How often do you go into anything knowing it's the last of its kind? I attended Beulah's last show, but the way reunion tours pop up these days, I figure a second (or third or fourth or ...) chance will eventually bring the boys to the yard. Besides, I can't think of very many places that have meant as much to me as the musical anomaly in Fairfax Village known as Largo, especially those Friday night gigs with Jon Brion.
Jon Brion, Largo, May 2, 2008: Even before doors opened, there was no denying this would be a helluva night. The no-reservations line stretched farther down the block than I've seen since the days of Kanye Fever, and once inside and seated, we could clearly tell that they were planning to pack in the bodies. In addition, our exact change was refused, and our favorite table awaited.
Our imaginations had started to run wild in the days leading up to this show, as we envisioned all kinds of scenarios that could possibly unfold. We wondered which friends and collaborators would show up, Paul floated the idea of the artists inviting audience members up to the stage, and there was some speculation about where the Largo movie would fit into the schedule. These questions were partially answered by the silhouettes cast against the bar, but it was still anyone's guess--standard procedure for just about every Jon Brion show.
First up was Bobb Bruno in bunny drag, but instead of his usual mix of ambient sounds and rocking riffs, he presented a montage of recordings, culled partly from Jon's studio work and partly from Jon's Largo shows. I recall a bit of Kanye's freestyling and snippets from the Punch-Drunk Love soundtrack, along with some unreleased tracks and old favorites. The night had officially begun.
Next up was Dave "Gruber" Allen, who led a haiku slam with the help of Griffy and the musical accompaniment of a bassist they had [paraphrase follows] discovered at Paladino's in Reseda, playing with the band Big Enough Umbrella until he was kicked out for acting too much like Sting. Thus, we welcomed "JB" to the stage, and a few poems in, the brass section, in the form of Flanny, joined them. Along the way, we were regaled with the century-old history of Largo, started by Seamus Finnegan and Jellyroll Brion. And to my companions for the evening, I'd like to ask: Did I ever subject you to the 405 that weekend? That's how you know I love you.
During our pre-show gawking, we had seen a couple of familiar faces by the bar, had taken stock of a couple of well-placed stools onstage, and had jumped to a conclusion or two. Our hunches were ever so correct, as next on the bill were Flight of the Conchords, whom Evonne and I had first seen at Largo a mere two years ago. Considering that the Conchords (1) had people lining up three-quarters around the block to see them at Amoeba a week ago, (2) could claim a Top 5 debut for their newly released album, and (3) were about to embark on a sold-out nationwide tour, you really had to wonder what they were doing at Largo.
Well, I'll tell you exactly what they were doing: showcasing their patented combination of charm and hilarity. They tried out two new songs, the first of which moved Bret to grab his keytar, leave the stage, and award a couple of guys at the front tables with impromptu lap dances, while he simultaneously rocked out the solo. For the second song, Jemaine manned the omnichord, and Bret took the high notes for another tale of several loves gone wrong (conveniently delivered in the form of rhyming couplets).
The roars of delight climbed ever higher as the man of the hour returned to the stage. If he felt any trepidation, he didn't show it, not that he should've. For a little while, the show proceeded like any other Jon Brion gig. He started out on the electronic toys lining the piano, poured out a heartfelt Hank Snow number, and followed it with a Gershwin tune, the last of them accompanied by Sebastian Steinberg.
I not only landed the first request of the auspicious evening, Evonne and I helped jog Jon's memory by humming the opening bars of the song. And what do you know? When Jon asked for a jazz drummer, our friend Chris took it upon himself to fill out the trio. Jon called it the "Charlie Brown version" of the song; I just know it was jazzy and fun, and it made me giggle.
Jon handled the next batch of tunes by himself. He led off with a short tease from "Eight Miles High" before plucking out "It Looks Like You" instead, packed together three disparate songs to satisfy the other requests, then went with couple of his own tunes. "Ruin My Day" betrayed a Dylanesque tone, while "Over Our Heads" remained as light as gossamer.
The next order of business was to order any [paraphrased] alphabetically monikered members of the audience to the stage; thus emerged E, from the eels, of course. The two of them chatted amiably about their friendship, Largo itself, and their lack of preparation (the topic they discussed while hanging out before the shows: turning Largo into a rock 'n' roll Branson). E was the sole performer that night who didn't talk up the new place; instead, he encouraged us to rub it in that we were at Largo on Fairfax back in the day and to boast that nothing will approach the experience. The only other point I can attempt to reproduce on this blog is E's revelation that the proprietors of a restaurant he and Jon used to frequent was convinced they were a couple. Holiday tidings and vows of love were exchanged too.
With that, they played some actual music, familiar songs from the E/Jon oeuvre. When Sebastian and Benmont Tench hopped on, E moved back to the drums, and they went into "Raspberry Beret," for which E needed no lyrical assistance at all. Jon resumed vocal duties for "Controversy," though following the lyric that asks, "Am I straight or gay," E piped up with an unsolicited aside ("you're gay"). The looming medley was slightly derailed when not a single person in the room stepped up with the lyrics to "Another One Bites the Dust," but an audience member who knew the words to "Rapper's Delight" got us back on track.
She's not exactly any audience member, but Sara Watkins was summoned to the mic by Benmont, and the two of them shared the lead for "I Want You Back." I would've liked to see her stay for the next one, but Jon grabbed the short Beatles medley, at least until Benmont threw in a couple of curveballs. I (and the rest of the room) caught "Tequila," but I couldn't begin to tell you what else he might've snuck past us.
Jon went into an old BeeGees song, which E complained he didn't know, and that in turn brought us to perhaps the most famous Brothers Gibb composition of all time. Ever mindful, Jon conferred with E for the next title, to which E gave the thumbs-up, and off we dove into the Zeppelin catalog. Yet again, Benmont took the reins and steered us through a litany of songs ranging from Gershwin to Springsteen. He settled in long enough to get us all to sing "Hang on Sloopy" with him, but then it was back to "Born to Run" and a piano solo so striking that even the musicians onstage had to stop and listen.
Though we were still winded, things were just warming up. For the next few tunes, we got a couple of Largo's favorite songbirds: first Sara, then Fiona Apple, then Sara and Fiona together. After the Buddy Holly duet, Sebastian and E vacated the stage (we wouldn't see E for the rest of the night), leaving just Jon, Benmont, and Fiona for a handful of standards.
Jon and Benmont got in one more song before the Mesmerizer (a.k.a. Ron Lynch) took over. He hypnotized Jon to do his bidding, brought up Dorris from the audience, and yelled at us a couple of times. It was impossible to not think of George Oscar Bluth during this segment, but he provided a decent break in what would turn out to be a long, momentous night.
It was back to Jon solo for a quick Scott Joplin number, then Paul F. Tompkins slogged through the audience to reach the stage. Paul, it seemed, had come to praise Largo, not to bury it, reminding us of its many demerits: the food (of course); the ridiculous requests from the back of the room, usually issued by a staffer; mistaken identities as proliferated by journalists in their annual story about Largo and Jon; and most of all, the bathroom, or lack thereof. Jon, Paul, and eventually Flanny would spend a good amount of time talking about the toilet situation, the "executive washroom" (i.e., the dumpster behind the club), and who's been pissing in Flanagan's office wastebasket. See you next Tuesday, indeed! When the laughter finally subsided, Jon and PFT did a sweet song together, though I'm not sure how PFT managed to get a breath out while hunched over the music stand.
Jon played his own tune while the Watkinses and Gabe Wicher gathered their instruments, and for the next few songs, he didn't do much else. For the first one, Jon stood to the side of the stage and gulped down his Guinness while the trio delivered the goods. Then for the next two songs, he left the stage entirely to watch the show from the back, the first time he'd done that in 12 years, he claimed. But his presence was hardly missing, as the Watkinses and crew (now also numbering Benmont Tench and Paul Bryan) performed "Trouble" and "Same Mistakes." This may have been the first time I've heard Benmont on "Trouble," and it was as gorgeous as you can imagine.
Earlier in the set, Jon had declared that they would play straight through, without a break, and we of course cheered the prospect. That moment seemed like a million years ago as we realized we were about to reach the final song. To no one's surprise, it turned out to be "Waterloo Sunset," suggested by Flanny but considered by Jon as well. I don't care how many times you've heard Jon do this song; it sounded unlike anything I've ever heard at the club.
Jon left the stage, and "Don't Dream It's Over" streamed out over the PA, but the cheers and standing ovation wouldn't stop. It was now well past 2 a.m., but the rules had been suspended. Jon returned and, through tears, delivered an emotional, earnest, and deeply touching speech. I can't tell you what he said, but the spirit of the message was clear: how special Largo has been all these years, and how grateful he was to be there. Of all the pure moments of pleasure, inspiration, and sentiment I've seen at the club, that has to top the list.
But wait, it's not over yet! We clapped some more, and Jon brought out Flanny, their faces still damp with tears. Jon pushed him up to the stage, told us that we would be so mad at Flanny for not having done this sooner--and tuned the guitar. In the short, somewhat anti-climatic interim, Flanny also thanked everyone in his somewhat gruff way before treating (in the truest sense of the word) us to an Icelandic lullaby, as he called it: Bjork's "All Is Full of Love." Now my heart is full.
The night was not exactly over; having crashed through last call, the club (I suppose) had nothing to lose at this point. We said hello to friends old, new, and somewhere in between. Sometime before 3 a.m., we finally tore ourselves away.
As a teenager, my rock fandom frequently took the form of games of MASH (you will have two kids with Simon LeBon, live in a hut in Grenada, and ride a Green Machine). My 20s were spent seeking any flimsy foothold in the music industry (maybe we can talk to them if we start a zine!). Well into my 30s, I can laugh at those notions, now that I realize the true impact of music in my life: that is, the profound bonds it's enabled, the amazing memories it's ushered in, and the true happiness it's brought, all of which were abundantly evident this evening.
But just to be on the safe side, I squeeze in the occasional round of MASH too.
--Jon's greatest hits montage
Dave "Gruber" Allen
--haiku slam (joined by Mike, Jon, and Flanny)
Flight of the Conchords
--Gonna Get Freaky Tonight
--I Don't Hurt Anymore
with Sebastian Steinberg
--Our Love Is Here to Stay
with Sebastian Steinberg and Chris
--Pomp & Circumstance
--It Looks Like You
--Safety Dance/The End/Knock Yourself Out
--Ruin My Day
--Over Our Heads
--This Guy's in Love with You
--My Beloved Monster
with E, Sebastian, and Benmont
--Controversy/Another One Bites the Dust/Rapper's Delight [w/ audience member]
with E, Sebastian, Benmont, and Sara Watkins
--I Want You Back
with E, Sebastian, and Benmont
--And Your Bird Can Sing
--Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey/Tequila/more
--New York Mining Disaster 1941
--Good Times, Bad Times
--Misty Mountain Hop/Jesse's Girl/Badlands/If I Only Had a Brain/Addams Family theme/Hang on Sloopy/Born to Run
with E, Sebastian, Benmont, and Sara
with E, Sebastian, Benmont, and Fiona
--River Stay Away from My Door
with E, Sebastian, Benmont, Fiona, and Sara
with Benmont and Fiona
--Cry Me a River
--After You've Gone
--You Belong to Me
--I Don't Really Want to Know
Ron Lynch magic act [with Dorris]
--Maple Leaf Rag
with Paul F. Tompkins
--Will and Grace DVD menu
--As Time Goes By
--I Don't Want to Spoil the Party
--Trial and Error
Sara, Sean, and Gabe Wicher [no Jon]
--Say Darling Say
Benmont, Sara, Sean, Gabe Wicher, and Paul Bryan [no Jon]
--All Is Full of Love
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