpigs, but if you're looking for earlier indications of Richard's troubador leanings, you'll have a tough time finding it in the group's jagged guitars and highfalutin wordplay. In the four-piece band, Richard was easily the most skilled and experienced musician on the roster, but the lead singer (and main songwriter) dominated the shows and the recordings.

Stella Tennant and Richard Hawley, Vogue, August 1997The Longpigs weren't unknown in the States, clocking several tours, charting with a modern rock hit single "On and On," and making their way into an Ellen von Unwerth-snapped layout in Vogue alongside supermodel Stella Tennant (pictured here), though their names are unlikely to register with all but the most dedicated Anglophiles these days. Add to that their supposedly unabashed pursuit of the rock star lifestyle, and you can understand why Richard has somewhat disavowed those years now that he's savoring his hard-earned solo acclaim. In fact, though he mentioned during the show that it's been about 12 years since he's played San Francisco [actually, it's been almost 10 years exactly since the Longpigs' last tour here--Britpop Ed.], he didn't at any point refer to either his former bands by name.

Just to be clear, I checked all expectations at the door and knew not to anticipate a return to the mid-'90s. Besides, I've heard Richard's solo work, so I had an idea of what was in store. But just in case I or any other ex-Britpoppers in attendance still clung to decade-old ideals, Richard quickly dispersed them when he and his band took the stage, each age-appropriate member dressed in proper jackets or, in a couple of cases, suits. Of the lot, Richard, decked out in impeccable sharkskin and sporting a slick quiff, cut the most polished profile.

Richard Hawley, Cafe du Nord, Dec. 12, 2007

The '50s fixation ran a lot deeper and touched nearly every song in the band's set, from the atmospheric ballads to the rockabilly stomps. Richard's musical influences have been cited in just about every review and interview I've read, so I won't bother to rehash them here. The bottom line is that Richard and his band brought the songs to vivid life with gorgeous, eloquent notes and Richard's rich, evocative voice. And between songs, Richard engaged the audience with his patently Northern sense of humor, simultaneously caustic and affectionate.

Not to linger on the '90s too much, but I couldn't help but think back to Richard's work with the Longpigs. If I recall correctly, Richard contributed a couple of b-sides to the Longpigs' recorded output, which I now realize is a right shame. The other major realization was how much of his own muse Richard must have had to suppress in his time with the band and how much of a reward it must be for him to finally make the music he loves, complete with stand-up bass, lap steel, and even his own array of hollow-body guitars--instruments not commonly handled by British bands around the fin de siecle.

Richard Hawley, Cafe du Nord, Dec. 12, 2007

The band truly brought it home, appropriately, on the closing number, "The Ocean." Where they had beautifully serenaded us for the preceding hour, "The Ocean" placed them squarely in the here and now. The sprawling epic delivered what you hope for from every closing number: It was so enveloping and satisfying that you had to admit there was no way to follow it up.

Ferraby Lionheart opened the show, and for this, the second time I've seen him, he brought three other players to fill out his sound. Though we didn't get a Madonna cover for this outing, the warmth in his voice and compositions remained readily apparent.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

round midnight

"Somewhere close to 1 a.m." would be more accurate, but it doesn't have quite the same ring.

Jon Brion and Nels Cline, Largo, December 8, 2007: I've always enjoyed the Jon Brion/Nels Cline shows at Largo, especially because they often piggybacked "normal" Jon Brion shows (pre-tendinitis, of course). But whoever -- Flanny, I suspect -- came up with the brilliant idea to give these masters two consecutive nights on the calendar is a genius, and I was glad to see the gamble paid off, purely in terms of the gigs' sold-out status and the line outside the door each night. Not that I expected everyone to be happy with the proceedings, but for a few of us at least, we would accept no less than the matching pair of shows.

Song 1: I don't know if it's Largo law or just some subconscious reflex on Jon and Nels's parts, but at several of these shows, their opening number can best be described as eerie. No matter what instruments they have on hand, you could swear that they'd snuck a theremin somewhere into the mix, and that's pretty much where we started tonight. Jon worked his magic on the analog synth, Nels played around with the thingamagoop, and I was visited by visions of Dark Shadows.

I don't recall exactly what happened next, though I have notes about Hawaiian and Eastern-sounding melodies coming from Nels and the slide guitar, as well as a womblike, subterranean beat introduced by Jon on the analog synth. But it wasn't all atmosphere either, as Jon and Nels whipped up a jarring musical maelstrom that no one would mistake for a lullaby. But from those four or five separate movements emerged a denouement of amazing beauty and clarity, led mostly by Nels on megamouth and guitar. Jon did his part as well, with gorgeous piano notes, which Nels then adapted for his muse. After the show, Nels likened it to Sigur Ros, an apt estimation.

Song 2: Though these lengthy blog posts might indicate otherwise, I don't kid myself that these chronicles are any substitute for attending a show (especially these gigs) and hearing the madmen for yourself. Going over my notes for this particular song really drives home that point, as I can't for the life of me figure out what actually happened on that stage. Apparently, Jon started this one on the drums, offering a beat that reminded me a little bit of his song "Croatia," then jumped to the piano for a staccato, start-and-stop pattern.

Nels, by then, had responded with complementary bursts of guitar, inspiring Jon to do the same, though he eventually flew off on his own tangent, and the two found their way to trading off solos.

Jon returned to the piano for a parade of styles: jazzy, frantic, then downright emphatic, with him pounding weightily on the keys. Nels turned out the guitar-based equivalent, all while a funky, syncopated rhythm supported their foray. This motif didn't last for too much longer, as they eventually relinquished all instruments, leaving only the drumbeat that ignited the tune.

But the song was far from over, as Nels ushered in the next movement. Sporting a new guitar, he presented clear, crystalline notes against no beat whatsoever. Jon eased in on the piano and celeste, as they drew the song to a surprisingly delicate, contemplative ending.

Song 3: Here's another one I don't really know how to describe, except to say that there was a lot of guitar on the part of both artists. I think it started out on rather articulate footing, with strong hints of flamenco, but with just a step of the pedal, Jon brought the rawk, flooding the room with heavy, sludgy chords.

For my money, the highlight of this song saw Jon moving to the drum kit and working up the kick drum while also playing guitar. Though this was pretty amusing on its own, he branched out, adding high hat and, er, regular drums while still playing guitar. I've heard the stories, but this may be the first time I witnessed it for myself.

From there, the song was all Nels, as he amped up his assault and unleashed that fancy fretwork he's known for, alternating the frenzied passages with shots of pure rock as they rode out the tune.

Song 4: I love it when Nels and Jon turn it up to 11, but I'm a fan of their acoustic work too. For this song, Nels picked up a banjo-uke (which is exactly what you think it would be) and Jon went with a bouzouki for a little folksy number. Nels mostly led this one while Jon provided the rhythm, culminating in a dramatic upkick in tempo.

Song 5: As promised, Nels brought his Turkish banjo, the one procured in South Pasadena, and sat down across from Jon for their threatened duel. The Deliverance theme proved too much of a temptation, and Nels blinked. From there, though, any nod to everyone's favorite tale of backwoods rapists was purely coincidental.

Always flouting expectations, Nels and Jon began this number by drumming on their respective banjos, much as Jon had done the night before, but they eventually worked up the strings as well, switching off the lead and rhythm roles. At one point, while Nels was drumming, Jon produced notes that sounded like they were coming from a sitar, though the banjos were the only instruments in their laps. He also employed other unusual methods of playing, such as holding down the strings, as with a capo, while strumming furiously.

Nels, seemingly not satisfied with using only one strange instrument at a time, reached for a tambourine that glowed whenever you hit it, then used it to beat against the banjo. At the end, the two reconvened musically to deliver the only punk/Turkish banjo pairing I've ever heard.

Song 6: I guess the previous night's request segment had worked out pretty well because Jon again asked for our input. My call for "Marquee Moon" once more fell on deaf ears; at this point, I'm going to assume Jon just doesn't know it. But the song they did choose was hardly a consolation prize: a wordless "More Than This" graced by Jon on the piano and celeste, as well as Nels on guitar. I was surprised that Nels knew the song, but once he settled into the melody, his familiar, elegant styling made itself known.

Song 7: Way back in September, when we first heard about these shows, we were told that one of the gigs might involve a drummer. I don't think anyone (including Jon and Nels), however, had any idea that this premise would eventually play out in the form of three drummers on one kit simultaneously. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

For this song, Jon called up Largo stalwarts Jeremy Stacey and Jay Bellerose. To refresh your memory, I first saw Jeremy Stacey playing with the Finn Brothers a couple of years ago, and I suspect he's also contributing to the album Jon's producing for Dido (who happened to be in attendance tonight). Jay Bellerose, meanwhile, has toured and recorded with several of Largo's most familiar names (Joe Henry and Grant-Lee Phillips, to name two).

These two not small men crammed themselves against the stage's back wall and forced themselves to accommodate the club's drum kit. Jeremy manned the sticks and took the traditional position. As for Jay, he had sequestered himself between the piano and the drums in such a way that I couldn't see him at all, except for, on occasion, a hand slapping the high hat.

Together, they came up with an epic that went from psychedelia to luminous clarity to hairy distortion--and back again. Jon sort of presided over this ramble, keeping an eye on the drummers as well as Nels, offering encouragement at every turn, and even playing the guitar. Nels, however, held the reins and roamed freely, buoyed by his new bandmates. They all reached a huge crescendo, then eased out of it, leaving Nels's psychedelic notes to tie up the song.

Song 8: Bolstered by the outcome of the previous song, Jon went ahead and called even more drummers to join Jeremy and Jay. One showed up: Ben Buckley, a new name and face, as far as I could tell. He quickly demurred from joining the game of musical Twister developing behind the drum kit and claimed various stand-alone percussive instruments instead: the light-up tambourine, a triangle, a maraca or two. As the song bloomed, Ben added to his repertoire by patting down the cymbal now and again.

Jon asked us to name a key, and someone claimed G, which Nels called a "personal favorite." From there, he went to the analog synth, while Nels played with the thingamagoop. Jon also ran through some of his favorite tricks, including sampling his own voice to build up a wall of sound, as well as sticking some guitar picks between the keys to sustain a drone. Nels responded with the megamouth, and though you wouldn't guess it from this narrative, this odd combination of sounds and instruments lead to heavy, sleazy, and funky blues chords, featuring Nels on lead guitar.

Nels also led the group into a raveup, and I've noted in my little journal that his guitar playing seemed to tell a story and outline a journey, but I have no idea what that means. Anyway, he wasn't alone, as Jon joined him, and they tag-teamed the solos. At the same time, the drums had developed into a sharp, militaristic cadence, and you could also hear the distinctive sound of a doubled beat.

From this cauldron of sound, Jon drew out "Round Midnight," featuring his own vocals. At this point, I noticed that Ben and Jeremy had switched so that Ben was now in the drummer's seat. Nels also somewhat changed up his role, adding subtle colors and shadows behind Jon's singing.

Song 9: The three drummers stepped down, replaced by Ches Smith and Devin Hoff on drums and bass, respectively, but this was no return to normalcy, and this combo would prove anything but traditional. As two of Nels's most frequent collaborators, Ches and Devin knew their way around some improv. Even fresh off a gig at the Smell, they were ready to switch on the creative juices.

They got off to a slow start, as Jon spent a spell tuning his 12-string guitar. The one broken string that hung limply off the guitar's neck didn't deter him, and he dug into the developing composition regardless.

According to my arbitrary calculations, this song comprised four segments, starting off low and stealthy; building up to sprawling frenzy; drawing itself back into a lullaby; then bursting forth once again in a glorious, chaotic catharsis.

Ches is one of those drummers you have to see to believe; he doesn't watch the other players at all (not that he'd need to in an improvisational setting) and seems almost possessed by some invisible muse. For once, Devin wasn't on the standup bass, but I could see him acknowledging and soaking in the other players' musical cues and body language.

In many ways, Jon was just another player allowed to let loose his artistic impulses, but when he settled on the piano for the last half of the song, his drive became more apparent. One of my favorite images of the night was somewhere around the third segment; the musicians had guided the song to a delicate, ethereal pace that started to resemble a dreamy coda. But instead of leaving it there, Jon whipped around 180 degrees in his seat and pummeled the keys at the opposite end of the piano, starting it all up again. The other players didn't miss a beat and met Jon every step of the way. Closer to the song's true end, he even dropped a bar of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" into the mix.

Not that Nels was slacking. Through the course of this song, he brought out the thingamagoop, the megamouth, the slide guitar, and the wind-up box. And although the song was clearly a four-way collaboration, it struck me that the other players were taking advantage of Nels's fearless, creative leads to navigate the song's twists and turns.

It surprised me how big an impact the personnel changes made. Though the two earlier numbers with the two- and three-man drum corps were not in any way Jon Brion-esque songs, parts of this one outing with Ches and Devin struck me as passages that could easily fit in on, say, a Nels Cline Singers record—probably thanks, in large part, to the namesake himself.

No follow-up dates were mentioned, but judging by the musicians' big hugs and goofy grins at the end of the show, I'd wager that this won't be the last in the Jon Brion-Nels Cline series. See you next time!

The Jon Brion/Nels Cline Largo series:
» i like jon brion. a lot. (part 1)
» i'll be back again
» three-god night
» and when you touch down
» just keep counting the stars
» the men stood straight and strong

Monday, December 10, 2007

the men stood straight and strong

It's been a long time coming, but it looks like the Jon Brion and Nels Cline series of improvisational duets is back on at Largo, and of course, I wasn't about to disrupt my record of seeing every installment of the run.

Jon Brion and Nels Cline, Largo, December 7, 2007: I can't tell you how excruciating it's been to not call up Largo and put in a reservation request for this show, which we got wind of a while ago. Fortunately, getting a table was a breeze, but I wouldn't have minded forsaking the months of second-guessing.

And now, I have some notebook pages full of barely legible observations and asides about the proceedings, but I hardly know how to harness them into something resembling a narrative. Well, it hasn't stopped me before, so there's no point being shy now.

Song 1: Before the gig, we joked about the previous Jon-Nels shows where the opening track went as long as an hour. Well, it made us laugh anyway, though I'm sure many attendees were less amused by one of the purest and most extended exercises I've witnessed in freeform music making. The upshot is that we weren't horribly surprised tonight when the opener once again clocked in around the 45-minute mark.

Even if I wanted to, I wouldn't be able to say too much about this, but here's what little I pieced together: You could claim that the piece covered eight movements. Of those segments, I recall very clearly the opening salvo, which saw Jon on the analog synthesizer, the little synth, and the piano, while Nels poked at various effects implements and brought out the Megamouth. The duo pieced together what could've been the musical accompaniment to that archetypal scene in the horror movie where the hero or heroine carefully navigates a dark, mysterious hallway with, perhaps, a lone candle in hand, unaware of the horror that surely awaits them. As you might expect (not that either Jon or Nels seemed to be keeping track), the song's slow, creepy build gave way to a cacophonous, dramatic release.

Alas, we'll never know what became of that imagined protagonist because Jon and Nels took a distinct turn into far murkier waters. At various points, Jon banged against the piano innards, stabbed at the analog synth, and even picked up the guitar; Nels, meanwhile, stuck with his trusty guitars and KAOS pad. This is not to say, however, that they isolated themselves in any way. They played to each other, never more obviously so than when Jon grabbed a guitar and stood toe to toe with Nels. It was in these moments that their delight in playing with each other manifested most clearly, usually in the form of Jon beaming at Nels, while Nels yelled out his approval back at Jon.

Amid this lovefest, the sprawling composition continued to grow. At times, it was a miasma; in other moments, you could justifiably call the sounds haunting and ethereal. Toward the end, Jon sort of sat back to listen to Nels, perhaps looking for his cue to add on. Though the ending coda was mostly Nels's work, Jon had the last word when he explained the song was called "Holy Fuckwad #2" and that they didn't play #1 because they wanted to get directly to the good stuff.

Song 2: Following that lead, Jon sampled himself screaming, "Oh fuck!" and tweaked it into overlapping layers. Nels responded with the megamouth and the first real notes of the song, played on guitar. Jon added ragtimey piano, as well as some improvised lyrics that I couldn't make it, except for the chorus, which made ample use of the "oh fuck" motif. Though you wouldn't know it from this description, the tune did indeed coalesce into something resembling a pop tune. Even as I thought to myself that it hinted at some of the more bombastic renditions of "Walking Through Walls," Paul mentioned that it brought to mind the instrumental explosion Jon often unleashes on the more frenetic passages in "I Believe She's Lying."

Song 3: Both Jon and Nels went to their more unusual instruments: Jon on the analog synth, and Nels on his own equivalent (which he later called a "thingamagoop"--the scientific term, apparently). From these strange sounds emerged something like a siren going off, but it didn't stick around for long, as Nels opted instead for the drums.

Nels went for a slow build, starting off primly but eventually building up to a solid four-by-four beat. With Jon plugging away at the keys-based instruments (the analog synth, the little synth, the piano), the two created what sounded like an old techno track à la the Chemical Brothers' "Out of Control" or the soundtrack to a video game.

With a series of nods and glances, Jon sampled Nels's drumming, and almost right away, the New Wave (my favorite era) vibe jumped out. Before grabbing a guitar, Jon contributed the vocoder and some lyrics I couldn't decipher. While Nels had already dug in with a clear, constant riff eerily reminiscent of early New Order, Jon ran through a variety of styles, at first working off Nels's chords, then going off on his own tangent. At the end, I was happy to hear Nels namecheck Peter Hook, confirming what I had suspected all along.

Song 4: Different people rehearse in their minds different moments, be it your marriage proposal, the day you win the lottery, or the home run you hit out of the ballpark. Though some of these scenarios have run through my head from time to time, other plots tend to dominate my thoughts. An opportunity to act on these ideas arose tonight, when Jon stepped up to the mic and informed us they were going to do something that they'd never done before (a tall order, considering the chaos they cultivated over the course of their shows together): They would take a request.

I'm still a bit alarmed by the alacrity with which I blurted out, "Cortez the Killer!" I also admit that I sort of cheated, as I knew beforehand that they had played it together at least once before (not that I was there to witness it). But it got results, as Jon immediately registered his approval and jumped on the drums to lay down a "bad" beat. Jon, of course, also supplied the vocals, but they shared guitar duties, each turning in blistering solos and stretching out the song to epic lengths. I sort of lost it during this song; I hope no one else could see how badly I was shaking from the anticipation and delight of finally hearing this tune as interpreted by two of my favorite musicians.

Though I'm absolutely sure I wasn't the only person in this room who was reveling in this display, I was very pleased to spy Benmont Tench standing just offstage, presumably to jump in at any point as requested. His services weren't called upon, however, which is too bad. Then again, the tune had plenty of firepower with just Jon and Nels onboard.

Song 5: The distortion-drenched ending of "Cortez the Killer" bled into the next song, but Jon turned the classic rock tone into something funkier, then stayed true to this initial lead, as Nels added odd effects and bleating sounds atop the guitar-driven beat, all of which were greeted by a huge grin on Jon's part. In fact, the image of Jon bopping to the beat with a huge smile on his face while watching Nels may be one of my favorite memories of the whole weekend.

I heard hints of Talking Heads, Prince, and P-Funk in this piece, while Paul picked out a nod to James Brown, but the names hardly matter. In all, this rather straightforward work was a delicious and unexpected treat among the evening's offerings.

Song 6: Nels took hold of Jon's Turkish banjo propped at the foot of the stage and, upon noting that Jon had picked his up in Seattle, revealed that he had one too, though his was from South Pasadena. Jon quipped that he does leave town sometimes. The banjo's provenance fully explored, Nels went to work on it, coaxing out at times Eastern-sounding chords. Jon at first went to the analog synth to add a drone and a pulsating beat, but he ultimately changed course altogether. Fishing in his pockets, he found and donned a couple of finger picks. After a moment's hesitation as he surveyed Nels's playing, he descended on his musical partner and began drumming on the banjo itself. If only Largo allowed photography! But trust me, it was a sight.

Song 7: Nels started off the song by holding a small windup box against the strings of his guitar, and the combination produced a series of exquisite, twinkling notes. He exchanged it for the megamouth and the ethereal effects that went with it.

On piano, Jon responded with a complementary tone, adding sampled vocals for an airy effect. The windup box reemerged as well before Nels adorned the tune with deep, pensive notes, drawing the song to a serene, lucid close.

Song 7: It was Jon's turn to start, as Nels reminded him that he had inaugurated the last two numbers. Jon retorted with a shot of analog synth and a huge kick of the drums that gave me a start. This big, fast foundation took in Nels's contributions of scratchy notes produced by his slide held sideways against the guitar strings. Jon went through two guitars before settling on the one that gave him the effects he wanted, as he built up a song with a punk foundation but a definite pop feel as he draped layer upon layer of feedback and scrawls over the initial melody.

The finer notes were left to Nels as his frenetic fingerpicking earned him the spotlight. The rest of the room cloaked in darkness, the sole spot of illumination was reserved for Nels and his signature feverish play. When the lights rose again, Jon settled back at the piano, while Nels reached for the goofy little analog synth that had started off the show. With that, they concluded the first night of improv, another one still in the wings.

The Jon Brion/Nels Cline Largo series:
» i like jon brion. a lot. (part 1)
» i'll be back again
» three-god night
» and when you touch down
» just keep counting the stars
» round midnight

Saturday, December 08, 2007

any old time

If it's December, I must be at Largo (or an approximation of it)! This is just the beginning, folks; in case you're wondering, there's even more where this came from in the next few weeks.

Watkins Family Hour, Largo, December 6, 2007: Technically, I've seen the Watkins Family Hour only once before, but Sean and Sara have popped in at so many Jon Brion gigs that it's easy to forget the delineations. It doesn't take a lot to convince me to come to Largo, but it's still a testament to the Watkins' easy charm and prodigious talent (as well as the huge shifts in my musical tastes) that I'd come down to see their show, even without the guarantee of *ahem* certain special guests.

Here's what you need to know about the Watkins Family Hour: They play originals and covers taken from various eras and musical styles. They don't have a setlist, but certain songs are more likely to be aired. They like to take turns soloing and make sure that every player gets their time in the spotlight. They also make you think that siblings can be musical partners without heading into Osmonds or Jacksons territory--well, maybe with a tip of the hat to the latter, though in the best way possible.

Tonight was Sara and Sean's first gig at Largo since returning from the most recent leg of Nickel Creek's farewell tour, and joining them were familiar cohorts: Benmont Tench and Gabe Wicher. I'm not sure about Gabe, but at this point, I pretty much consider Benmont to be an honorary Watkins. They should really wrap up the paperwork and make the adoption legal.

Though I don't have much to compare it to, they all seemed glad to be back. Sara and Sean mentioned it several times during the performance, and their big smiles and playful spirit spoke volumes as well. The crowd, I think, responded in kind, and I believe it was Sara who called us their best audience ever, for what it's worth.

I didn't keep a setlist, and I'm not familiar enough with their music to know what is and isn't a rarity, but I can report they took on a Benmont original, beautifully sung by Sara and artfully played by Benmont himself. There was another song that caused Sean to break the strings on two different guitars before getting a single word out; ultimately, the nylon string flamenco guitar was the only one hearty enough to take on the bluegrass tune. And to add to the covers tally, they did Jon Brion's "Trouble," Jon Langford's "Tall Buildings" (an audience request), and Hank Snow's "Any Old Time." And there a whole lot of fiddling too!

With all respect to Gabe and Benmont, the night's surprise special guest was Willie Watson of Old Crow Medicine Show. He opened with about a half-dozen songs, at least one showing off a sense of humor that often goes missing in some of the more egregiously earnest folk and Americana songs. He also returned during the main set for a few more tunes with the rest of the band, including "Rock, Salt, and Nails." The version I know best is Jeff Tweedy's cover, and just a couple of months ago, I heard Buddy Miller do it too at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Listening to Willie's version confirmed how much I prefer a spare, acoustic rendering of the song to the full-blown electric take I heard at the festival.

One of my favorite moments in Willie's performance with the rest of the band was a nearly throwaway aside Benmont made while the players were tuning. I just about cackled when Benmont, who must've taken note of Willie's boyish looks and tousled hair, paired with his standard-looking but respectable wardrobe, remarked that we could catch Willie starring in the Bob Dylan movie.

In what I understand has become their traditional closer, the band returned to the stage. While Sean and Sara took up their usual instruments, Gabe sat down at the piano and Benmont slipped into a bass guitar. The song of choice: "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5. At the moments when the vocals proved too much for Sara, Benmont kicked in; in fact, he was the star of the song, even when Gabe pitched in exactly on cue with that sweep of the piano keys (the "hey, I did it!" expression on his face was priceless). At the conclusion of the song, it really was time to leave the stage, but I believe Benmont got the last word. After Sean introduced him as "Benmont Jameson" (we think), Benmont added, "And Gabe Lee Lewis." Give that man a mic!

See also:
» been hoping that you'd drop in

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

unless you hate baby jesus

With my own Christmas plans somewhat derailed this year, it's nice to know that at least some traditions are going strong. Also, if you have room at the stable for me and two dogs this Christmas, drop me a line!

Aimee Mann's Second Annual Christmas Show, Bimbo's 365 Club, December 2 and 3, 2007: Back when I sent out Christmas cards, I may have pulled the supremely cheapo move of collecting extras from years past and mailing them, with the hope that the same card wouldn't land in the same friend's mailbox.

I don't know if Aimee Mann does that, but her Christmas show, in a manner of speaking, does not.

Aimee Mann's Second Annual Christmas Show

So though we saw some of her friends (Paul F. Tompkins, Morgan Murphy) and bandmates (bassist Paul Bryan, pianist/keyboardist Jamie Edwards, and drummer John Sands, accompanied by new--for the group--addition Mark Spencer on lead guitar) return to the lineup, we also got a good dose of fresh material too.

The biggest update was a little film Aimee presented, charting her "Peanuts"-like "journey" to the Christmas show. I won't try to describe it too much, except to note that it was hilarious and that both Aimee's and Paul F. Tompkins's acting chops were spot-on. Oh, friends-of-Largo John Krasinski, Emily Proctor, Fred Armisen, Bob Odenkirk, Patton Oswalt, Ben Stiller, and Will Ferrell turned in cameos too. But don't let those names dazzle and derail you; as good as they were, Aimee was the star attraction.

Also new this year was a seemingly local emphasis on musical talent, as Aimee tapped a couple of Bay Area figures for the show. This is where I hang my head in shame, as my incessant rock tourism has led me to squander a lot of opportunities to see the acts who happen to live and work in town. Thankfully, artists such as Aimee take up the slack, as both Sean Hayes and Chuck Prophet were pretty awesome, though in different ways.

Sean Hayes, who graces Largo from time to time, exhibited many of the characteristics you'd expect from someone familiar with the club. That is, his songs were thoughtful, wry, and effortless, and his stage presence assured and welcoming. On the second night, he and Aimee performed a duet that will appear on her new album, and both nights, he rolled out the only song in his repertoire that could be vaguely connected to Christmas: a tune about having sex on the living room floor with Mary Magdalene.

Chuck Prophet, on the other hand, brought the rawk. He and Aimee belted the Christmas song that Michael Penn and Jon Brion wrote a million years ago, then with just her band, he dug into covers of Iggy Pop and Alex Chilton songs. The second night, the band seemed to especially relish the second number, roaring out the "hey"s in unison.

Aimee Mann's Second Annual Christmas Show

Paul and Morgan reprised their roles as comic foils and showed off their musical bent along the way. Paul provided the especially louche-sounding half of "Baby It's Cold Outside," complete with a moral to the story ("no means no"), as well as the more authoritarian tone to "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch." In between songs, he also worked his stand-up, sharing a combination Christmas story/public service announcement that DARE might want to get behind.

Morgan donned the body suit and tutu once more (along with a big cardboard cut-out of the Star of David hanging on her chest) for her turn as the Hanukkah Fairy. This year, however, she was more than the window dressing for the show, as she also kicked out a rap about the story of Hanukkah, complete with backing vocals from Aimee herself. Yet again, I will invoke audience privilege and not attempt to replicate her rhymes, except to say that there was a shout-out to Loehmann's and the Trader Joe's on Geary and Masonic among the couplets. Though she stole the show, the Hanukkah Fairy couldn't join us the second night, as she had to fly back to L.A. for a one-line role in a Jeremy Piven movie. Hmph.

Aimee Mann's Second Annual Christmas Show

Aimee's musical contributions were fairly similar to what we heard last year, highlighting songs from her Christmas album, and for the most part, they hit the older tracks you'd expect too. Thus, we got some of the slightly more holiday-themed songs ("Clean Up for Christmas," "Jacob Marley's Chains"), as well as her go-to favorite hits ("Deathly," "Save Me"). I always want to hear "Deathly," but Aimee reworked it this round, starting out with just her voice and the acoustic guitar, bringing in the band, then ending on a gospel-like flourish, in the process delivering on the song's grand arc, both lyrical and musical.

On the second night, Aimee also tried out a couple of tunes from her forthcoming album (due out in the spring), including the aforementioned duet with Sean as well as "Freeway," which I recall hearing the one time I've seen her at Largo.

Aimee Mann's Second Annual Christmas Show

December means a lot of things to me, as it does to many people, but if Aimee's willing to make her Christmas show a regular gig, I'm glad to add another item to that long list of associated events.

See also:
» we can be us
» it's not going to stop
» i'm the stuff of happy endings

Monday, December 03, 2007

kill her off

Make no mistake: Music is the single factor that sparks the majority of my friendships, even way back to my preteen days. Although those ties are sometimes as fleeting as the NME's "best new band" proclamations, they can go pretty deep too. Case in point: This week, my old friend Sharon breezed through town with her band the Ropes on their first-ever tour of the West Coast.

The Ropes, Rickshaw Stop, November 29, 2007: If you've ever heard me use the phrase "visual violation," you can thank my old friend Sharon for the coinage. We met through a mutual friend, and I miraculously bumped into them at the bustling Liverpool Street Station on the way to the V Festival in Chelmsford, England, in 1999. Despite our 10-year age gap, Sharon and I got on famously and have remained friends as she went to college, then grad school in New York City.

The Ropes, Rickshaw Stop, Nov. 29, 2007

Our musical tastes were never that similar, but it didn't matter, as I could always count on her unique take on the world and some world-class character portraits whenever we hung out. I was a little surprised, however, when she told me she had formed a band. Though her love of music and her way with words were always evident, I had no idea she had a lovely singing voice! And thanks to the Web 2.0 world, other fans have found the Ropes, the band she formed with her friend Top.

On the other hand, our musical tastes have certainly changed in the last several years, but I can assure you that the Ropes' wry, misanthropic lyrics are pure Sharon, as evident in songs such as "Kill Her Off" (their first MySpace favorite, I believe) and "I Don't Like to Get Dirty." Though I know bands dread the comparison/influences angle, I could hear hints of Shirley Manson, one of Sharon's former favorites, as well as the more electronic acts she's always liked (Bis, for one).

But as I'm all about the singer/songwriter types, my favorite song was probably a spare, introspective number she and Top performed. I can't remember the name, but it shined a charming spotlight on the two of them as artists. And I really had to admire Sharon for putting her voice out there like that (especially considering how silly I felt over Thanksgiving weekend, hoping my vocals would be obscured by Rock Band's lead tracks).

The Ropes, Rickshaw Stop, Nov. 29, 2007

I'm clearly biased, as Sharon is my old friend, but I'm hoping they can make it out here again. I'll be in the front row.

See also:
» The Ropes on MySpace