Friday, December 26, 2008

that's all they really want

Across the lobby and through the courtyard to the Little Room we go (slipping in at the same time as David and Gillian)!

sophie's choiceDave Rawlings Machine, The Little Room at Largo, December 19, 2008: We had steeled ourselves to the possibility of ditching Jon Brion's set if it overlapped with the Dave Rawlings Machine show in the Little Room, but we were waffling during the second song in their collaboration. Their third song offered a short reprieve, the opportunity to commence the mental calculations--and the decision there was no way we were going to miss the other appointment.

Fortunately, it worked out nicely, though I had to wonder how long the crowd in the Little Room waited. David and Gillian took some time to set up, the Largo crew flitted in and out to tend to administrative matters, and yet more bodies flowed in through the doors. As the early arrivals from the main gig, we were able to secure seats at the back, but latecomers (including some of the guest musicians) squeezed in where they could.

As the show began, it felt like we picked up exactly where we left off the week before. Casual and playful, David and Gillian joked with the audience, tuned often, and even worked in some fashion references (David blaming his chambray shirt for certain setlist selections by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen; Gillian acknowledging a fan's comment about her new outfit).

Though I caught only two shows in David and Gillian's December residency, my guess is that if you put together all three concerts, you'd get something close to their typical single gig. Sprinkled among their originals and collaborations were other favorite covers, such as the apt and long-overdue "Sin City" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." David handed over vocal duties to his "rhythm guitarist" for a couple of tunes, including "Throw Me a Rope" and a song I can't name.

And of course, there were the musical friends. Morgan Nagler returned for "Sweet Tooth," while Largo's house band in all but name (Jon Brion, Sebastian Steinberg, Benmont Tench, Sean Watkins, and Gabe Wicher) clustered around--and beyond--to finish up the show. The pinched platform couldn't hold Jon, Sean, and Sebastian, but they staked out their spots on the floor and away from the stage lights. And of course, they played as if their lives depended on it.

After three songs, two by Neil Young ("Time Fades Away" and "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World") and one that was sung by Gillian and whose provenance escaped me, the supporting players left the stage for David and Gillian's finale. They chose a song I'd had in mind since these shows were first announced and sorta assumed would come later, rather than sooner. If you've seen the Dave Rawlings Machine live before, you probably know what it is too: "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."

Though I wasn't surprised by their song selection, I didn't expect what came next. Not 10 feet away from us in the back of the room, Sebastian introduced a bass beat, and standing beside him, Jon stepped up with acoustic guitar. A short while later, Gabe Wicher emerged from behind the bar to join the duo and to add some strings.

From our seats, Gabe's violin sounded especially sweet, with Jon's harmonies a close second. (For the record, our little pocket couldn't resist singing along; I don't think we were the only chanteuses in the room, but then again, I'm not sure I heard too many other voices.) Altogether, they indicated to me that we--both the artists and the audience--are just scratching the surface of possibilities at Largo at the Coronet.

See also:
» with soul power
» please take my advice

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

with soul power

I almost blogged about a musical event in San Francisco last week, but an overzealous shift to Overdrive in Rock Band a savage contest, mixing physical stamina with NBC trivia a really dumb spill on the sidewalk outside of my flat kept me at home with an ice pack on my cheek. Regardless, the quarter-shiner couldn't discourage me from trekking down south for *sniffle* the last gigs I'll see this calendar year.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 19, 2008: I always feel like a jerk when discussing my travel plans around this time of the year. Whereas other people are forced to deal with weather issues, work obligations, and family demands, my main concerns are, How do I hit all of the year-end shows at Largo? And can I get away with flip-flops or do I need real shoes?

Christmas at LargoTo restate the obvious, I'm hopelessly hooked on--well, nearly everything associated with this particular L-word, but even by my questionable standards, Jon Brion's last show of the year at Largo is in a league of its own. Say what you will about commercialism, religion, and what have you, but you gotta admit Christmas and New Year aren't bad excuses for a party (though the sweaters remain unforgivable).

Not that I expected the blowouts of years past--after all, Largo's answering machine message explicitly stated that Jon would play only one set, and there was the not inconsequential Dave Rawlings Machine late show taking place in the Little Room. But if you can't hope and wish at Christmastime, when can you?

Jon appeared onstage at the appointed hour in a green striped suit, a red shirt, matching shoes, and a star-pattern tie--perhaps in tribute to the holiday. He introduced the first guest, who he said had been with Largo since the earliest days. I sort of gritted my teeth, in fear of who might turn up--but as it happened, he was referring to the comic Greg Behrendt. Largo's comics cover, to put it mildly, a wide range of styles, and Greg's pacing and storytelling were unlike anyone else I've seen at the club. I gotta give him props, though, for his observations on Criss Angel and Matthew McConaughey. Well spotted, old chap!

In addition to returning the introductory favor, Greg provided the perfect springboard from which to launch the music portion of the evening. Corroborating Greg's remarks about what your friends' musical tastes say about their reliability, Jon informed us that he's notoriously bad at returning phone calls and that he's an Of Montreal fan. This, in turn, inspired the first song of the night, followed by a snippet of Bryan Adams.

Jon bounded to the piano for the next couple of songs: a cacophonous "Someone Else's Problem Now," then "Strings That Tie to You," featuring the mellotron/chamberlin/whatever, which he deployed on the tune's gorgeous ascending bridge.

From there, Jon marched to the piano for a build of "Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad," introducing the first peals of electric guitar for the evening, but dialed it down a notch with "Happy with You" on a battered metal acoustic guitar. I wanna say it's a dobro, but these words aren't binding.

As the Magnolia theme wafted from the stage, I shivered in my seat and wondered if Jon would follow it up with "Amateur." Alas, no--instead, he opened up the room to requests and chose two of his own compositions. "I Believe She's Lying" deserves a mention; not only did the full-blown song build incorporate the analog synth, the mellotron, two distinct drum attacks, and a My Bloody Valentine-like squall of electric guitar, it was also the first time Jon ventured over to the vibes that evening.

The epic made way for the succinct, as Sebastian Steinberg joined Jon. Sebastian brought the bass and Jon stationed himself at the vibes for a jazzy take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"--but if you want to know the truth, it might have been "Chestnuts Roasting over an Open Fire." I surrendered the pad and paper to the gossamer notes coming from the vibes.

Don Heffington (thanks again, Tom!) was enlisted next for a Cole Porter request, and he threw himself into the song with the same dedication as his cohorts. Between Jon's full-body throes, Sebastian's forceful plucking, and Don's staccato beat, they sounded anything but fragile or effete on this downright ferocious take on "Everytime We Say Goodbye."

This interpretive inclination continued with the next number, when they picked up on an audience request for "Caravan" as a "fucked-up Chess blues mambo," in Jon's words. If you're left dumbstruck by that string of modifiers, don't feel too bad--Sebastian and Don didn't jump on it until Jon sounded out a beat and a few notes. To oversimplify, I'd say they were stepping through Tom Waits' stomping grounds.

At least one person's wish was granted when a call from the peanut gallery for David Rawlings yielded immediate returns, and then some: David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Benmont Tench. David picked up at least three guitars before finally settling on one that was in tune and functioning. Apart from that hiccup, he launched right into "Nadine," with Gillian supplying backing vocals. And though it appeared that David and Gillian intended to stay for only two songs, Jon convinced them to squeeze in one more before dashing over to the Little Room for their own show.

For these last two numbers, they looked to Neil Young. Throughout these two titles, the collective stayed anything but static. My favorite visuals: David and Gillian sharing a mic, then David and Jon, and finally, Jon and Gillian. Elsewhere, Jon plunked himself down on the piano next to Benmont and traded guitar licks with David. Gillian ventured over to the vibes and even picked up a wand, but stopped short of making contact with the tines.

Atypically, we eased out of the room as David and Gillian left the stage--for real this time. My initial pangs of uncertainty dissipated when Jon indicated he would soon close shop himself, but it helped that the frenzy of "Entrance of the Gladiators" played out during our exit.

--Greg Behrendt opener

--Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider
--Cuts Like a Knife
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Strings That Tie to You
--Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad
--Happy with You
--Magnolia theme
--Here We Go
--I Believe She's Lying
--Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas *
--Everytime We Say Good-Bye **
--Caravan **
--Nadine *** [David = vocals]
--Birds *** [David = vocals]
--Powderfinger **** [David = vocals]

* = with Sebastian Steinberg
** = with Sebastian Steinberg and Don Heffington
*** = with Sebastian Steinberg, Don Heffington, Benmont Tench, David Rawlings, and Gillian Welch
**** = with Sebastian Steinberg, Don Heffington, Benmont Tench, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Sean Watkins

See also:
» I'm offering this simple phrase
» it's been said many times, many ways
» that's all they really want

Thursday, December 18, 2008

please take my advice

Following Largo's move to the Coronet, I don't hit the speed-dial as much, but certain habits die hard. For example, I still check the club calendar far too often (hope they're not tracing IP addresses). This month, that nervous tic paid off when the Dave Rawlings Machine dates showed up.

Dave Rawlings Machine, The Little Room at Largo, December 12, 2008: Bragging about a two-show night is up there with flaunting your vintage Luke Skywalker action figures in Tatooine and Hoth garb.

vintage Luke Skywalker action figures

Let me just say, though, that the Largo crew made it extremely easy to carry off this feat. Kudos to them for setting it up so that, at the conclusion of Jon Brion's show in the big room, we merely traipsed across the courtyard to take in the Dave Rawlings Machine (a.k.a. David Rawlings and Gillian Welch) in the Little Room. Oh, that's a borderline boast, isn't it? You got me.

Though I tried to take notes, I quickly abandoned the plan when I realized (1) I was way out of my depth and (2) it's really hard to write anything in the Little Room. I figured out they opened with Dylan's "Copper Kettle," in homage to current astronomical events, and Willie Nelson's "Good Old Mountain Dew." I also recognized mainstays of their set, such as "China Doll," "Knuckleball Catcher," and "Tired Eyes," but someone with a deeper knowledge of David and Gillian's oeuvre will have to weigh in on how many surprises they sprung. I can honestly say the tunes were new to me.

I suspect their shows under Gillian's name aren't exactly chest-pounding, flag-waving affairs, but the duo's low-key humor suits this truly intimate space nicely. Gillian somewhat apologized for wearing the same outfit two weeks in a row, explaining that their supposed one-week stay in L.A. was now pushing on three months. David, meanwhile, owned up to their downbeat song selections and admitted that they tend to sell the most records in areas not associated with sunshine--so thanks San Francisco (represent!) and Scandinavia! And somehow, though they each use the exact same black capos, they can tell which one belongs to whom, as David demonstrated.

If you thought the stage at the old Largo was small, you haven't seen the doorjamb of a dais that holds the artists in the Little Room. Despite their minimal setup (one acoustic guitar each), David and Gillian negotiated for real estate and angled for elbowroom.

But if the room's coziness bothered them, they didn't show it; in fact, they invited more friends to crowd in. The first was Morgan Nagler from local band Whispertown2000, who sang with them on a tune I can't name (sorry). Then, to conclude the set, they recruited Jon Brion and Sebastian Steinberg, which I'd been hoping for all along.

The quartet started off with Dylan's "Dear Landlord," followed by the Grateful Dead's "Candyman." Jon and Sebastian took a little while to settle in (at the piano and bass, respectively), but they were in the thick of it by the time David dusted off "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)." Coincidentally, the song also belied David's earlier comments about all their sad hits.

When David and Gillian began discussing reverb, I knew exactly what we were in for--and I wanted to hear it. They closed out the show with "White Rabbit," and even without the effects, they had David's sly guitarwork to back them up. I could've listened to them all night, but there's always next week.

See also:
» i was looking for a job
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

i was looking for a job

Then I found a job
But heaven knows I'm miserable now

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 12, 2008: No, that's not true--the current 9-to-5 affords me some flexibility, in addition to a regular paycheck. After all, it can't be so bad if I manage to make it Los Angeles once (or more) each month, right? Then again, for some time now, "if" hasn't been the question.

Synecdoche, New YorkIn his intro, Flanny gifted an audience member with the Synecdoche, New York soundtrack, pressed us to attend the upcoming "super secret" Funny or Die show, then made way for Jon. Though feeling under the weather, Jon bade us "good morning" and apprised us of the night's experiment: what happens after downing two Red Bulls. Actually, he later admitted that he couldn't bring himself to finish the second dose; call it the 1.5 Red Bull Night.

From there, the show took its customary turn into piano improv, followed by one of Jon's originals. But after a pretty instrumental passage, he cut himself off and 'fessed to favoring "pseudo-classical music" whenever he's sick. To compensate, he kicked off a round of "anti-scale music" in which he stabbed at every keys-based instrument within arm's reach. From the dissonance, a regular rhythm emerged and formed the foundation for a pulsing "Stop Your Sobbing."

With the piano suitably tested, Jon moved to the other instruments. He first built up "Further On," coming alive on the guitar solo, then landed on the solo bass for a couple more tunes. I liked hearing "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" without the vocoder, so thanks for that!

And then things got weird, and not the usual Largo weird. I think Jon started it with the Little Rascals, and taking our cue, the audience bombarded him with requests for more of the same until he practically became the Theme Machine. Before the end of the night, Jon would dabble in songs made famous in movies and TV shows, both on his own and with the help of Sebastian Steinberg on bass. In between, they also dipped into the cheesier end of the pop spectrum, teasing out hints of Madonna and Meat Loaf.

Though I was right in the thick of it, I'm furrowing my brow in disbelief as I type this, so I'll also point out that Jon snuck in more substantial picks too, such as a rousing "Waterloo Sunset," a layered "Positively 4th Street," and, errrr, a fairly exhaustive "Axel F." At first, it seemed like Sebastian's participation would temper the goofier impulses, but he proved himself just as susceptible when he went to town on the Barney Miller theme. Our shameful "Boys Are Back in Town" sing-along didn't help either. Man, I miss the Hideout.

As requested, Jon welcomed Dusty from the audience for a couple of numbers: first, auditioning him with a jam, then diving into "Not Ready Yet," burnished with a psychedelic spin. Dusty held his own, especially during the jam, and walked away with a huge grin on his face. Another satisfied customer!

It's a cliche, but they saved the best for last tonight. (Full disclosure: We had been tipped off to this earlier, but trust me, that didn't take away from the experience.) David Rawlings ambled out to join them and, after a meandering conference, tried out a song with Jon and Sebastian: "Roll Over Beethoven." A few moments in, Gillian Welch sauntered over to the drums and kicked up the beat behind David's wailing vocals.

David and Gillian stuck around for the final song, which required another huddle. Finally, Jon reached for the lyric book that accompanied him onstage at the top of the show, and with a little help, they serenaded us with a quarter-time version (does that even exist?) of the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love." My favorite touch: the smidgen of celeste, courtesy of David.

Still to come: The show moves to the Little Room.

--piano/Same Mistakes
--"pseudo-classical music"
--"anti-scale music"/Stop Your Sobbing
--Further On
--Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now
--It Looks Like You
--Little Rascals Theme
--Davey and Goliath Theme
--Waterloo Sunset
--Planet of the Apes
--What'll I Do
--Lucky Star
--Axel F
--Two Out of Three Ain't Bad
--Positively 4th Street
--Walking After Midnight

with Sebastian Steinberg
--Black Dog
--Please Stay Away from Me
--The Boys Are Back in Town
--Anarchy in the UK
--Sesame Street theme
--Barney Miller theme
--Wild Wild West theme

with Dusty from the audience and Sebastian Steinberg
--Rush song?
--Not Ready Yet

with David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Sebastian Steinberg
--Roll Over Beethoven [David = vocals]
--Ever Fallen in Love

See also:
» like a dream in the night
» please take my advice

Monday, December 15, 2008

all this time

In my previous post, I neglected to mention one other favorite aspect of the season: Largo's year-end shows. Not that I ever need much coercion to go to Largo, but mention Christmas and any of my favored performers, and I'm there, with (sleigh) bells on.

Watkins Family Hour, Largo at the Coronet, December 11, 2008: And to emphasize the spirit of the season, the Largo crew decorated the stage with rows of lights and even a little tree. They sure looked pretty against the red velvet curtains.

icicle lights

I use the word "family" a lot when describing the Largo experience, but Sean and Sara Watkins are the real thing, putting the "kin" in "kindred." But the family doesn't stop with the two of them; instead, it also encompassed their friends, many of whom contributed to this relatively lengthy show.

We had the magician Derek Hughes, who turned in a much more palatable opening act than he did the only other time I've seen him. For laughs, we welcomed the comedian Dave "Gruber" Allen, even though his act ran hot and cold. During his main segment, he alluded to ruining the show; though I wouldn't go that far, I have to admit I found him hard to follow at times.

We had stars of stage and screen: Minnie Driver joined in for a traditional Christmas song, and John C. Reilly took the reigns for a good four or five titles, ranging from the Louvin Brothers to the Everly Brothers, as well as a version of the letter to Santa he read as part of Aimee Mann's inaugural Christmas show two years ago.

And finally, we had the musicians--oh so many musicians. Benmont Tench, Sebastian Steinberg, and Don Heffington [Editor's note: Thanks for the correction, Tom!] filled out the house band, then several other guests stepped in and out of the lineup. All together, they handled original material, including songs from Sara's upcoming solo album; contemporary covers, such as Elliott Smith's "A Question Mark"; and older favorites, such as John Hartford's "Long Hot Summer Days."

Luke Bolla featured prominently on a handful of tracks, including a fiddle duo with Sara, while Glen Phillips played two of my favorite numbers of the night. The first was a gorgeous, sweeping song from WPA, the name of an upcoming project comprising much of the talent onstage that night; I didn't catch the title, but it had a confidence and a scope that begged to be played on the radio. Then in an homage to the holidays, Glen presented a season favorite: "A Lonely Jew on Christmas," courtesy of South Park.

Jackson Browne was billed as the top guest of the night, but the real treat may have been David Rawlings, who showed up at the same time. Alongside John C. Reilly, they started off with "Let It Be Me," then went into a few more selections, including what Jackson Browne called Dylan's only Christmas song ("Desolation Row").

Performers at Largo often joke about professionalism and pacing, or their lack thereof; this is not the place to go if you want to see a finely tuned, strictly scripted show. Then again, that's the way we like it. That said, however, some of the guests looked more at home than others. I don't think much of the audience was begging Minnie Driver to return, for example, though her voice was quite lovely, and John C. Reilly had a way of making every song introduction sound like it was a setup to a joke, even when it wasn't.

I'm no Scrooge, though. The show was a delight to the end, when we all teamed up to sing "Joy to the World." I had to bail after the first verse, but the voices around me stayed strong for three verses more. Can you say the same of your family?

See also:
» if there's a star above
» owner of this corner and not much more
» it's not going to stop

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

if there's a star above

My plans to put up a Christmas tree for the first time in I don't know how many years fell by the wayside--again. At least I have Aimee Mann's holiday show to remind me of the season.

Aimee Mann's Third Annual Christmas Show, Bimbo's 365 Club, December 7, 2008: Here's what the holidays mean to me: Rankin/Bass reruns, tons of baking, lots of shopping, and time to see my friends and family. Fortunately, I can also look forward to at least a couple of regular musical events in this otherwise touring-adverse time of the year.

Rudolph and Hermie

Aimee's show, in its third iteration, carried over familiar factors from years past, while at the same time bringing in new(ish) faces and sounds to keep us coming back for more. The overall show included fewer titles from One More Drifter in the Snow than before, though they reprised Aimee's own Christmas song, the Penn/Brion tune "Christmastime," and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," to name a few. Newer selections, however, included "Sleigh Ride" (which moved Aimee to giggle on every third line) and the Heat Miser song (featuring Patton Oswalt on guest vocals).

Speaking of guests, as much as I miss Paul F. Tompkins, I loved having Patton Oswalt on the bill. I haven't seen him team up with Aimee since the Acoustic Vaudeville tour in 2000, and though he served a slightly different role this time, he was nothing short of hilarious. Of course, Patton commented on the recent election and shared some Christmas memories. I wouldn't have minded hearing his Cirque du Soleil recollections again, but I'm not complaining about the new (to me) material.

Nellie McKay was the other newish addition. I wasn't particularly impressed with her at Outside Lands, but I got a better sense of her charm in this show. Her vocals and her quips meshed nicely with the rest of the players', and she even got Aimee's supporting players Jebin Bruni and Jamie Edwards to dance around during her solo portion. Still, she just doesn't do it for me overall.

Thankfully, the returning members of the cast get better and better. Not that I needed yet another reason to love Grant-Lee Phillips, but his turning up as Willie Nelson to cover "Voices Carry" assured him a throne in my Hall of Fame. (And I'm sure that Patton knew exactly how close to home he hit in his introduction for "Willie" when he characterized a large portion of Aimee's audience as "over-40 shut-ins.") And that's not even taking into account Grant's other costume changes, with no help from his bandmates. In addition, the Hanukkah Fairy, a.k.a. Morgan Murphy, turned out a new rap this year covering the challah in her oven, made possible via immaculate conception.

Following last year's blueprint, Aimee presented a movie, "A Christmas Carol Aimee," directed by Tim and Eric and featuring Aimee as the Scrooge figure. You probably won't be surprised to hear that the film parodied the Dickens classic; that Paul F. Tompkins, John Krasinski, and John C. Reilly showed up in cameos; and even that it was incredibly hilarious. But we also saw a new face: Michael Cera, playing much closer to Evan from Superbad than George Michael from Arrested Development.

Aimee Mann, Bimbo's 365 Club, December 7, 2008

Lest you fear we succumbed to sugar (Plum Fairy) shock, no worries--Aimee dropped in several of her own tart, studied songs, about one from each album. Among Aimee's originals, I kinda bounced around inside when they rocked "Long Shot"; not only is it from my favorite of her albums, but I kinda love that she did a song that repeats the lyric "you fucked it up" at a Christmas show.

Same time next year?

See also:
» unless you hate baby jesus
» it's not going to stop

Monday, December 01, 2008

among all the urchins and old Chinese merchants

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. I'm thankful to be all caught up on my blog again. And remember: There are only 30 more concert days in the year!

The Decemberists, the Warfield, November 25, 2008: About a year ago, the Decemberists were set to tour the country with their Long and Short of It tour: two nights each in a selection of cities, the respective evenings devoted to songs of specific lengths. Sadly, they had to call the whole thing off early on, reportedly due to an illness in the band. It's hard to be bitter about such a turn of events, especially since it seems like the band inevitably returns to the Bay Area in one form or another before long. This past spring, Colin Meloy visited and played some lovely shows, but it was great to see the rest of the gang join him for this round.

The Decemberists, the Warfield, November 25, 2008

On the whole, this outing shared some characteristics with the band's last swing through San Francisco. For example, Colin ventured into the crowd, we were commanded to wiggle our fingers during "The Perfect Crime" (I readily complied this time, wary of being reprimanded again), and "The Mariner's Revenge" got the full treatment, including Chris Funk's whale impersonation, the crowd's screams, and Colin, John, and Nate's fancy footwork. And taking a cue from his solo tour earlier this year, Colin dropped a touch of the Smiths in between songs, this time quoting from "Meat Is Murder." Once more, I ate it up.

The Decemberists, the Warfield, November 25, 2008

But the differences weren't too shabby. For one thing, I loved the setlist, which encompassed sing-along after sing-along from all the albums. The longtime favorites ("July, July"), actual singles ("Billy Liar," "16 Military Wives," "Valencia"), and geographically appropriate picks ("California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade") were no surprise, but I definitely didn't expect to hear, for example, "On the Bus Mall," which I've always loved. They even aired "Dracula's Daughter," which had been granted with some coyness back in the spring. Colin asked us to lift our voices for several songs, and I detected no signs of stage fright in our section of the room. Also, I'm not sure what inspired the nod to Fleetwood Mac (one of my recent obsessions) and "Dreams," but as I too have learned, one can't live on '80s references alone.

Speaking of participation, Colin more than once requested that we put our arms around the person besides us. He's demonstrated time after time that he can command a room filled with adoring fans, but even he was surprised by the rate at which we pounced on one another. Make of that what you will. Fortunately, I was flanked by two cousins (mine and the McCormicks', respectively), so I proceeded without hesitation.

The Decemberists, the Warfield, November 25, 2008

Every show I've seen in the past month has referenced the recent election, and this gig was no different. In one of the more partisan displays I've been a part of, Colin led us in a round of call-and-response. Following his declaration of "Yes we can," we answered, "Yes we did"—and it still felt wonderful.

I often hear people complaining about bands touring behind oldish albums. I have no problem with this premise; in fact, when it comes to my preferred acts, I kinda love it. Ultimately, it's your decision; you don't have to go to the show if new material is a requirement. The Decemberists ostensibly had some new songs to try out as part of their singles series, which kicked off with "Valerie Plame." Thus, they debuted some tracks, and Colin informed us that more would be coming in the spring with the release of their next album. From what I could tell, the newbies were fun and jaunty, especially in comparison to the prog leanings on the last album. However, I offer my usual caveat on unreleased tracks: Don't mind me. Besides, we'll get to hear them for ourselves in the next few months anyway.

Loch Lomond, the Warfield, November 25, 2008

Loch Lomond opened the show, as well as a debate on how to pronounce their name. At their best, the group's combined harmonies were magnificent, worthy of a prodigious choir and not the eight people comprising the band. At their worst, they make Belle and Sebastian sound like Scandinavian death metal in comparison. Their violinist joined the Decemberists for one song, and the rest of the group returned to the stage to contribute their divine tones to "Sons and Daughters."

See also:
» i've written pages upon pages
» hear all the bombs, they fade away

Sunday, November 30, 2008

tell it to the radio

Oh, how I love modern travel and the opportunity it allows me to catch a Sunday night gig at Largo, wake up at 4 a.m. on Monday morning, hop the first flight to SFO, and make it to my office just in time to struggle to sit upright for the next eight hours. So far, I've exercised this option twice, first for Andrew Bird and now for the rarity of the Ranchero Brothers, a.k.a. Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond.

Frank Rossitano, 30 Rock, CougarsRanchero Brothers, Largo at the Coronet, November 23, 2008: In the "Cougars" episode of 30 Rock, Liz informs Frank that he can't be gay for just one person, "unless you're a lady and you meet Ellen." (Frank: "I got some real thinking to do. It's scary ... but also exciting.")

So here's my question: Can you be alt-country for just one band?

I know the theoretical answer: Quality music shouldn't be judged by labels, and in our post-modern society, genres easily bleed into one another. Besides, that's assuming you accept those arbitrary distinctions in the first place. But as someone who's read far too many music magazines/zines/blogs in my life and aligned herself with British bands far too slavishly, it's sometimes hard to shed old habits. In addition, maybe my tastes are, in fact, circumscribed--I can admit it.

For the last several years, I've listened to more alt-country/Americana than I previously thought possible, but I'm not sure much of it took, at least not to the extent that one band did. However, I'd like to think I've opened my ears to some degree and that a nod to Nashville is no longer the kiss of death. Trust me, my attending this gig would've been unthinkable not that many years ago.

Granted, there are probably better places to test my alt-country mettle than a Rancheros Brothers gig, especially one at Largo; mixing genres is practically a mandate here. Besides, Rhett and Murry's set comprised a lot of Old 97s songs, including many Rhett performed the night before. The standouts, though, were the oddball covers ("Harold's Super Service" by Merle Haggard, for example) and unreleased tracks, such as a recording with Waylon Jennings.

As much as I dig solo singer/songwriters, Murry's backing vocals sounded especially sweet this evening, and by taking the lead, he gave Rhett's strained voice a welcome break. But Murry also delivered in a way I couldn't have guessed: He killed it. From his opening story about finding a stack of over-40 porn magazines as a teenager to detailing his family's record collection to blaming Ken from the Old 97s for certain band decisions, he was a total cut-up. I'd happily pay to see that again.

To top it all off, Jon Brion dropped by for the encore. Their first song was a Beatles cover I had seen Jon do with a whole different crew just a month ago, and the second was the Old 97s "Rollerskate Skinny," which Jon graced with a helluva piano solo. He was ready to leave the stage when Rhett asked him to stay for one more. Talk about a curveball--the final selection was a ridiculously arcane cover called "Jack the Necrophiliac," with all the implications you might imagine. Though Rhett betrayed a hint of shame during the intro to the song, they ultimately embraced the hootenanny, their manic energy suffusing the room and nearly allowing us to forget the regrettable (but catchy) lyrics.

My original question will likely go unanswered for some time, but rest assured, dear readers, that Frank was able to make peace with his situation. Witness his final conclusion: "Look, you dudes are great, a lot of fun to dance with, and you smell awesome. Enjoy your night"--words to live by.

See also:
» damn you for being so easygoing
» it took almost seven hours to sing
» i know it's today

Friday, November 28, 2008

it took almost seven hours to sing

I could easily spend two weekends of any given month settled in at Largo, but alas, rent must be paid, plants must be watered, and so on. It always helps, though, when mob rule (i.e., at least one other person) helps dictate these rock tourism decisions.

Rhett Miller, Largo at the Coronet, November 22, 2008: I have an unofficial roster of people I want to see at Largo, work, time, and finances permitting. Rhett Miller has been on that list for while, and finally, events conspired to bring me to one of his shows in Los Angeles.

Pre-Coronet, Rhett took Largo's move harder than many of the artists associated with the club, so there was some question as to how he'd react to the new space. I'd say the outlook is good, as he reminded us that the same people who made it all possible were still steering the ship. Obviously, I've thrown my faith in with this lot for some time now, but it was nice to get the seal of approval from someone on the other side of the stage. Clearly, we did a banner job rolling out the welcome wagon.

I've seen Rhett on his own a handful of times before, but I was curious what would differentiate his show at the Coronet from the gigs I've seen in San Francisco. To my surprise, this show didn't feel radically different from the last one I attended at the Swedish American Hall three whole years ago. In both alcohol-free clubs, the audience maintained respectful hush, though voices piped in hoots and requests now and again. To tell you the truth, I preferred this super-relaxed air to the giddy, amorous anticipation that often marks his concerts (pot, meet kettle?). This, combined with the Coronet's stately frame, somehow made Rhett's teen idol moves more palatable as well.

This debatable detail aside, Rhett apparently took the setting into consideration too, as he made an effort to include at least one song that he doesn't regularly air, and tonight that distinction went to "Holy Cross." I'm not familiar enough with Rhett's or the Old 97s' catalog to have known that myself, so I was glad he alerted us to its significance. Another point lost to my cluelessness is the new material he's written for his next solo album, which he's set to start recording in the new year. If it helps any, he may have suggested that we picture ourselves around a campfire for one of them. Filling out the bulk of the set were familiar favorites such as "Doreen" and "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)."

I love seeing frontmen (and women) away from their bread-and-butter bands to find out where the songs come from and how they develop. With Rhett's solo material, it was easy to hear the tunes' simpler roots compared to the busier final products, but my ignorance rears its head once again, as I admit that the differences were less discernible to me on the Old 97s' material. However, even I realize the band typically contributes harmonies and lead guitar. I missed both elements tonight, but at least I had a Rancheros Brothers gig still to come.

Greg Proops opened up the show with a short set, and of course, the election provided plenty of opportunity for commentary. In his snarky and studied monologue, he revealed that he was a Hillary supporter; in retrospect, that shouldn't have been a surprise, but it does explain some of his more barbed observations.

See also:
» this is what i do

Thursday, November 27, 2008

the stars look very different today

Largo recently announced Jon Brion's single-set winter schedule, the latest in a series of change-ups the club and the performer has unveiled in the last couple of years. Some people may see this as another roadblock to hitting Jon's shows, but after all the tumult of late, I'm just happy to know he continues to play.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, November 21, 2008: I think Flanny referenced the c-word in his intro, but in the best way possible--at least, we were all giggling by the time Jon took the stage. From there, Jon set off on an instrumental jag, followed by his original songs. "Trouble," always one of my favorites, stood out in this opening wave. Jon guided the song through a range of cadences and treatments, from a pounding, driving lead to a delicate bridge and finishing in a languid, drawn-out coda, while at the same time draping it with entreating vocals.

The short Gershwin block was accompanied by an envious mini-rant before the requests rolled in. The Smiths, reflected through the prism of "For No One," kicked off the proceedings, and I think a guy a few seats down from me got his wish for "Ruin My Day." Jon didn't hesitate to take on the suggestion for a sing-along "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," confident that our collective knowledge of the song would peter out sooner rather than later. Was he ever right, as our strong start fizzled out in the opening notes of the second verse. Jon marveled at the meltdown, calling the unidentifiable sonic haze we produced one of the greatest sounds he's ever heard. You're welcome, sir.

A stretch of silliness took over, interrupted by a couple of sincere numbers, such as Jon's own "So I Fell in Love with You," complete with a scorching solo. The Foreigner double-header anchored this segment, with Wagner the seeming inspiration for "I Want to Know What Love Is," whereas the cock rock of "Hot Blooded" gave way to a spacey, gossamer-like treatment. Jon gilded this one-two punch with more '70s sex music, then made up for it with a '70s "palate cleanser," a gorgeous moody piano piece.

"Same Thing" set us back on the right track, as Jon opted for a more minimal interpretation of what's often a prime candidate for rococo treatment. Sure, the steady syncopation remained intact, but Jon maintained a level tone for piano and vocals throughout. By the song's conclusion, Jon had pared down the instrumentation to simple piano and a spare beat.

A request for "the good part of 'Layla'" left us with the outro (familiar ground at Largo) before the collective once again came together, but to much better effect. Inspired by the planetarium projection on the back of the stage, I had asked for "Space Oddity" earlier in the evening (so I'm literal—sue me), but it wasn't until someone else called for "Space Odyssey" that Jon responded. He left the vocals to us and provided a couple of subtle hints when our voices wavered, but overall, we more than compensated for the disastrous Beatles sing-along, if I do say so myself. A guy in the row behind me totally deserves a shout-out; he sounded great. I can't say the same for myself, but that's never stopped me from warbling along.

Jon left on that triumphant note, but was quickly summoned back for an encore. He chose a request for "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," and after a verse or two, Benmont Tench tip-toed out to join him (thus making good on the "and friends" billing). Can a song express both joy and gravitas at the same time? In their able hands, it certainly can--and did.

--Punch Drunk Theme
--Over Our Heads
--Further On
--She's Funny That Way
--Someone to Watch Over Me
--Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
--Ruin My Day
--Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
--Candy Girl
--So I Fell in Love with You
--I Want to Know What Love Is
--Hot Blooded
--Hot Legs
--Same Thing
--Space Oddity

--It's All Over Now, Baby Blue [with Benmont Tench]

See also:
» the way it went, the way it's gone

Monday, November 24, 2008

still carries a torch

Back on the horse--several concerts are on the schedule for next week, so expect more reports (as soon as I can write them, anyway). First up, the Nels Cline Singers return to San Francisco!

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, 11-19-08Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, November 19, 2008: I frequently mix up my Nels Cline shows, especially when some of the touring lineups comprise the Singers in all but name. Then again, this confusion wouldn't be possible without the embarrassment of opportunities I get to see these musicians--so no complaints here.

I gotta admit, though, that despite the Singers' frequent appearances, I still feel like a complete fraud when I talk about their gigs. But I'll try to offer the 30,000-foot view of the show and what details I can recall after a weekend filled with other people's tunes.

After seeing so many permutations of the group, I had almost forgotten what the three Singers--Nels, Scott Amendola, and Devin Hoff--were capable of on their own. Well, almost--Greg and Satomi from Deerhoof joined them on the first couple of tracks, though their contributions were on the conservative side, encompassing a dusting of percussion and a whisper of vocals. Nels explained that with the first selection, "Boogie Woogie Waltz," he simply wanted to bring together Deerhoof and '70s jazz fusion, but the second track, "Suspended Head" was a more studied choice, as he had dedicated it to the very band on the Instrumentals CD.

Deerhoof with the Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, 11-19-08

I have a majorly cred-destroying (work with me, people) story about the first time I saw Deerhoof play at All Tomorrow's Parties on the UCLA campus, but I'm not going to share it now. Let's just say that despite my early impressions of the band, even I knew it was pretty unusual for both them and Nels to be in town on the same night, so I was glad to see them come together in this tiny club.

Perhaps my favorite song of the night came during the first set: "Thurston County," from Nels's upcoming solo record, out in February 2009. As Nels explained it, it was the name of a real place, and listening to the more laid-back passages in the tune brought to mind the exhilaration of a crisp, clear drive up the Northern California coast. That track's a winner.

The Singers' second set kicked off with a hubbub that Nels admitted wasn't exactly what they had planned. If memory serves me correctly, he may have cited Godzilla as a factor in the number's lurching coda. In fact, Nels displayed a goofy energy all night, even through the more volatile numbers the trio is capable of carrying off. So though we would hear a stately Andrew Hill selection, as well as Nels's somber "Stela for Jefferson," I can't say the show's tone dipped at all, even as the music took us to the extremes of artistic expression.

See also:
» shady
» ascension

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Obscurity Knocks: Marion, "The Program"

If you're reading this, it probably means I haven't gone to a gig in more than two weeks. Here, then, is the third in the Obscurity Knocks series, featuring my favorite neglected albums.

Marion, The Program
Marion, The ProgramAhh, the '90s--it may have started with shoegaze, but any Anglophile can tell you that it was louche, loutish Britpop that gave the world notice. (Those same Anglophiles are also likely to inform you that Britpop was only a brief movement in British music and not, in fact, the blanket term that pervades in the United States.) Granted, by the late '90s, it was clear that the Brits had drank too much of their own Kool-Aid or, um, other stuff, but for a sizable block of time, I wanted whatever they were having, though preferably blended and with a cherry--and while you're at it, could you stick an umbrella in there too?

Marion was not at the forefront of Britpop. They didn't date models--or, rather, models didn't date them. They didn't instigate and milk public feuds with other bands. They weren't regulars at the Groucho Club. They didn't save Glastonbury. In short, they were more indicative of the typical band vying for media attention, rather than the handful of tabloid regulars dominating the charts. I remember seeing the odd write-up on the band, but they mostly escaped my notice until Sharon turned me on to them. By then, it was 1999, a full year after The Program was released in the United Kingdom (though it never found an American label), and Marion's best days were behind them--not that we knew it at the time.

The Program would be their second and last album, and for this effort, they could lay claim to a noteworthy hook: fellow Mancunian--and need I mention legendary Smiths guitarist?--Johnny Marr as producer. I suspect his influence tempered the band's more jagged edges, but I'd like to think Marion's natural evolution and developing sophistication as musicians played a part too.

Whatever the case, the histrionics of their earlier releases are mostly absent on this record. Whereas every song on This World and Body, their debut record, started off in a jolt of guitar, the songs on The Program showed greater musical variety and maturity, incorporating layers of acoustic guitar, synthesizers, and harmonies.

Singer Jaime Harding's vocal style was always closer to the arch, patently British readings of Suede's Brett Anderson or Aladdin Sane-era Bowie than Oasis's populist pub rockers, for example, but on this album, he reins it in to the point that he's veritably cooing on "The Powder Room Plan" and the title track. Never fear, however; this isn't a Pat Boone record, and on songs such as "Miyako Hideaway," he shows off a newfound naturalism in his singing, while "All of These Days" retains the band's post-punk energy.

But when you have Johnny Marr at the helm, you know there's going to be some bad-ass guitar on the album. That's apparent from the lead-off track, "The Smile," which creeps in on a cloud of radio static, only to be cleaved apart by a snaking, confident burst of guitar, backed by a slow portent of a rhythm--something wicked this way comes. Guitarists Phil Cunningham and Tony Grantham do themselves proud on this album, supplying simultaneously forceful and melodic riffs, perhaps most effectively in "Miyako Hideaway" and "The Powder Room Plan." Elsewhere on the record, they craft the lovely "Sparkle" and the taut, moody "The Program" around the acoustic guitar--simply gorgeous.

To those who read the inaugural installation of Obscurity Knocks: I wasn't kidding about the Chameleons being one of my greatest musical touchstones. I admit I may hear the Chameleons where others don't, but I can't help it--it's part of my musical DNA at this point.

Anyway, the Marion/Chameleons crossover moment comes about two-thirds of way through the dreamy "What Are You Waiting For?" The instruments drift to the background, and the keyboards sound out the transition. It doesn't even last 10 seconds, but it instantly transports me to the introduction to "In Answer" from the Chameleons' Strange Times. I'm pretty sure that's when I fell in love with The Program. (I was so smitten, in fact, that I pushed it on two other close friends, both of whom embraced it as well.)

I never saw Marion live, but a couple of years following my introduction to the band, Sharon gave me a bootleg of their show at the Troubador in Los Angeles, circa 1998. Watching the video, it's impossible to overlook how exceedingly pale and painfully thin Jaime appeared, even for a British rock star. By the time I saw this tape, the band had already dissolved, and Jaime's drug use was a simple matter of fact, but the show confirmed some of the worst suspicions. To this day, I can't listen to the lyrics of "The Program" ("Ever get the feeling you're losing control?") without wondering about its autobiographical implications.

Apparently, the band has reformed, and they're writing new songs and playing gigs in England, though they've once again faced more obstacles (Jaime had open heart surgery?!). I'm not holding my breath, but I would love to see them for myself one of these days. In the meantime, I'll go back to enjoying all my favorite tracks from The Program.

Listen (right-click and choose Save Link As):
» Marion: "The Program"
» Marion: "The Smile"
» Marion: "What Are We Waiting For?"

See also:
» Obscurity Knocks: Adorable, "Against Perfection"
» Obscurity Knocks: The Chameleons U.K., "Strange Times"
» Marion on MySpace

Friday, October 31, 2008

i'm not looking for a cure

My roommate/cousin, in addition to providing valuable guidance to this former Rock Band/Guitar Hero neophyte, is a pretty good sport about coming to shows with me. It's only fair, then, that I reciprocate when possible--in this case, to see Jenny Lewis.

Jenny Lewis, Herbst Theatre, October 28, 2008: Even as a so-called young 'un, I enjoyed, at best, a tenuous connection with youth culture (exhibit A: my teenage advocacy of Nick Lowe), and it's only gotten worse through the years. Not that I'm particularly fixated on trends, but this mindset can be problematic when you draw your lifeblood from discovering new, exciting bands or performers.

In the case of Rilo Kiley, all I know is that at some point, I started hearing more about them, but I may have associated them with the likes of The O.C. (the television series) and assumed there was no place for me in their fanbase. This extended to Jenny Lewis' solo career. (See also: Death Cab for Cutie.) Mind you, this judgement has nothing to do with the quality of the music--only my silly hangups over the intended audience.

Of course, this isn't the first time--nor will it be the last--that my shortsightedness has kept me away from listening to worthwhile music for longer than need be (hello, Son Volt!). I'm still not convinced that I'll nurture more than a passing familiarity with Rilo Kiley's material, but I wouldn't mind lingering over Jenny's solo catalog.

I freely admit that it all starts with Jenny's captivating voice, despite my ambivalence over female singers in general. On a handful of songs, her singing was so smooth, though, that the tunes almost veered into adult contemporary, but they were the exception rather than the rule. At their best, her vocals ebb and flow with such ease and grace that you assume the words are pure autobiography--how else could anyone sing so convincingly of such events and recollections?

Personally, I neither know nor care how much of her words are rooted in true events; all that matters is that they sound like they are. I can't think of a better example of this than the song "Acid Tongue," featuring Jenny on acoustic guitar and the rest of her band gathered around her and a single microphone to contribute harmonies. Then again, I'm a sucker for that busking vibe.

She filled out her set of tracks from her two solo albums with the Gram Parsons cover "Love Hurts," accompanied by her boyfriend and bandmate Johnathon Rice, and a new song whose title I didn't catch. Though Jenny is often considered an indie rock pinup, the most ardent fans at this show appeared to be of the female persuasion. One shouted out a marriage proposal from the balcony, though most seemed content to cheer her on. I can hardly blame them; her mix of talent, confidence, and individuality is hard to resist.

The show featured two openers. Pierre de Reeder, also from Rilo Kiley, kicked off the proceedings, and Beechwood Sparks filled out the roster. Pierre turned out a catchy, well-paced set, but I can't say the same for Beechwood Sparks. I wanted to like them, especially now that I've cast off most of the Brit-leaning preferences that dominated back when I saw them open for Saint Etienne (or am I hallucinating that show?). Instead, I found it hard to maintain my interest as one song flowed into the next.

See also:
» searching for light in the darkness of insanity
» i see my light come shining

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

i see my light come shining

Certainly, no one city has a lock on unique music events, whether it's Hoboken hosting Yo La Tengo's annual Hanukkah shows, Chicago putting on the Hideout Block Party, or Los Angeles and its gem, my beloved Largo, to name just three examples. But can you blame me for swelling with civic pride over my local attractions? Trailing the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival by just a few weeks, the Bridge School Benefit took up its annual residence at the Shoreline Amphitheater, and for the second time, Wilco was part of the bill.

Wilco, Bridge School Benefit Concert, October 25-26, 2008: I spend a lot of time on this blog deriding certain types of venues, but I have to come clean: Growing up in the South Bay, I went to a number of shows at the Shoreline Amphitheater, including my first concert ever, Duran Duran/Erasure in 1987. As for other artists I've seen there, I plead the fifth. No further comment, thank you.

But I can tell you not only exactly how many times I've returned to Shoreline in the last five years, but also for what reason. I've been back twice--both times for Bridge School and both times for Wilco. But you already guessed that, didn't you?

A lot has happened to Wilco since the group's 2003 appearance, including new band members (Nels Cline and Pat Sansone), new releases, and maybe even a new standing in the industry--maybe. Regardless, it was good to have the guys back in the general neighborhood a mere two months after their Outside Lands appearance. The feeling appears to be mutual, as Jeff shared how much they enjoy playing "this market." (Sweet nothings!)

Then again, the gig shared some characteristics with their Bridge School debut. For one, they played an entirely different set each night; also, they tried out some unreleased songs, which means I've now heard four songs possibly from their next album. I won't spend too much time trying to describe the new songs, especially since MP3s are floating about the Internet, except to say that they betray, once again, diverging influences within the band and a dark tone to Jeff's lyrics.

I've certainly seen enough Jeff Tweedy shows that I know how the songs sound in a solo acoustic setting, but I think this may be the only time I've heard the entire band unplugged as well. For example, Glenn manned a smaller drum kit, and Nels had none of the gadgets and gizmos with which he augments his sound. Meanwhile, Mike and Pat took turns at a baby grand, an old-fashioned upright, and a gorgeous pump organ for their contributions.

The two songs that sounded the most changed were "Heavy Metal Drummer" and "I'm the Man Who Loves You." Jeff sort of prepped us for the former, admitting they had never tried it before, but Glenn did a good job of filling in where the samples usually start the song--and he twirled his drumsticks, much to the delight of all four of us who noticed! The band sped up "I'm the Man Who Loves You" to a pace more akin to Jeff's solo cadence, and of course, it went out to Susan Miller Tweedy, in attendance that day.

My favorite element of their show, however, was the pump organ. I was told it came from Neil's own collection, and several acts used it. In Wilco's set, it imbued the band's songs with a novel and beguiling element, especially on the likes of "Hummingbird" and "California Stars."

The band--or rather, Jeff--suffered a couple of minor gaffes, such as almost forgetting a line in "What Light" and referring to Pegi Young as "Patty," but they're only human. It certainly gives us something to talk about. Jeff's sarcastic sense of humor was on full display the first day, but the whole band seemed looser and more joyful the second. And who could blame them? I'd be beaming too if I knew that Neil and Pegi Young were set to join in for "I Shall Be Released" to close their set. I don't think I could've asked for a more perfect ending. Also, it was the first time I've felt a pang of regret knowing that I won't be able to make any of their shows together coming up in the next few weeks.

Wilco, Bridge School Benefit, Oct. 26, 2008

Of course, there were quite a few other musicians scheduled for the weekend, and it should come as no surprise that Neil Young himself rightfully garnered the lion's share of acclaim. He opened and closed the festivities, and he was especially busy on the second day, when he joined nearly all the performers on one song per set. These shows couldn't happen without him, but at the same time, he doesn't have to do as much as he does. I'm glad he chooses otherwise, however.

Neil Young, Bridge School Benefit, Oct. 26, 2008

It was my first time seeing Death Cab for Cutie and Norah Jones, both of whom defied my expectations based on cursory knowledge of their repertoire. Death Cab is one of those bands who I always assumed wouldn't be my thing, and besides, they grew far too successful far too quickly for me to investigate anyway. But their sound was tougher in parts than I expected, and I could even see the appeal of their delicate teen anthems.

Norah Jones probably could've gotten a pass just for covering Wilco's "Jesus etc." but I liked that she chose to highlight her rootsier influences and not the silky adult contemporary jazz that everyone assumes of her. Her backing players were pretty awesome too.

Cat Power and Smashing Pumpkins, both of whom I've seen in concert several times, were treats too. I haven't attended a Cat Power gig for a few years now, having tired of the emotional meltdown known as Chan Marshall's live show, but I gotta say she was noticeably more pulled together. She even jumped into the crowd on the second day--a big difference from her formerly withdrawn, retreating stance. And of course, her voice was as beautiful as ever. I almost didn't recognize the new arrangement for "I Don't Blame You" that opened the first show, and she was the first to get Neil onstage, with "Fortunate Son."

Cat Power, Bridge School Benefit, Oct. 26, 2008

The Smashing Pumpkins are often a love-them-or-hate-them proposition, but for this acoustic setting, they shed a large chunk of their bombast. I can't say I'll ever love Billy's voice, but the songs themselves were engaging and appealing. I would've liked it even better if they hadn't imposed Josh Groban on us for the closer "Disarm," the only hit among a set comprising new titles and obscure album tracks, but then again, that Billy Corgan has always been a contrary bastard.

Both nights ended with the group sing-along, and I was pleased to see Jeff Tweedy not only show up the second night, but take his place at the microphone as well (albeit with a forceful helping hand from Nels Cline). I guess his "rift" with Norah Jones had been repaired, as they shared a microphone for one of Neil's numbers. Chan even brought her dog out for the finale! And can I mention how much I loved the Native American dancer?

Bridge School Benefit, Oct. 26, 2008

You won't find me beating a path back to Shoreline too soon, but for this weekend, it felt good to be back under the tent.

See also:
» play one more for my radio sweetheart
» rosin smells and turpentine smells
» there's a dream that i see
» all of those yesterdays coming around

Saturday, October 25, 2008

damn you for being so easygoing

For someone whose mission in life is to hunt down typos and safeguard subject/verb agreement, I miss some big ones. For example, I was sure that these two Andrew Bird shows were scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, and I banked on catching the Saturday appearance. So much for those plans! On the bright side, I got an extra lazy day in Los Angeles, and it was totally worth the brutal wake-up call to make my Monday morning flight back home.

Andrew Bird, Largo at the Coronet, October 19, 2008: I easily concede that I'm a latecomer to Andrew Bird's music, but my appreciation has really solidified in the last couple of years. All those shows with Wilco last year and earlier this year didn't hurt, but it really started with a cupcake.

Somewhere along the way, probably after that first time I saw him, it hit me that I'd been a fool to skip his gigs at the old Largo, even that secret show taped for the Largo film that I couldn't have crashed anyway. Really--what was I thinking? Granted, there may have been some concerns about finances and vacation time and other pesky details, but as regular readers already know, I welcome those issues. Oh well, now came the time to make up, at least in part, for those missed opportunities.

And really, if you're going to right your concert wrongs, what better place to atone than at Largo? Not too surprisingly, Andrew started with "Why" and another older song, but that's all it took before he went to the new titles from his forthcoming album, which he mentioned he had finished only two days before. In fact, he debuted five or six new songs, complete with explanations--or as much as he could put in words. Several of the songs referred to the natural world, including one that was inspired by blind, translucent lizard who lived in the caves of Texas and that oddly reminded him of himself. Go figure.

Inspirations aside, the songs were, in a word, sublime, but that's about the only thing I can report about them, as the titles have slipped my mind in the last couple of days. I think one might've been called "Fits and Starts," and there were some references to nature in the other songs. I wish I could say more; all I know is that they were gorgeous, and I can't wait to hear how they sound with a full band.

The older songs, oddly enough, gave Andrew the most trouble. He restarted "Plasticities," for example, a number of times before he found the rhythm he needed (it sounded fine to us). Not that he needed to, but he made up for these imagined shortcomings with lots of laid-back chit chat, eager to share his thoughts on songs old and new. The Largo audience, of course, welcomed them with respectful silence, followed by eager applause.

Opening the show was Haley Bonar from the Twin Cities. I knew nothing about her going in, but she won me over by the end of her set, with her clear, strong voice and charming melodies. She also joined Andrew for one song, accompanying him on electric piano.

See also:
» thinking of traveling by land
» i've run out of metaphors
» turn our prayers to outrageous dares
» we'll fight for your music halls

Thursday, October 23, 2008

i know it's today

The last couple of years--I can't complain, despite the stretches between paychecks and those cruel rumors of paid vacation and health insurance. But who needed such frills when I could catch every Jon Brion show on Largo's schedule? No contest! Alas, my schedule isn't as flexible now that I'm once again holding down an office job, but hey, I'm more than willing to take up the challenge of being both gainfully employed and a dedicated rock tourist. (And if worse comes to worst, I can always quit my job again.)

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, October 17, 2008: When it comes to the musicians I really like, no two shows ever feel the same, regardless of how many times I see the artists in question. With your more typical performers, the varying locales and club settings tend to heighten the mystery, but when it comes to Jon Brion's gigs, you can't count on those surface differences. Instead, you have to see how they develop.

But this show's vibe, even from the outset, was colored by several factors: that delicious feeling of having escaped temporarily from the 9-to-5, my solo status, and the massive amounts of Rock Band I've played in the last few weeks. I swear, picking up a plastic toy in the shape of a child's guitar really deepens your appreciation and love of music.

As is often the case, however, the apprehension flitted away as soon as the lights dimmed. Flanny even drew our attention to the two sets of drums onstage, hinting of surprises to come. Of course, this signaled Jon's arrival and his opening salvo, a mix of piano, at least a couple of synthesizers, and a smattering of foot stomping too. I'd characterize it as a modern, jazzy piece, except I swear I heard a hint of "Paranoid Android" in there too.

Jon followed with a trifecta of his originals--at least, I think "Don't Make Me Fall in Love with You" is his, as Google isn't giving me much of a trail to follow. But there's no question of the provenance of "Girl I Knew," which featured one of Jon's trademark outros, rolling together Carmen, James Bond, and Peter Gunn, to name three.

Jon next requested, errr, requests, and I'd like to point out that I did not ask for "Band on the Run." I simply can't inflict that request more than once every, oh, three years or so. Instead, the suggestion came from a guy in the back, and in any case, Jon ventured no further than the song's instrumental intro. I'd also like to gloat that Jon, Benmont Tench, Paul Bryan, and Jay Bellerose granted my request for the whole song back in January. I haven't washed these ears since.

Jon went with an Eno cover next, a blistering "Baby's on Fire." My request--a longtime personal favorite, but now also heavily influenced by the aforementioned Rock Band fixation--got a spin after that: Blondie's "Hanging on the Telephone," swathed in whimsical piano and chamberlin in place of its trademark jagged New Wave stylings. Closing out this request block, Jon switched on the vocoder for a somewhat tongue-in-cheek "This Guy's in Love with You," even without E's homoerotic contributions.

Jon went back to his originals, at first by himself, then with the help of some friends. The first guest to emerge was an older African-American gentleman, who took his place behind one set of drums. Jon introduced him as James Gadson, and together they dove into "That's Just What You Are" as a drum and bass production, with James easily finding the beat. It was odd to hear Jon and Aimee Mann's pure pop perfection transformed into a funky, low-key groove, but neither man seemed particularly concerned with its derivation. From what I could tell, they were having too much fun anyway.

With Sebastian Steinberg, they soon numbered three, returning to Jon's back catalog for "Trouble." James and Sebastian were great on the low end, emphasizing the song's gravitas while Jon took it through a jazzy, torchy treatment that incorporated a gorgeous piano solo.

Jon asked for a request, which brought about "Nobody Does It Better." In a twist, the audience--or, rather, the guy who requested it--knew the second verse when Jon's knowledge of the song petered out and had no qualms about taking up the slack through the rest of the tune. The musicians onstage were duly impressed as well.

It's no secret that I go gaga over David Rawlings, ever since that first time I saw him at Largo, so I'll cut to the chase: In the midst of "Femme Fatale," he appeared, carrying some sort of flight bag and looking even more laid-back than the last time I saw him. At first, he chimed in on vocals, but soon picked up an electric guitar, and by the end of the number, there was no mistaking his twangy touch.

For the remainder of the first set, Jon and David switched off vocals, and the centerpiece of this run was probably David's suggestion, which elicited Jon's comment that he liked any song David knew the words to. Before they could get to it, though, they quickly worked out the rhythm and a very loose arrangement, with Jon suggesting a "slow 6/8" beat.

These mystery titles often inspire a personal round of "Name That Tune" in which you try to figure out in as few notes as possible what reimagined song you're about to hear. My initial guess was "Purple Rain," which turned out to be wrong, though not before I nearly had a heart attack contemplating the possibility. Instead, we got "Five Years," which is no consolation prize, especially when David Rawlings belts it out, accompanied by Jon on piano and chamberlin and James and Sebastian comprising the rhythm section.

With the night's guest roster mostly revealed, there weren't too many questions of surprise appearances going into the second set, and Jon sort of admitted as much, stating that he would first tackle a solo segment before opening the floor to his friends. So we got three of his songs, concluding with "Walking Through Walls," complete with the full-body rocking that Jon's been showing off, now that he has some room to move around.

Sebastian Steinberg was the first to return, joined soon after on the second set of drums by Earl Harvin, who had just come from Dave Palmer's gig in the Little Room. Together, the three of them teased out "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)." Earl exhibited a light touch on the brushes, but if he felt at all apprehensive about his impromptu recruitment, he certainly didn't show it.

The drummer population doubled as James Gadson returned to the stage. Though I didn't discover James's standing as a drumming legend until a round of Googling after the show, it was apparent that the other performers were honored to be sharing the stage with him. Jon made a passing comment to it in the first set, and for this round, as James took his seat, you could spy both David Rawlings and Sean Watkins tucked just behind the curtains as they snapped pics of this extraordinary gathering.

So with two drummers and a bass player to accompany him, what song did Jon decide on? One of his own, "Same Mistakes." From there, though, it was all covers.

When I see two drummers onstage, the first thing that comes to mind is Adam Ant--but there's no way I could've unloaded that frivolous request on this group. So when Jon asked for song suggestions, I went with one of the more brooding mainstays of their canon, "It's All Right, Baby Blue." Success--they took it up, though Jon stopped the song and started it again so that Benmont Tench could join them. It was just a matter of time before David Rawlings reemerged to chip in guitar and vocals.

Someone in the audience requested "Emotional Rescue," but a quick survey around the stage revealed that no one knew the lyrics, so they cobbled together "Miss You," mostly sans words, instead. Benmont had turned out a couple of gorgeous solos already, and now he took further control, seamlessly leading them to an upbeat, jovial "Blue Skies."

An observation: When Jon and David Rawlings play together, they sometimes reach a point where it seems like they play exclusively to each other, no matter how many other people may be around. We saw a little bit of this during the song, when they sort of took up a musical version of Simon Says, each one trying out a riff and the other aping it, all in keeping with the loose, silly spirit of the set.

It took the Elvis/T. Rex mashup to unleash the double-drum delirium, as James and Earl traded solos. When Dave Palmer squeezed in next to Benmont for "Beast of Burden," the Largo stage became the world's greatest Doublemint commercial ever as it hosted two pianists, two drummers, and two guitarists (and a bass player). Double your pleasure--check. Double your fun--double-check.

Sean Watkins threw off the numbers when he finally jumped in, but the reverie continued. Though Ben seemed reluctant to do "I Wanna Be Sedated," he came through like a trooper, and he inspired the last two numbers of the set as well. When the group admitted they couldn't carry off "Heart Full of Soul," per Ben's suggestion, Jon steered them toward "For Your Love" instead. And it was also Ben's idea to try "I'll Cry Instead," though he was probably as surprised by Jon's yodeling as we were. It turned out to be the last song of the night, leaving Jon to thank us for allowing them to "goof off" in public.

Set 1

--piano and synth noodling
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Don't Make Me Fall in Love with You (?)
--Girl I Knew
--Band on the Run [snippet]
--Baby's on Fire
--Hanging on the Telephone
--This Guy's in Love with You
--Ruin My Day
--Why Do You This to Yourself

w/ James Gadson
--That's Just What You Are

w/ James Gadson and Sebastian Steinberg
--Nobody Does It Better

w/ James Gadson, Sebastian Steinberg, and David Rawlings
--Femme Fatale
--Sin City [David = vox]
--Helter Skelter
--Five Years [David = vox]

--Knock Yourself Out

Set 2
--I'm Further Along
--Over Our Heads
--Walking Through Walls

w/ Sebastian Steinberg and Earl Harvin
--I've Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)

w/ Sebastian Steinberg, Earl Harvin, and James Gadson
--Same Mistakes

w/ Sebastian Steinberg, Earl Harvin, James Gadson, Benmont Tench, and David Rawlings
--It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
--Miss You/Blue Skies
--My Baby Left Me/Jeepster

w/ Sebastian Steinberg, Earl Harvin, James Gadson, Benmont Tench, David Rawlings, and Dave Palmer
--Beast of Burden

w/ Sebastian Steinberg, Earl Harvin, James Gadson, Benmont Tench, David Rawlings, Dave Palmer, and Sean Watkins
--I Wanna Be Sedated [Benmont = vox]
--For Your Love
--I'll Cry Instead

See also:
» the first one said to the second one there
» it's been said many times, many ways
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg
» singin' songs for pimps with tailors

Saturday, October 11, 2008

play one more for my radio sweetheart

I could get used to walking to Golden Gate Park for concerts--though yes, I skipped the gig by that one major U.K. act back in August (I was waiting for an important delivery, dammit!). As if the ease of proximity weren't enough, I was in low-key mode all weekend and wandered over to the Star Stage in the early afternoon instead of my usual pre-dawn stakeout. Even then, I still had plenty of time to get comfortable for Elvis Costello's set.

Elvis Costello's High Whine and Spirits, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 5, 2008: Love it or hate it, you gotta admit that Elvis Costello hasn't stuck to the typical rock-and-roll rule book. I admit I haven't followed along every step of the way; not so long ago, for example, I realized his jazz forays are not for my thing, and I couldn't convince myself to check out his collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony either.

Call me predictable, but my favorite Elvis incarnation is with the Impostors (I was a bit too young for the Attractions, alas). As luck would have it, the Impostors were represented at this gig by Pete Thomas and Davey Farragher, while Austin DeLone filled in for Steve Nieve on the keyboards. The top of their set referred to their history with a triple shot of "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "Uncomplicated," and "Radio Sweetheart." Had I been sitting in a chair, I would've toppled out of it upon hearing "Uncomplicated." I don't think I've ever heard it live; even better, it comes from probably my favorite Elvis album.

Elvis Costello, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Oct. 5, 2008

But when the set is billed as "Elvis Costello's High Whine and Spirits," you can't expect merely the greatest hits, and the musicians obliged, much as they did at Elvis's 2006 festival appearance. After the opening trifecta, Bill Kirchen and Jim Lauderdale soon joined in for a handful of covers and stayed on for the rest of the set. Also not surprising: Emmylou Harris's arrival for "Love Hurts" or the near closer "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" for the second time this weekend.

In no way, though, was this some run-of-the-mill set. For one thing, Elvis's young twins watched their dad (apparently for the first time) from the side of the stage. Wearing big headphones to protect their ears and High Whine tour t-shirts to support their father, they stomped away and waved drumsticks in time to the music--as befits their lineage. Elvis referred to them quite often during the set too, his paternal pride clearly evident and very endearing.

The toddlers nearly stole the show, but they had to cede the spotlight to a few dozen more guests--mostly the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus, accompanied by Jon Langford, Warren Hellman, and even more friends--for the moving finale. Their performance further punctuated a set that beautifully embodied everything Hardly Strictly Bluegrass represents.

Elvis Costello, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Oct. 5, 2008

I also caught most of Ben Kweller's set. It's been a while since the one time I've seen him in concert (opening for Evan Dando and Jon Brion), but it wasn't hard to determine that his music has definitely matured, as has he. He even dedicated one song to his wife and son. Ben and his band sounded great, and I think even the older folks around me were impressed.

Yeah, I could really get used to walking to Golden Gate Park for concerts.

See also:
» used to be one of the rotten ones
» now I try to be amused
» searching for light in the darkness of insanity

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

searching for light in the darkness of insanity

When I was in sixth or seventh grade, one of my teachers had us break into groups and gave us an assignment that attempted to connect our interests and passions with the discipline at hand. So as we compiled our alphabetical list of--errr, I can't recall exactly. People? Things? Anyway, when our group reached the letter "N," I suggested Nick Lowe, who at the time had the occasional video on MTV and enjoyed some radio airplay. My friend's reply: a withering sneer of the variety so masterfully deployed by teenage girls. Fast-forward to 2008, I didn't bother informing the same friend--a dear pal to this day--that I was headed out to see Nick Lowe at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

Nick Lowe, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Oct. 4, 2008Nick Lowe, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 4, 2008: I'm obsessed with the idea of musical DNA--that is, some inherent element in your tastes and preferences that you can't escape. Granted, I don't think anyone comes out of the womb knowing they like classical or hip-hop or rock, but I love the idea of those musical tropes that get under your skin without your even knowing it until many years down the line. The two acts I caught on Saturday at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival are prime examples of these stealthy survivors.

Back to that Mean Girls moment from my pre-pubescent years: My friend had a point. We were a bit too young for Nick Lowe at the time, and we listened to synth-pop bands who wore eyeliner and frilly shirts--nothing like the pub rock Nick was known for. Yet, though I skipped the '80s-oriented Regeneration Tour this summer, I made a point of hitting this gig (the price of admission and proximity to my flat helped too).

On the surface, it's pretty easy to see/hear why: Nick's timeless songwriting and soulful voice, though they might never be in vogue, certainly never go out of style. And those rich, warm tones were complemented by nothing but simple acoustic guitar. In addition, despite all the associations he's shared with so many other artists on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass roster, Nick went completely solo for his set. Thus, there were no visitors from the Prader-Willi benefits from the two preceding nights--or from any point in his career, for that matter.

Nick Lowe, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Oct. 4, 2008

But his actual set was a different story, encompassing his handful of hits and, more abundantly, fan favorites. Of course, "Cruel to Be Kind" got a huge reception, but even Nick was surprised when the crowd whooped appreciatively for the more recent release "I Trained Her to Love Me." And do you even have to guess his closing number? Sure, it was "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," but the slower, more deliberate take made for a lovely tidbit. And to top it all off, Nick couldn't have been more charming. I don't think I've ever heard such an effortlessly engaging performer.

Gary Louris and Mark Olson, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Oct. 4, 2008

Immediately preceding Nick were Gary Louris and Mark Olson from the Jayhawks, two years into their reunion and now with a new album to show off. They performed songs from that upcoming release, as well as from the Jayhawks catalog. Gary, a little surprisingly, forgot some of the words to "Sister Cry," and his voice couldn't quite reach some of the high notes on "Blue." Their mellow, melodic set suited the cozy grove beautifully on this gorgeous Saturday afternoon.

See also:
» the whole damn crowd seemed so far away