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

1 comment:

breaphene said...

At least it's only 17 days until I see Jon again!