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

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