Jon Brion, Martyrs, January 2, 2008: As you might expect of someone who keeps a blog, I like marking milestones,
Imagine 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.
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 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."
The 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.
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
--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
--I'm Gonna Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key
--You Say You Don't Love Me
--What a Fool Believes [Les Paul]
--She's Not There/I'm Waiting for the Man
--So I Fell in Love with You
--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 **
--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
» look at those cavemen go
» play a song for me
» the way it went, the way it's gone