Sunday, January 27, 2008

Obscurity Knocks: Adorable, "Against Perfection"

In my most dedicated years as an Anglophile, I remained untouched by many of the biggest U.S. musical trends. Were you listening to hair metal in the late '80s? I was stuck on Madchester's comings and goings. Grunge? It was all about shoegaze to me. Nu metal? Those were the golden years of Britpop, baby! Not that the stuff I listened to was necessarily better--for Pete's sake, I knew the words to songs by Ned's Atomic Dustbin! And I missed out on a lot of great hip-hop. Regardless, for this installment of Obscurity Knocks, I'm turning back the clock to 1993 to reminisce on Adorable, hailing from Coventry, England.

Adorable, Against PerfectionAdorable, Against Perfection
There's a reason I kicked off this series with the Chameleons: Their signature guitar sound would become the musical trope that I subconsciously followed for many years--until I finally made the connection and consciously sought out bands reminiscent of their sound. Adorable, for me, were one of the first bands to emerge after the Chameleons who exhibited this crucial feature, which is why they're the second band in this series.

Before the spread of the Internet and file sharing, I bought nearly every used copy of Against Perfection I came across--not because it was a collector's item or valuable by any monetary measures. Rather, I truly believed that I would be able to find it a good home, if not alongside multiple copies of the exact same CD on my own shelves, then with someone who would fall under its spell as soon as they heard the wonderful riffs on the record. Fortunately, I didn't stumble upon the disc that often because I could never really convince anyone to give this CD much of a listen.

Adorable came up during the shoegaze era, not quite 10 years after the Chameleons, during which the phrase "sonic cathedral" (or, if you prefer, "cathedral of sound") was popularized and, eventually, lapsed into cliche. Guitars were prominent--or, at least, more notable since the vocals were buried so deep--during this movement, and Adorable wasn't alone with a sound that could be traced back, in part, to the Chameleons and their contemporaries. In Adorable's case, that inspiration came from Echo and the Bunnymen.

I was a fan of many bands housed under this umbrella, but Adorable was the only group to incite such a Pavlovian response in me. Simply, they were one of the only ones who came close to anything approaching pop music. (Catherine Wheel is one of the others, but their preening performance in concert turned me off.) Sure, the others turned up their effects pedals and erected a wall of sound in which you could lose yourself, but Adorable had honest-to-god choruses and hooks to complement those massive musical constructs.

For better or worse, the vocals can make or break a band for me, and Piotr Fijalkowski's voice reeled me in. At times, he sounded steely and accusatory ("Favourite Fallen Idol"), other times melancholic and resigned ("Still Life"--and by the way, the guitar on that song has to be an ode to the Smiths' "Back to the Old House"), and on my favorite tunes, unabashedly exuberant ("Sunshine Smile" and "Glorious").

Singling out guitars and vocals has to be the music blogger's equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, so I'll add that the bass lines (supplied by Piotr's brother Wil) may be the most underrated aspect of Against Perfection. In fact, I'm pretty sure those rubbery notes initially caught my ear when I heard Adorable's semi-hit "Homeboy" on American radio. The bass makes an impact on the mellower songs too, such as the aptly titled "Glorious."

I don't recall being particularly struck by the lyrics, but I know that a friend recently got married, and Adorable's "Breathless" figured in the ceremony. Also, I never got to see Adorable live, though I remembered they played my hometown of San Jose, Calif., in some free radio event--too bad I had moved away for college by then.

I didn't know much about the band when they were together, and it was long after they broke up that I found some interviews and learned that they were somewhat reviled among the U.K. music press for, ironically, their cockiness. This blackballing probably didn't help their case, but regardless, they lasted for only one more album, Fake. Piotr and Wil formed another band called Polak, in reference to their heritage; last I heard, Piotr had his own bookstore in Coventry. Update: A quick Google search says a solo career may be in the offing.

Apparently, we may soon see a shoegaze revival. My Bloody Valentine has reformed and is playing dates across the United Kingdom, though the usual suspects in the U.K. music press continue to bitch and moan about it. And if you've been in the clubs, you may have heard the sound echoed by newer bands. Wherever this resurgence may lead, I'm pretty sure Adorable won't be one of the groups caught in the upswing, but I strongly suspect I'll continue to listen to them for many more years to come.

» Adorable: "Glorious"
» Adorable: "Homeboy"
» Adorable: "Sunshine Smile"

See also:
» Obscurity Knocks: The Chameleons U.K., "Strange Times"

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

the first one said to the second one there

I hope you're having fun!

Jon Brion, Largo, January 12, 2008: If Jon Brion plays his first shows of the calendar year at a venue other than Largo, do they count, and has the year really begun? Well, they do, and it has, but there's still no place like Largo.

The night got off to an unassuming start, as Jon disappeared into an extended piano play--no synths, no celeste, no Chamberlin (or is it a mellotron? I can never tell). I want to say he touched upon Ellington, among other sources, but don't mind me. Whatever it was--and rest assured, it was quite awesome--we got the distinct impression that Jon was better prepared (however loosely defined) to face an audience tonight.

This became more evident when he launched into a string of original material. He graced "Same Thing" with an improvisational sequence that sounded new to me; built up "Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad," then poured into it several distinct guitar solos, including one that called to mind T. Rex; brought out the 12-string for "Love of My Life So Far"; and treated us to a simply breathtaking "Better You Than Me."

I don't want to read too much into the song selection, but next up was "Just What I Needed," which I'll gladly take as a compliment of the highest order. Some of us were probably *ahem* a little more enthusiastic than others in joining the chorus, but I can't think of better accompaniment for the song.

Now that we were in covers territory, Jon dished up a couple of favorites, though with his own twists. "Always Something There to Remind Me" went raw and garage-y, while "I Fall in Love Too Easily" was dosed with mellotron/Chamberlin/whatever. We briefly returned to Jon's back catalog with "Here We Go" (which I haven't heard in a while), but requests for other artists won out.

The strangest selection came from Jon himself. After a straightforward "Political Science" and an earnest though abbreviated attempt at "Baby Strange," Jon teased out the end theme to Davey and Goliath--go figure.

Once more, our requests failed to tickle Jon's fancy, but his response was a first: He brought up his assistant Bret, the "master of the microKORG." Without a trace of nerves, Bret churned out a deep, spacey beat that belied his rocker looks. Joining this "randomness," Jon created an ambient layer by sampling his own nonsensical vocals and dropping in the synth and the mellotron. And if you listened closely, you could hear Flanagan too, contributing a murmur of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" from the soundbooth. But wait, there's more! Jon worked in some guitar, including a pinch of "Controversy," before they wrapped up the song.

The set closer, however, took a more familiar form as Jon asked for a cover to tackle. I managed to dredge up one of the dozens of suggestions I keep ready for Largo purposes, and apparently, it hit the mark. "It's Only Love," then, came up for the Les Paul treatment; granted, as with "Nowhere Man" from a couple months ago, I would love to hear Jon sing these songs, but then again, anyone can do that--so to speak. Even better, before he left the stage, Jon promised to bring up some friends for the second set.

The break between sets was a mixture of keen anticipation (especially after we caught sight of Largo stalwarts Jay Bellerose, Paul Bryan, and Benmont Tench at the back of the room) and booty-shaking revelry, fueled by the girlie drink Michelle had bought for me and Flanagan's handpicked playlist of Prince song after Prince song. As it turned out, several of the above elements would factor into the ensuing set.

As much as we enjoyed the dance party, we liked it even better when the players took to the stage and found their instruments. Flanagan took advantage of his bully pulpit/soundbooth to pump in more Prince and, thus, head off the threat of a lull. Once Benmont jumped on the song, there was no turning back, and the others fell in line for a double dose of The Artist. In the middle of "Controversy," Jon first went off on a scorching guitar solo, then guided the group to T. Rex. As much as I enjoyed the new faces and impromptu pairings in Chicago, this collection of seasoned talent reminded me why Largo will always have the upper hand.

A Bowie request brought on an epic rendition of "Moonage Daydream" that left no question of Jay Bellerose's brute power behind the drums. They rode this song all the way into "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and I suspect Benmont threw a bunch of other references into the sonic stew as well. I can vouch for a quick nod to "Eleanor Rigby," and I'm also pretty sure Benmont instigated the turn toward "Sunny Afternoon." Beyond that, it's anyone's guess what they snuck in under our noses.

Last month, Evonne had been tipped off to a YouTube clip featuring Nick Lowe supported by three of the four musicians currently on the Largo stage (guess which ones), and in fact, we had watched the segment earlier that day. With the video buzzing in our heads and those very same players assembled in front of our eyes, it was only natural that we'd hit upon the idea of requesting some Nick Lowe. Ta da: "Cruel to Be Kind!" The singalong was less prominent compared to November, but then again, there was a whole band backing Jon this time.

"Time of the Season" required our assistance as well, but the Tom Waits-style vocals were all Jon's. I'm so used to hearing Jon doing this either by himself or with Benmont that Jay's contributions took me by surprise. All of a sudden, the song had teeth--and they were great.

Jon ducked over to the analog synth to start up a pulsating drone, then matched it to an unlikely tune: "Baby, You're a Rich Man." Even Benmont took a stab at the contraption, and it occurred to me that I would've liked to hear Paul help out with the vocals. He definitely knows how to harmonize, but alas, he stuck with the bass all night.

It's impossible to cite a single Largo memory as my favorite, but I tend to come back to a handful of recollections from my earliest visits (i.e., before I started writing this stuff down): that time Jon did my request for "When Doves Cry," the quick line from "Slave to Love," a sublime rendition of "When Love Breaks Down" for Flanny. And frankly, I'm shameless in trying to re-create these instances.

High up on that list is a Wings medley that encompassed the whole room; I think it must've taken place some time in 2000. Anyway, I remember how great it felt to roar out "Silly Love Songs" and "Band on the Run" with the crowd, and lately, I've yearned to do it again. Finally, in the year 2008, it happened.

It started out with a simple request, followed by an inscrutable pause, and the next thing I knew, Jon played the opening riff from "Band on the Run." I, predictably and (according to Michelle and James, seated by the bar) loudly, dorked out. I can't even tell you how gratifying it was to hear these four pros working on one of my favorite songs, nor can I begin to describe the exhilaration of belting it out. Instead, I'll report that Jon sang the keyboard solo from the tune's second movement and glossed over a few lines from the later choruses. No harm done--I was just glad to be there.

"Band on the Run" set Jon's brain down a path as well, as he tried to think of the hardest songs they could do. (It never occurred to me that the three discrete segments of "Band on the Run" could've held him back at any point.) The first one they tried was a horrific track by Kansas, followed by Evonne's call for "Roundabout." Before the latter even began, you could see both Benmont and Jay clutching their heads in anticipation of the impending migraine, sorta like how Heidi winces during "Sentimental Lady." They gave it a shot, but mercifully abandoned the track before long. Jon commented that Benmont started a band to get out of playing songs like that, and Benmont concurred, quoting some of the lyrics as "fighting words" where he comes from.

A Steely Dan request from the crowd inspired "Any Major Dude," which led Jon to quip that they were the opposite of a pub rock band, forgoing feelgood anthems in favor of works by meticulous studio bands. There was also the matter of a Led Zeppelin song to get through, then it looked as if we were close to calling it a night.

Jon threw it back to Jay, asking him to start a beat that the others would work around. Jay responded with a primal, driving rhythm; Evonne heard Bo Diddley, Michelle and I swore it was Bow Wow Wow. Regardless, it inspired Jon to proclaim, "I love you." Paul was the next one to find his place in the impromptu arrangement, then Jon jumped in with, of all things, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." By the time Benmont added his take, the Dylan classic had become a blues-rock-jazz amalgam that worked better in some parts than others. Jon's vocals might've been the least effective aspect of the song, but then again, it's all part of the fun. Benmont, though, ruled, reimagining the pacing and melody in ways I never would've imagined.

For the past month or so, I've basked in a very odd sensation: the satisfaction of knowing an obscene number of Jon Brion shows awaited me in the near future. With this weekend engagement, the smugness is gone. And I hate it. February, anyone?!

Set 1
--piano improv
--Get Over Yourself
--Same Thing
--Excuse to Cry
--Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad
--Love of My Life So Far
--Better You Than Me
--Just What I Needed
--Always Something There to Remind Me
--I Fall in Love Too Easily
--Here We Go
--Political Science
--Baby Strange
--Davey and Goliath end theme
--duet with Bret on the MicroKORG
--It's Only Love [Les Paul]

Set 2
w/Jay Bellerose, Paul Bryan, and Benmont Tench

--I Wanna Be Your Lover
--Controversy/Bang a Gong
--Moonage Daydream/While My Guitar Gently Weeps/Sunny Afternoon
--Cruel to Be Kind
--Time of the Season
--Baby You're a Rich Man
--Band on the Run
--Carry On My Wayward Son
--Any Major Dude
--Misty Mountain Hop
--Don't Think Twice It's Alright

See also:
» we can be us
» don't give yourself away
» i'm younger than that now
» justify your special ways

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

justify your special ways

I'd consider it entirely reasonable if you asked me, at this point, whether there is such a thing as too much Jon Brion. I should hope, though, that you'd find wholly plausible my reply of hell fucking no.

Jon Brion, Largo, January 11, 2008: I love my city, but some aspects of L.A., such as the warm weather, the charming locals, that fish taco place on Hillhurst, and the pair of Jon Brion shows this weekend, are irresistible, especially during the winter. OK, I don't come to L.A. specifically for fish tacos (though they were pretty damn good), so let's get to the gig.

Jon started out on the keys, firing up the synths and punching at the piano for a good stretch before arriving at that exceedingly lovely chamber-pop version of "Anarchy in the U.K." he's been known to do and that I haven't heard in a while. In case we were wondering what brought about that unpredictable choice, Jon quickly confessed that he was as clueless as the rest of us and moved directly to taking requests. And though he made good on "Jesse's Girl" and its kissing cousin "Gigantic," he also remarked, "We're going to be in trouble."

With the room's brain trust already looking suspect, Jon went with his own works, but a certain rustiness showed up here too when he stumbled through the second verse of "I Believe She's Lying" and dodged technical problems in "Further Along." Issues aside, he landed on his feet with both tunes, especially "Further Along," which he presented with a mannered reading that was not only notably removed from the song's typically strident tone but surprisingly devastating as well.

The musicians I see over and over (and over) again have a knack for breathing new life into songs that I may have heard dozens of times before; it is this quality that keeps me coming back for more. Tonight, that "a ha" moment came during "Over Our Heads." As you might expect, he cranked up the console to the point that it was going off like a slot machine, albeit a tasteful one. But instead of sitting down at the piano and curling up to the vocoder, he instead picked up a guitar and gave us the most naked version of the song I may have ever heard. Though I certainly didn't mind the stop-and-start nature of the night's performance, it was truthfully the first time during the show that I felt maybe we were on our way.

Jon once again mentioned something about the show being a "disappointment," if only to himself, then resolved to wipe the slate clean and kick off the proceedings anew. Phase two started off with James's request for "anything off Tattoo You"--except that none of the Rolling Stones songs Jon proceeded to play were off that particular album. I barely know the Stones' catalog, but my tablemates were indispensable in piecing together an incomplete list of titles from the megamedley.

The songs I could pick out were "Pop Life" à la Eno, New Wave representing with Yaz's "Don't Go," and Daft Punk remixed on the celeste. Cue the disco pyramid!

Jon made an 180-degree turn in the brace of ballads that followed, including the White Album-style "Someone to Watch Over Me." After a snippet of Glenn Miller, he launched into one of my favorite staples of his current set, "More than This," but mixing it up, Scott in the soundbooth added a complementary beat, and Jon introduced an unfamiliar piano passage. As it turned out, he was barreling toward the next song, his own "I'm on a Roll with You."

Once more, Jon asked for requests, and though there was no shortage of ideas, none took hold, so it was up to Flanagan to determine the course of the rest of the night. Together, Jon and Flanny comprised sort of a tag team, with Flanny supplying the suggestions, while Jon performed, tweaked, and even commented on the songs. For example, he signed off of "Walk Away Renee" with the line "Fuck it, you're to blame"; heaped mountains of praise on "Queen Elvis"; and schooled us on the musical references in the Move's "Blackberry Way" (I'd totally sign up for that class).

After a little back and forth, they decided to bring Benmont Tench up for the rest of the set, and the two awaited Flanny's word. Jon carried off only a verse or so of "Blue Chair," but it was more than I've ever heard of the song from him, and for that I'm grateful. Also, it gave them a entry into "Slow Down."

With "Lithium," which turned out to be Flanny's last request of the night, Jon made the executive decision to do it as an instrumental, thus avoiding the impromptu American Idol trials we saw in Chicago. This was all Jon and Benmont needed to carry off what they do best. The two dug in their heels for a long medley, much of it instrumental and led in large part by Benmont. In fact, at one point, Jon sat down on one of the amps, and though he continued to play guitar, he was clearly taking advantage of the opportunity to bask in Benmont's mastery.

They bestowed the fullest treatment on "Isn't It a Pity," with Jon taking up the vocals for several verses. In contrast, "Hey Jude" was a brief instrumental nod, "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" warranted a couple of lines, and "Cortez the Killer" didn't dawn on me until nearly the end of the set. I have no problem admitting it's likely I missed most of their musical clues, aside from these no-brainers. I did notice, however, Jon thanking Benmont off mic for coming through tonight, and he certainly wasn't alone in that sentiment.

--Anarchy in the UK
--Jesse's Girl/Gigantic
--I Believe She's Lying
--Further Along
--Same Mistakes
--Over Our Heads
--Love of My Life So Far
--Emotional Rescue/19th Nervous Breakdown/White Lines/Another One Bites the Dust/Pop Life/Miss You/Don't Go/Around the World
--Someone to Watch Over Me
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Strings That Tie to You
--More Than This/I'm on a Roll with You
--Walk Away Renee
--Queen Elvis
--The Slider
--Not Long for This World
--Blackberry Way

w/Benmont Tench
--Blue Chair
--Slow Down
--Lithium/lots of stuff/Isn't It a Pity/Hey Jude/Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey/Cortez the Killer

See also:
» that was hazy cosmic jive
» look at those cavemen go
» the first one said to the second one there

Sunday, January 13, 2008

you look like a perfect fit

Comedy and music coming together--it sounds like a certain place I love so much, but in fact, it's happening in my own town. Would you believe it just happened to include some of the names from that other place? Go figure!

Aimee Mann, Mezzanine, 1-10-08Aimee Mann, Mezzanine, January 10, 2008: I'm a latecomer to San Francisco Sketchfest, but I had a great time at a couple of events last year. I would've been happy if they kept me solely in stitches, but the fest's organizers apparently decided to up the ante this year by bringing in musical guests as well. Even better, they chose one of my favorite artists, Aimee Mann, for opening night festivities.

But Aimee was only one part of the show, and before she came on, we took in a full roster of comics. Heading up the night were Kristen Schaal (Mel from Flight of the Conchords) and Kurt Braunohler, sort of channeling Donny and Marie, complete with costume changes, but with much better banter and dirtier jokes. In addition to Kristen and Kurt, Rhys Darby (also from Flight of the Conchords) showed off his sound-effects skills, Todd Barry slayed me, and Paul F. Tompkins spent about half his set trying to avoid telling his material. That's as much as I can report, though, as I prefer to leave the punchlines to the professionals.

Aimee, with Paul Bryan's accompaniment, closed out the show with a short set that included a couple of older songs ("Little Bombs" and "Save Me") and three new tunes, likely from her upcoming album. I've now heard "Freeway" at three different shows, and this supercatchy, upbeat rocker shows all the signs of being Aimee's next single (remember those things?). On the other hand, "31 Today" was new to me, though I know there's a video of the song readily available on the Internet. Both "31 Today" and "Columbus Avenue" were more in the mold of Aimee's introspective observational pieces.

Aimee Mann, Mezzanine, 1-10-08

Perhaps to offset the emotional downturn (not to mention the rising chatter in the club), Aimee brought out Paul F. Tompkins to help her close out the set with "I Want You to Want Me." Paul added a surprisingly twangy touch to the vocals, but as usual, he did himself and his friends proud.

Of course, Aimee (along with both Pauls and several other players) had come through San Francisco just last month for her Christmas show, but it was a different crowd and an entirely different context tonight. Toward the end of their segment, Aimee and Paul F. Tompkins joked about no one paying attention to their banter anyway. Though this was far from true, it was hard to tune out the buzz of voices coming from the back of the room. They stuck it out anyway, taking it in stride with a loose, goofy spirit.

Aimee Mann, Mezzanine, 1-10-08

Do comedy and music go together? Good lord, yes! And when done right, it's right up there with peanut butter and chocolate as one of the coolest combos known to humanity. I applaud Sketchfest for making moves in this direction, but maybe the execution will work a little better next time.

See also:
» unless you hate baby jesus

Saturday, January 05, 2008

don't give yourself away

A sweet, sweet birdie tipped us off to Jon Brion's "secret" show at Martyrs in time for us to change our travel plans with minimal hassle--though we would've just as well jumped through hoops of fire (mmmmm, blistering heat) to get to this gig.

Jon Brion, Martyrs, January 2, 2008: As you might expect of someone who keeps a blog, I like marking milestones, even especially the arbitrary ones. Last year, I was thrilled that the 2007 concert season kicked off so soon with a Stephen Malkmus show, and I relished the band's return in December. In fact, I would've loved to cap my concert-going year with Stephen and the Jicks, but alas, good gigs kept on coming.

Jon Brion, Martyrs, Jan. 2, 2008Imagine my delight, then, at the prospect of a Jon Brion show at a small club on the second day of the brand-new year. Actually, you don't have to imagine it, since I'm ready to unload way too many words on the topic.

I already said I wasn't going to whine about the Harris Theater, and I'm not about to start now. But from the get-go, Martyrs showed all the signs of being vastly better suited to Jon's live show, in terms of size, ambiance, and most important, audience.

These hints came through as early as the opening notes, when Jon stretched his musical muscles with "I Fall in Love Too Easily," bringing in the Chamberlin and a whole mess of keyboards on the Billie Holiday standard. But it came into finer focus after "Why Do You Do This to Yourself," when he hit a wobbly guitar chord while tuning and decided to work with it, cobbling together "Tainted Love" and bringing in our voices for the evening's first singalong.

The guitar troubles lingered, as Jon provided a running narrative of his progress (or lack thereof) in tuning; ultimately, he flipped the bird at his pickups, but he soldiered on, even if he sort of apologized for abusing the Duke Ellington tune.

Jon Brion, Martyrs, Jan. 2, 2008

I should probably be thankful for the equipment troubles, as they seemed to drive him to the keys, where he entertained all manner of requests from the crowd before settling on one: "Amateur," my call. When Jon plays it live, his emotional vocals temper the song's cool, polished Bacharach-tinged arrangement. Tonight, with help from the electric piano, the song drifted further into emotive, '70s-era singer/songwriter territory. It wasn't my favorite version, but it's a risk I'm willing to take for that tune.

More requests followed; the Billy Joel suggestion flitted in and out of the set, obfuscated via vocoder for good measure. "Girl I Knew," however, drew on Jon's trademark talents, as he built it from the drums up. On its own, the song is a hearty, crowd-pleasing affair, but Jon won even more local hearts and minds when he dropped Cheap Trick's "Surrender" into the bridge's extended medley. Once again, my ignorance of '70s rock kept me quiet, but I loved hearing the room's voices belting it out.

After that bravura turn, Jon pared it back somewhat, sticking mostly to solo electric guitar. He cushioned the Smiths medley with layers of ethereal sampled vocals and bashed out his own "Further Along" with a punch of drums, but he delivered the others troubador style--except for the Doobie Brothers song. I admit that I may not have figured out the tune if Jon hadn't come clean early on; it sounded a lot like a much more accomplished version of the Country Bear Jamboree, but then again, that's somewhat appropriate, isn't it?

Jon returned to the piano for "Cathy's Clown," a request from the guy behind me. Not only was it a great choice, the guy had a gorgeous voice, hitting the harmonies perfectly. I happen to find off-key singalongs rather endearing, but it was a welcome change of pace to hear someone who'd probably feel right at home in front of a mic. And though Jon used the vocoder for the tune, it was in an entirely different spirit than with the Billy Joel song, for example.

The Everly Brothers led to Buddy Holly, which sparked a comment by Jon about the Wurlitzer's greatest hits. That, in turn, took us further down the musical path to the Zombies and, finally, the Velvet Underground. With that decade- and genre-spanning excursion, Jon sewed up the first set.

After a short break, Jon welcomed us with a resounding burst of drums, heralding "So I Fell in Love with You," a tune I haven't heard in a while. A little novelty section followed, but if nothing else, it gave us license to empty out our lungs and vocal chords.

Jon Brion, Martyrs, Jan. 2, 2008

Jon was caught short by "Daydream" when he realized he didn't know all the lyrics, but he invited a fan who seemed to know up to the stage. While he was adding on new players, he extended the invitation to Pat Sansone, from Wilco and Autumn Defense, and Ryan, the drummer for Chicago band Vee Dee and who also happens to take care of Wilco's stage lighting. Maybe it was a case of the nerves or maybe Jon happened to catch the dude at a convenient break, but the guest singer's memory banks proved to be less reliable once he got onstage. At least he was a lot more good-natured than the fools on New Year's Eve who claimed to know "Lithium."

Jon Brion, Martyrs, Jan. 2, 2008The fellow graciously left the stage to the professionals, as Jon resumed vocal duties with the backing of Pat and Ryan. The small summer-inspired medley couldn't entirely chase away the freezing temperatures outside, but within Martyrs, it was nothing less than toasty, with record highs to come.

At both Chicago shows, Jon had been rather forgiving of the impromptu, er, talent that had rushed the stage, with mixed results. Perhaps with these train wrecks in mind, he offered a grand caveat, asking each of us to look deep within ourselves before answering the question: Who knew the bass chords to "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey"? Dozens of hands shot up, but Jon picked out a dude in the front row, who happened to be wearing Lennon glasses.

It goes to show you how little I know about the mechanics of music that I never considered "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey" anything other than an anarchic, balls-out rave-up, and I've often wondered why requests for it go unanswered. I remain clueless on its precise workings, but I have a new appreciation for it after watching Jon coach the other players on how to play the song.

The civilian (so to speak) joining the group, on top of being a friend of a friend, turned out to be one of the wiser additions at these shows. As far as I could tell, at no point did Jon teach him chords or correct him on pacing or the like. In fact, the most notable aspect of his participation was his seamless immersion in the group. He showed off a gorgeous touch on the bass for "Don't Let Me Down" and chimed in melodiously on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Most of all, he wore that infectious grin so common on folks, professionals or otherwise, who share the stage with Jon Brion.

Elsewhere, Ryan absorbed Jon's direction without a sweat, especially when they jumped between titles; I loved the playfulness Ryan brought to "Tomorrow Never Knows," a contrast to the heads-down intensity Jon often drives into the song. Pat too dug in, delivering harmonies, vintage Chamberlin sounds, or uncommonly twinkly piano as needed.

And of course, there was Jon in the middle of it all, leading not only the musicians but the whole freaking room in Beatlesfest '08 (Part 1). I was reminded of past shows--"Revolution" took me back to November, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" to February two years ago--as well as my own good fortune at being able to witness so much of this magic.

As far as I'm concerned, the Beatles provide a bottomless well of good times, but just as rewarding was knowing that for a lot of people in the room, they were seeing this side of Jon for the first time. Playing despite a broken guitar string, calling out solos, that cool thing on "Tomorrow Never Knows" when he coaxes real-time bird sounds out of the guitar, and his general unbounded joy and energy at blasting it out for all of us--I don't know how you can't be moved after seeing it for yourself.

Jon Brion, Martyrs, Jan. 2, 2008

Thanks to the largesse of Martyrs' staff, Jon snuck in one more song before the clock ran out. By the time we stumbled outside, the chilly air was no less brutal, but in the gig's afterglow, we barely felt it at all (for a little while anyway).

--I Fall in Love Too Easily
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--Tainted Love
--I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)
--We Didn't Start the Fire
--Girl I Knew/7 Nation Army/James Bond theme/Peter Gunn/Secret Agent Man/Surrender/Police on My Back/Girl I Knew
--Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now/Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
--Same Thing
--Further Along
--I'm Gonna Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key
--You Say You Don't Love Me
--What a Fool Believes [Les Paul]
--Cathy's Clown
--She's Not There/I'm Waiting for the Man

Set 2
--So I Fell in Love with You
--Ishtar medley
--Cheers theme
--Western-style instrumental
--Daydream *
--You Didn't Have to Be So Nice *
--Summer in the City *
--Sunny Afternoon *
--Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey **
--Revolution **
--Don't Let Me Down **
--I Want You (She's So Heavy) **
--Tomorrow Never Knows **

--Knock Yourself Out

* = with Pat Sansone (Wilco and Autumn Defense) and Ryan (Vee Dee)
** = with Pat Sansone (Wilco and Autumn Defense), Ryan (Vee Dee), and Packy

See also:
» look at those cavemen go
» play a song for me
» the way it went, the way it's gone

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

look at those cavemen go

Flight delays, driving snow, and that legendary wind chill factor--it must be Chicago in the dead of winter! But hey, if that's where Jon Brion is playing a New Year's Eve show (and, coincidentally, where a whole passel of pals live), then kick-start the Polar Express and roll over, Snow Miser, 'cos that's where I'm headed.

Jon Brion, Harris Theater, December 31, 2007: There are a lot of things I couldn't have told you when this rock tourism thing took hold, five-plus years ago. For the purposes of this post, however, let me just say that there's no way I could've guessed that I'd ring in 2008 with a dozen-plus friends at a Jon Brion show in a city other than balmy Los Angeles. And that I'd be all the happier for it.

Jon Brion, Harris Theater, Dec. 31, 2007Every Jon Brion show raises speculation about which of his friends will show up. I could care less who else is on the stage with Jon (you know what I mean), but as the promotional ads and flyers promised as such, we had to wonder. At least some of those questions were answered when, shortly before the show date, we learned that the Autumn Defense would play an opening set. Britt Daniel from Spoon, however, certainly raised eyebrows when we spied him making his way across the lobby before the concert and, in the process, igniting a whole new round of whispers and conjectures.

If you're familiar with Jon's sets at Largo, you know that the friends usually join him later in the show, but as Britt had his own New Year's Eve gig to attend, there was little time to waste. Jon emerged onstage to make the introductions before taking his place behind the baby grand and other piano-based accoutrements. Together, they went into a couple of Britt's songs. Britt's voice betrayed some signs of illness, to which Jon had alluded in his intro, but I think the scratchiness works in his favor. Toward the end of "The Underdog" (which is, of course, the track Jon produced on the latest Spoon album), Britt sort of sat back and listened to Jon mess around with the tune in a manner wholly different from what you'll hear on the album. But thankfully, no pianos were overturned in the process.

For Britt's final number, a few more players joined them: John Stirratt and Pat Sansone from Autumn Defense (and Wilco), as well as Howard Windmiller (from concert organizer David Singer's band) on drums. They tore into "I Feel Fine," a request from Britt himself. Yes, the newly hatched five-piece sounded rather raggedy, but who doesn't love a scruffy garage band, even one playing in a state-of-the-art concert hall? Besides, I dug the sight of Britt grinning somewhat helplessly at Jon's badass guitar solo.

Jon Brion, Harris Theater, Dec. 31, 2007

After a very short break, the Autumn Defense took to the stage for a handful of songs. Three or four years ago, I saw the band open for Jon at Largo, and I remember very clearly Jon joining them for a cover at the end of their set. I couldn't tell you what song that was, but it wasn't "Sentimental Lady," which is what brought Jon (and Howard) back out this time.

From there, Jon finished out the first set with a few of his own tunes, the first of which was an audience request, and it led to another soundtrack piece. As lovely as they were, I was glad he chose the always rollicking "Happy with You" as the last song before we were ordered to drink up at the open bar.

Jon Brion, Harris Theater, Dec. 31, 2007

We reconvened as scheduled, and by the time Thax Douglas finished reading "Jon Brion #2," we were nearly upon the midnight hour, though not before Jon snuck in an acoustic take on "Meaningless." But soon, the countdown began and glasses were raised to 2008, while Jon provided the instrumental backing. How many lines are in "Auld Lang Syne?" I have no idea, so I stuck with the four I knew, and by the sounds of it, so did many of the people in the room. This celebratory number seeped directly into the next: "Happy Birthday" to Bret, Jon's assistant, who I saw smile for the first time ever.

"Walking Through Walls" kept our spirits up, and the minor key improv (I think) not only made use of that analog synth Jon seems to love so dearly these days, but provided a silly momentary detour. As absurd as this sequence of events sound, it turned out to be relatively firm footing compared to a good portion of the rest of the show.

The requests had been rebounding off the walls almost as soon as the show started, and Jon had handled the early ones as best as he could in a hall that size. The crowd retained some sense of decorum, as lots of hands shot up (if only our kindergarten teachers could see us now) and waited for Jon to grant the wish of a lucky concertgoer. The opportunity landed on a woman who couldn't be heard from her seat, so she stepped gingerly and drunkenly to the front of the stage and took her sweet old time voicing her request and lord knows what else. In fact, it turned out to be two requests: one for her friend, and one for herself, though Jon didn't reveal who chose Dylan and who opted for "I Believe She's Lying."

Perhaps encouraged by this breakthrough, a group of young men at the other end of our row mounted an organized campaign to hear some ELO. They were impossible to ignore, but Jon entertained the idea for only a bar or so before breaking into a ragtime-sounding instrumental of his own (?) devising. How this sparked the ensuing singalong remains a mystery, but the crowd joyously embraced "Bohemian Rhapsody." Despite having viewed Wayne's World numerous times and attending several Flaming Lips concerts, I don't know this song at all, but it was pretty fun to soak in the crowd-provided harmonies.

Jon Brion, Harris Theater, Dec. 31, 2007

The precarious mix of chaos and order was already in question at this point, but things soon tumbled toward anarchy as Jon introduced a method they had devised for handling audience requests. Out came a Dry Erase board and along with it, dozens of interlopers trying to log their requests. They clogged the aisles, lifted themselves onstage, and called their friends down to join them. Civility is for suckers! Somehow, however, sanity returned, and Jon got to work on the laundry list of disparate artists, styles, and titles that awaited him.

And he got through all of them too! Jon treated some tunes, such as "Life on Mars," "Ruin My Day," and "Queen Elvis," conventionally, letting their indisputable highlights shine through. But mischief crept into "Lithium," which hosted a George Benson-inspired bossa nova rift. And I can't ignore the titles I never thought he'd do (however briefly), "Uncomplicated" and "Deathly," the former because I don't think I've ever heard Jon grant an Elvis Costello request; the latter because, well, I'm gonna have to check the liner notes, but I'm not sure Jon had much to do with "Deathly" (I'm pretty sure that intense guitar solo is credited to Michael Lockwood, for example). Then again, I'd love to be corrected. [Edit: I totally take this back, as it has only my favorite Jon Brion backup vocal EVER. What was I thinking?!?]

Jon Brion, Harris Theater, Dec. 31, 2007

Ask 10 different people the most memorable portions of this request segment, and you're likely to get 100 different answers, but I'm willing to bet you'll hear a majority citing either "Cortez the Killer" or the Springsteen parody. Kris picked up on the Neil Young song in record time, and Paul checked in with his acknowledgement shortly after, even as John Stirratt, Pat Sansone, and the new drummer (the first guy who had foisted himself onstage upon hearing Jon's challenge to the room, issued right before "Lithium," I think--he was actually pretty good!) were still finding their bearings. This version of the song was, as you might guess, far different from the performance Jon and Nels Cline turned in earlier this month, but that is no slight on either rendition. Tonight, Pat Sansone dropped in gorgeous piano riffs to complement Jon's smoldering guitar solo, as well as his substitution of Bush, Rove, and Cheney in place of Cortez among the lyrics.

The Springsteen song started out sounding like "Born to Run," which already had the crowd in a froth, but upon further reflection (full disclosure: hours later, on our part), it turned out to be a deviously clever off-the-cuff ditty that made use of all the ingrained Boss motifs: Jersey, cars, girls, and so on. Though we were slower on the uptake, I think John Stirratt at least cracked the code early on, when he sort of stood to the side and laughed at Jon's unironic emoting. Later in the song, Jon commanded Pat to unload on the celeste. Because that's what every Springsteen juggernaut needs.

Jon Brion, Harris Theater, Dec. 31, 2007

Finally, we were left with just Jon once more as 2008 continued to unwind. He went back to the collective well for the final song of the second set, urging us to sing along as best as we could. I loved the layers of harmonies, and the oft-cited church/concert analogy hit me more emphatically than ever before. We sounded great. But the show wasn't officially over, as our cheers brought him back to the stage for one final song: "Maple Leaf Rag" in at least double time.

I'm actually glad I've had some time to let the show marinate in my brain because my knee-jerk reaction was less than pleased. I could have easily bored you with talk of the chattering crowd, the inappropriate requests, and the general cluelessness, but it's too early in the year to grouse about trivial details. The show was far from perfect, but it remains a unique outing in the annal of Jon Brion shows. And I can't stay mad when I've joined in with hundreds of other voices singing alternating harmonies on "God Only Knows" in the earliest hours of 2008.

with Britt Daniel
--Everything Hits at Once
--The Underdog
--I Feel Fine [with John Stirratt, Pat Sansone, and Howard Windmiller]

with Autumn Defense
--Sentimental Lady

Jon's mini-set
--Eternal Sunshine Theme
--Happy with You

Set 2
--Thax Douglas poem
--Auld Lang Syne
--Happy Birthday [to Brett]
--Walking Through Walls
--minor key improv
--Just Like a Woman
--I Believe She's Lying
--ELO request
--ragtime instrumental
--Bohemian Rhapsody
--Sail Away/Knock Yourself Out
--Life on Mars
--Ruin My Day
--Words of Love/Lithium/Uncomplicated/Deathly
--Cortez the Killer [with John Stirratt and Pat Sansone]
--fake Springsteen song [with John Stirratt and Pat Sansone]
--Queen Elvis
--God Only Knows

--Maple Leaf Rag

See also:
» don't give yourself away
» the men stood straight and strong