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.
Every 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.
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.
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.
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?!?]
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.
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
--I Feel Fine [with John Stirratt, Pat Sansone, and Howard Windmiller]
with Autumn Defense
--Eternal Sunshine Theme
--Happy with You
--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
--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]
--God Only Knows
--Maple Leaf Rag
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