Sunday, March 23, 2008

the end is near

My current consuming crush on all things English and nautical has pushed just about every other musical concern to the back of my mind. But my loyalties run deep, and it's always a pleasure to be reminded why.

Jon Brion, Largo, March 21, 2008: There was no question whether I'd make this weekend's Jon Brion shows. But at the same time, my brain has jumped ahead to May plans, so the points in between haven't carried their normal weight. Perhaps that's why for the first time in a while, I had no requests ready for the show.

Not that Jon called for them too quickly. He started out with a good chunk of his own songs, including the perennial favorite "Here We Go." I wish I could talk about the phrasings he used, but trust me--though subtle, they were hugely effective in changing the tenor of the song and making you question the narrator's acceptance and account. In between, we got a number of extended instrumental patches, both improvisational and more composed. For example, Jon played a drawn-out guitar preamble before making his way to "Not Long for This World," and once within the song, he inserted another lengthy, aggressive guitar attack. He even commented on it at the end of the tune, saying he had "enough '90s guitar noise."

This is when the requests started, first with "She Said, She Said" delivered over the vocoder (and with a snippet from the Beastie Boys thrown in for good measure), then over to Evonne's suggestion for "End of the Line." It was initially hard to tell whether Jon would take it up, as he remarked he'd do it when the rest of Roxy Music showed up. But he warmed up to the challenge, finding his way around the lyrics and the melody--and making Evonne a very happy woman in the process. He appended the song with a convincing argument to pick up Siren, urging us to look past the usual critical darlings in Roxy Music's discography. (I already have all the albums, so no worries there.)

The next song may have been my favorite treatment of the night. It started slowly, with Jon building up a minimal beat, then matching it with appropriately understated turns on piano and celeste. By then, I knew it was "Creep" by Radiohead, a song that Jon used to cover fairly regularly but that I hadn't heard in a while. And in fact, the last time I recall hearing it, Jon put a relatively traditional spin on it. That is, he used guitars, a much more identifiable Radiohead trademark.

Everything about this song elated me, including seeing Jon tipped back and balanced precariously on the piano bench as he sprinkled just the right helping of keys into the build. By the time he introduced the mellotron to the mix, I was delighted to hear it paired with anything Radiohead at all. I was hoping Jon would keep it all instrumental, but late in the game, he added vocals, though not so prominently that they overtook the musical bauble.

Once the requests started up again, an audience member's call for "Alone Again Or" turned into "Alone Again Naturally" by the time it hit the stage, but the room returned to that somewhat awkward situation when our requests just weren't taking hold with Jon. In fact, if there's anything I need to note about this show, it's that the music comprised a smaller portion of the set than records might indicate. When he wasn't drawing out the intros and codas, Jon talked quite a bit, reacting to our exchanges and simply wearing the lecturer's hat from time to time.

Anyway, I think it was during this section when he first mentioned Largo's impending move and how he had tackled so many of the suggestions before. This provided the springboard for the Paula Abdul request, which in turn opened the door to the cheese factor. Silliness isn't necessarily a bad thing at Largo, though I have to commend Jon for resisting most of the shitty songs bombarding the stage.

Jon at first jocularly demurred from the Paul Anka request, telling a story about seeing a show by Lester Bowie, who took such "insipid" songs as "My Way" and "The Greatest Love of All" and made them into amazing compositions. Maybe this recollection inspired him because Jon dug into "My Way," first turning out a jazzy abstraction, then adding drums for what I'd call his White Album-style treatment (see also: "You Don't Know What Love Is" and "Someone to Watch Over Me"). To cap it off, he informed us of David Bowie's role in writing the song, including co-opting the chord changes for "Life on Mars."

Jon liked the request for the Velvet Underground but wanted a style to go with it. Out popped my idea for Giorgio Moroder (thanks, American Gigolo!) and off we went. After hearing this musical bastard child, I'm not sure the two were meant to come together, though it was fun listening to Jon pull the big bag of beats out of the MicroKORG.

"The Final Countdown" was helped along by Michael's recollection of that keyboard melody, then it was back to square one as the requests again hit an impasse. Jon commented that he wanted to hear us sing, which prompted the snappy retort, "What do you want to hear?" from a girl near me. Finally, the tables were turned, as Jon struggled (he admitted as much) to figure out a song we could do for him!

To no one's surprise, he settled on the Beatles, but our initial attempt was abysmal. I have to admit that though I love "You Won't See Me," I didn't recognize it at first. After recovering from his disbelief at our ignorance, Jon charitably fed us the first line--but what else could he do in that gulf of silence? I love a sing-along, but I got the distinct impression I was one of maybe a dozen people in the room throwing any conviction into the vocals. We lasted two and a half verses, I think, before Jon tried a different tact. The Lennon tune proved much more fruitful, though I can't say it was one of the better audience showings at Largo.

I'm going to say the Michael McDonald request was done for shits and giggles before Jon decided to draw the "weird" set to a close with a couple of his own songs. "Knock Yourself Out" was all keys-based, complete with a shimmery layer of musical pixie dust, otherwise known as the celeste, while for "Please Stay Away from Me," Jon purposely sang off mic for about half the song. Finally, the single response to Jon's call for a cover song married Cat Stevens to Les Paul--figuratively, of course--for, he assured us, the first time ever.

The second set opened with Jon once again chatting and referring to the oddly paced first set. He promised to make it up to us, but I don't think anyone in the room particularly minded ducking or lunging through the song selections.

The musical start put us back on more familiar ground, as "But Beautiful" poured forth. More comforting, at the song's conclusion, Jon hollered for Sean Watkins and David Garza to join him. There was a lot of talk about this segment of the show being [insert best late-night radio DJ voice] "for the ladies," and Jon even made David parade his new short, fetching haircut and sort of forced Sean into showing off his new guitar.

With some prodding, Sean took the first number, which I've heard them do with Nickel Creek, though I'm pretty sure Chris Thile took the vocals last time. I think he stumbled upon the opening lyrics, but who hasn't done that? (See "You Won't See Me" above.)

Next up was David, who in typical manner took a highly unlikely tune, flipped it around, and brought in the audience. "Yakety Yak" certainly started out conventionally, or as conventionally as you can imagine with the three-man lineup, but after a series of solos by each player, they tempered the pace to make it a slow, "sensitive" number. And when it came our turn to pitch in with "Don't talk back," we picked up the cue and modulated our tone appropriately. Yay audience!

David's second outing during the musical round-robin was just as entertaining. The big, beautiful hollow-body Chet Atkins guitar may have provided the inspiration, but of course, it was David's to run with as he gave us "Stray Cat Strut." He tried to pass on soloing opportunities to his bandmates, but Jon insisted that David work it--and he obliged.

It was up to Jon to conclude the set, and after a few moments of brainstorming, he hit upon a favorite cover, once again reinterpreted, this time as a jazzy torch song. I have very distinct memories surrounding "Tainted Love," including Soft Cell's appearance on Solid Gold (!), but my favorite recollections are of my friends and I singing it at the top of lungs, most likely at a birthday party or some other teenage celebration. If only those old pals could see (and hear) me now.

Set 1
--piano improv
--Strings That Tie to You
--Here We Go
--Not Long for This World
--She Said, She Said/Intergalactic
--End of the Line
--Alone Again Naturally
--Straight Up
--My Way
--Pale Blue Eyes
--The Final Countdown
--You Won't See Me
--You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
--What a Fool Believes
--Knock Yourself Out
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Wild World [Les Paul]

Set 2
--But Beautiful

w/ David Garza and Sean Watkins
--Run for Your Life [Sean]
--Yakety Yak [David]
--Ain't Misbehavin'
--You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go [Sean]
--Stray Cat Strut [David]
--Tainted Love

See also:
» some people gonna get ideas
» Night 2: the world will revolve

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