Wednesday, February 27, 2008

you got a lotta nerve

Anyone's who had to listen to me report for the gazillionth time how much British music I've devoted myself to knows that I'm not good at mixing genres, but I'm sometimes forced to consider the possibilities. Case in point: Saturday night at Largo, when talk of boy bands and classic rock dominated the conversation, to hilarious effect.

Jon Brion, Largo, February 23, 2008: My neck got a pretty good workout Friday night, but it was just a warmup for Saturday, when the unidentified older gentleman sitting with Sean and Sara Watkins kept us staring at the kitchen entrance for most of the night. On the other hand, we spied Jay Bellerose (who had, apparently, been whisked straight to Largo from the airport, fresh off a plane from Belgium) and Paul Bryan pretty quickly--does that count??

Exhibiting the same good cheer as the night before, Jon handled the first set by himself. Among his own tunes, the builds of "Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad" and "Better You Than Me" were spectacular, both exploding in bursts of aggressive guitar, though not in exactly the same way.

The covers ran the gamut from the half-remembered "Nothing from Nothing," the tepid audience singalong for "Care of Cell 44," my generational signifier "Love My Way" (which I always want to request, except I fear it's a total cliche), and the almost unrecognizable "Girl from Ipanema," which Jon drew out from walls of distortion and feedback. Oh, and of course there was the breezy, beloved "More Than This," which got a helping hand from Scott in the soundbooth as well as Jon's own feet, keeping time.

The second set, as it often does, got off to an unassuming start (other than that huge "gotcha" mug sent in our direction, but that's another story) before we realized that taking his place among the favorite Largo faces was John Paul Jones--the bass player for that newly reunited band, Led Zeppelin. (Full disclosure: The two major classic rock bands I'm least familiar with are the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.) He donned a darling Danelectro (alas, stealing Paul Bryan's spot in the process) and melted right into the group.

The collection of players--Jon, Jay, Benmont, Sara, and Sean--are no strangers to one another, and I've seen them both rip the roof off the joint and share more inside jokes than a pack of mean girls. Tonight, though, they proceeded rather gingerly through a set, slightly on the short side, of mostly familiar songs, and though their mutual respect was, as always, intact, they showed more reserve than usual. I suspect that they were taking it easy on the new guy making his Largo debut; it also sort of explains why they solicited no requests either. As our table's giddy interloper remarked, a Monkees tune might indeed have blown Mr. Jones's mind.

In all, Benmont's Ramones campaign proceeded apace (this time, he took the acoustic guitar), and Sean turned out a tune I hadn't heard from him before, but Jon--surprise, surprise--came up with the best moments of the second set. His directions to Jay to "make it dirty" and the sustained scream alone on "Slow Down" would've been a memorable enough imprint of the night, but he followed it up with the chiming, enveloping "Positively 4th Street." As we left a little after 1 a.m., both happy customers, we wondered aloud if the night's real concert was yet to take place behind closed doors.

Set 1
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Same Thing
--Excuse to Cry
--Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad
--Trial & Error
--Nothing from Nothing
--Care of Cell 44
--Better You Than Me
--Love My Way [Les Paul]
--Girl from Ipanema
--Walking Through Walls
--More Than This
--I Believe She's Lying

Set 2
with Jay Bellerose, John Paul Jones, Benmont Tench, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins
--More Pretty Girls than One [Sean]
--Write Myself a Letter [Sean]
--I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend [Benmont]
--My Baby Left Me [Jon]
--Freight Train [Sara]
--Slow Down [Jon]
--I Wanna Be Sedated [Benmont]
--Positively 4th Street [Jon]
--Paper Moon [Jon]

See also:
» use your mentality

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

use your mentality

As Jon Brion's February dates happened to fall on the one weekend I could escape to L.A., I wasn't about to squander the coincidence on a stupid cold. Besides, after Chicago, I knew I could survive anything.

Jon Brion, Largo, February 22, 2008: I have no ulterior motives for going to Largo; that is, I try not to second-guess guest appearances or surprise cameos. I'm perfectly content with the prospect of letting the headlining artist or artists do their thing any way they want.

That said, I'm not above gawking, and the weekend's perch afforded a handful of sightings. Friday night, Liam Finn was easily spotted at the back booth, but as the evening progressed, we noticed Aimee Mann and Michael Penn taking a table as well. They later provided an extended pit stop for Jon on his way to the stage, exchanging big hugs and lively conversation before Jon had to get on with the show. Alas, Aimee and Michael slipped out quietly before the end of the first set, so no one had the opportunity to request "Nightmare Girl."

I'm pretty sure, though, that Aimee and Michael saw, at the very least, Bobb Bruno opening with a very short ambient set (once again taking the stage to Wilco's "Outtasite"), followed by Jim Turner as Mr. Tremendous.

From there, Jon took over the reins in great spirits and a new, short haircut (Faces style, as ID'd by Evonne). The cover of They Might Be Giants -- and, come to think of it, Gavin Bryars, which Jon welcomed with a guffaw and Waits-style intonation -- came via an audience request, while the Dylan number reaffirmed its status as Jon's current favorite blank slate, the one he likes to prod and poke with as many styles as he can dream up.

Of his own songs, "Further Along" went minimal, featuring only harmonica and electric guitar and, in the process, shedding a new light on the tale of picking up and moving on. "Croatia," meanwhile, was called off in favor of "Girl I Knew" when Jon announced, "Fuck it, I need to rock." There was also a moment in "Happy With You" when Jon stood before us with his hands over his heart and not on any instrument, while the loops and layers continued to chug along in support. Of course, I know he does this all the time, but it was a great visual reminder of what Jon carries off better than anyone else.

Liam Finn and EJ opened the second set, stepping out from the back booth and manning the guitar and mic, while Jon went for the drum kit. With lots of encouragement from Jon, they blasted out four songs -- and sounded great doing it. I've missed Liam's recent appearances in the Bay Area (though I was fortunate to catch him opening for his father at Largo several years ago), so this was a great opportunity to hear his newest material.

After trying out the new vocoder with a string of the instrument's "greatest hits," Jon halfway apologized and announced he was going to play standards for the rest of the night because that's what he felt like doing. He should've known that the Largo audience would get behind that, and I think we did, supplying all our favorite titles, even if Jon's ultimate plans for each song were far from faithful ("My Funny Valentine" paired with a disco beat; "Over the Rainbow" interpreted solely through electric guitar distortion; "Anything Goes" in the style of Les Paul). A pre-show conversation at our table happened to invoke "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," complete with lyrics, which helped to a certain extent when Jon asked for the first line of the song. But when the second verse flummoxed us all, Jon commented that it was starting to sound like a Bryan Ferry covers record -- high praise at our table -- and accordingly, he went into the matching vocal stylings. Eeeeee!

The standards agenda soon narrowed in scope to Cole Porter, though Jon vetted the requests based on whether he could remember the lyrics. I was desperately trying to recall titles from my biggest exposure to Cole Porter (the Red, Hot, and Blue compilation from the early '90s), but the only song that occurred to me, "Miss Otis Regrets," was swatted away for having "37 verses ... and someone dies in the 12th verse" (fair enough). The songs we did get included a rockin' "Night and Day" that saw Jon audibly singing the rhythm and chord changes as he approached each instrument he was about to loop, as well as the aforementioned "Anything Goes."

For the last number, Jon sat down at the piano, but the familiar strains issuing from the mellotron/Chamberlin/whatever were more contemporary than expected. Following this lead, Jon commanded Liam to take the drums and help him out for something "evil." Liam steadfastly played along as Jon mirthfully threw a series of Porter songs at the Beatles melody; with a healthy giggle, he finally settled on a technique that married, to eerie effect, the '60s-style instrumentation with a tempered reading of "I've Got You Under My Skin."

Set 1
--Bobb Bruno [opener]
--Jim Turner as Mr. Tremendous [opener]

--piano improv/I Fall in Love Too Easily
--Don't Let Start
--Love of My Life
--Happy with You
--The Way It Went
--Get Over Yourself
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--Further Along
--Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet
--Same Thing
--Croatia [partial]
--Girl I Knew/Everything Works if You Let It/Don't Think Twice It's Alright
--Life on Mars
--So I Fell in Love with You

Set 2
w/ Liam Finn & EJ

--Wise Men
--Better to Be
--Music Moves My Feet
--This Place Is Killing Me

--Funkytown/Let's Groove/Intergalactic
--Home Sweet Home
--Everytime We Say Goodbye
--My Funny Valentine
--Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
--Over the Rainbow
--Night and Day
--Anything Goes
--Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)
--I've Got You Under My Skin/Strawberry Fields Forever [with Liam]

See also:
» today's the day
» no one alerted you

Sunday, February 24, 2008

i've run out of metaphors

Back in December, when I flew into Chicago for New Year's Eve, the woman sitting next to me on the plane asked what could possibly bring me to the Midwest in the dead of winter. And to be honest, I asked myself the same thing before making my second (though not last) trip to Chicago for 2008. Of course, the answer remains the same.

Wilco, Riviera Theatre, February 15-20, 2008: I had originally planned to blog each night of Wilco's winter residency, but the combination of fatigue, hypothermia, joy, and the amnesia brought on by all the above nixed such plans. (Small mercies.) And now, four days, 2,000 miles, and several doses of Theraflu later, the whole week seems like a ridiculous, delirious, and cold dream.

Wilco, Riviera Theater, Feb. 16, 2008

Though that's not to say that these shows have already been shoved haphazardly into the memory banks. Instead, random moments and asides bubble up at such a rate that I'm having a hard time organizing my thoughts for this review. There's no way I can cover all the great snippets and snapshots that took place during these five shows, but I'm thankful that the Web is likely littered with dozens of other first-hand accounts and several recordings of the run.

Wilco, Riviera Theater, February 20, 2008

I guess the first thing to say is that it the shows were fantastic and worth every second spent shivering, dancing, jogging, and hopping on the sidewalk. Though the band's goal for this residency was explicitly stated (to work their way through their entire catalog), surprises still awaited. For example, we may have known they eventually had to get to the formerly disavowed "Can't Stand It" and "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)," but that didn't take away from the force of the songs once they hit our eardrums. And far from being rote dispensations, these songs surfaced two or more times over the span of the residency.

Wilco, Riviera Theater, February 19, 2008

I could cite as many great songs performed as you'd allow, but I have to single out certain titles: the haunting "Dash 7," the effervescent "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)," the truly unexpected "My Darling," the room-rousing "It's Just That Simple," and the twisting, twisted "Dreamer in My Dreams"--what the hell, just about every song from Being There. But even the songs played each night, such as "Impossible Germany" and "Hate It Here," provided new opportunities to watch the band's evolving interaction with and investment in the tunes (see for yourself how many band members besides the singer are mouthing the lyrics).

Wilco, Riviera Theater, February 20, 2008Oh, and that band--adding to their typical repertoire of guitars, keyboards, and drums were loons, owls, thingamagoops, sleigh bells, chimes, and probably a bunch of other things I couldn't identify. There were also amps to jump off, tears to be wiped away, and big hugs shared. In short, they were having a grand old time, and in effect, so were we.

But wait! There's more! Wandering in from stage left, Andrew Bird added his touch to as many songs as he wanted, but I especially loved his (duh) whistling contributions. The duet with Jeff on "Red-Eyed and Blue" was another one of those dreamy moments, but he threw himself into titles you wouldn't expect, such as the extended drone on "Less Than You Think."

Wilco, Riviera Theater, February 20, 2008

Rounding out the ensemble were the Total Pros, at times accompanied by Becca Michalek on saxophone. I'd especially like to thank them for their part in bringing the sublime "Pieholden Suite" to fruition.

I'm glad to finally be home, and I can say in all sincerity that I hope to never see or need another set of Hot Hands or Toastie Toes again in my life. But who am I kidding? I'll pack 'em in should the second annual residency come back to town.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

today's the day

If it feels a little like Groundhog Day around here--you can't tell me you're surprised. But in case you're wondering, I will eventually see musicians mentioned fewer than 10 times in this blog. Check back at the end of the month, but be warned: It's gonna get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Carry on.

Aimee Mann, Largo, February 5, 2008: Largo's monthly calendar is an endless source of temptation for me, but believe it or not, sanity usually wins out. For example, in the run-up to Aimee's show, I waffled more than a line cook at an IHOP as I weighed the prospect of shoehorning another trip into a month already laden with out-of-town engagements vs. seeing one of Largo's most famous patrons almost literally in her element. In the end, a lovely little coincidence/excuse availed itself, and I latched onto that loophole like the world-class rationalizer I am. That's a good reason, right?

Two years ago, I saw for myself how awesome the combination of Aimee Mann and Largo could be. I know I parrot endlessly the idea that there's no place like Largo, but certain artists drive home that point to a prodigious degree. Of that group, you'll find no better example than Aimee.

Take, for example, her gig here last month. Aimee and gang put on a valiant effort, but I gotta say they were a bad match for the club and the event. However, I left more disappointed in the audience than the artists.

Fast-forward a month, though, and you'll find no such worries at Largo, and Aimee allayed these concerns immediately, arriving onstage with the buoyant cry of "Mitt Romney '08!" Rest assured, it was strictly Super Tuesday humor; she later called the former governor of Massachusetts "creepy"; there were words for Huckabee and Bush too.

So along with her trusty cohorts Paul Bryan and Jamie Edwards, who filled out the "acoustic-Moog trio," she did a bunch of new songs from her forthcoming album, Smilers, arriving in April. They opened with two tracks that are already settling into her live repertoire, "Freeway" and "31 Today," which I've tried to describe earlier. In all, we heard seven or eight songs from the new LP tonight. I realized I've heard at least a couple of them before; she aired the one with the "bitch" lyric at that 2006 Largo show and the duet with Sean Hayes (though Paul Bryan filled in tonight) at the most recent Christmas shows.

You know that Aimee isn't about to release, say, a Timbaland remix anytime soon, so it should come as no surprise that the Smilers material featured her trademark songcraft and workmanship. But in case you were bracing yourself for the tempered tone of Lost in Space and The Forgotten Arm, you might like to know that we even heard some upbeat numbers, such as "Freeway," the Sean Hayes duet, and another song that was commissioned (and ultimately rejected) by the makers of Shrek III.

Anyway, that was the first half of the show. The second half comprised older songs, mainly requests, from a wide swathe of her solo discography. There were a few miscues, such as when Aimee and Paul "let" Jamie tickle out a prolonged intro for "Video" while they settled some musical question between them. On another song (I can't recall which), Aimee sang the entire first verse in the wrong key before she realized it, 'fessed up, and corrected herself--quite charmingly, I might add.

Her choice of backing players was not so surprising on the surface, as both Paul Bryan and Jamie Edwards have been with her for a while now, but it was odd to see only the two of them. That is, there was no drummer, aside from Aimee briefly batting the bongos for "You're with Stupid Now." Instead, they made up a lean, agile unit that allowed Aimee to entertain a well-edited bundle of audience suggestions. In fact, I think this was the first show I've seen where Aimee didn't do any Magnolia-related tunes. On the other hand, we got some unexpected choices, such as "How Am I Different," which I didn't expect to work as well as it did without electric guitar.

The night's unifying element was, of course, Aimee--not just her songs but her very demeanor. I don't think I've ever seen her so relaxed and open, and throughout the night--whether responding to an overzealous fan, relating the machinations behind soundtrack work, or bursting the encore bubble--her bone-dry humor grounded the sometimes tragic tales she weaves. Mostly, though, she made us laugh. A lot. Especially when she closed the show with another call for "Romney '08!"

I flew home the next morning, skipping Aimee's second Largo show (as well as an invite-only gig the day after--not that I got tickets for it anyway), and as you might expect, I felt a tinge of regret. On the other hand, I left with memories of a great show that reminded me why I love both Aimee and Largo. I'm looking forward to this new album and the gigs surely to follow.

See also:
» i'm the stuff of happy endings
» you look like a perfect fit
» unless you hate baby jesus