Tuesday, June 24, 2008

on the bubble

I have a pathetic track record when it comes to the Broken West. For no good reason, I've missed them more times than I've seen them--as recently as back in February for Noise Pop. However, I managed to get my act together for this show and buy a ticket in advance. What a concept! Next thing you know, I'll also learn how to enjoy music in an electronic form, perhaps acquired through a computer interface (patent pending).

Broken West, Bottom of the Hill, June 22, 2008: It's no secret that I've become entrenched in certain concertgoing habits. I can give you a million reasons why, but it doesn't really matter. Simply, I don't see as many bands, especially newer ones, as I used to. This, combined with the fact that the musicians I stalk see most often are well established, has shut me off from what I imagine is a reality for most touring musicians: sparsely attended gigs at smallish bars--albeit at Bottom of the Hill, one of the coolest venues in the city.

For the music nerd, those relatively empty gigs can be a badge of pride, a sign that whatever band you dig isn't trendy, overexposed, or about to be plastered on legions of teenage girls' walls any time soon. On the other hand, it's frustrating to see a band you like struggling to bring in the crowds they deserve. The latter prevailed at this show, which counted maybe a few dozen people in the audience.

Broken West, Bottom of the Hill, June 22, 2008

Despite my consternation, the band put on a good gig anyway. I say "good" because, as much as I love I Can't Go On, I'll Go On (my favorite album of last year), the group's live incarnation hasn't exactly sent me seizing on superlatives. Then again, I've learned that a band's studio and live representations may have little to do with one another, so I tend to judge them on their own merits. The Broken West is a solid live act, and the music is great--those are the reasons I come back to see them (when I remember).

Oddly, tonight's show was the best they've sounded to these ears, probably due to the venue itself. At both Cafe du Nord and Bimbo's, they came across as somewhat muddy, but there was no mistaking those gorgeous jangly riffs and subtle harmonies tonight. If I clapped my hands raw keeping time with "Down in the Valley" or threw my back out bobbing to that infectious stop-start rhythm of "Big City," it would all be for a good cause.

Julie tells me that at their show in February, they tried out a lot of new material, and that seemed to be the case tonight as well. If what I heard is anything to go by, the works in progress definitely diverge from that sun-kissed, patently California sound of their debut record. If you (like me) got into the Byrds/Teenage Fanclub/Wilco-like feel of that album, don't worry--they haven't abandoned those layered hooks and tuneful sounds.

But some of the new songs exhibited a darker tone and a knowing swagger, sounding downright slinky in parts. You could even hear a drum machine on a couple of tracks! Good-bye Mr. Tambourine Man, hello Echo and the Bunnymen? Well, no, not even close--but something's certainly afoot in Silverlake. I'm staying tuned to find out more.

Addendum: According to the band's MySpace page, their sophomore album Now or Heaven is coming out September 9 on Merge, and you can hear a new track "Perfect Games." Yay, a reason to make it through the summer!

See also:
» top albums and gigs of 2007
» you can fall in love with every other soul you meet
» it spoke of secret fortune
» The Broken West on MySpace

Sunday, June 15, 2008

probably more like hanging around

Did I want to attend Largo at the Coronet's inaugural show with Aimee Mann? You betcha, but you gotta choose your battles/itineraries. Besides, the club is new, and I'll surely be back often--Largo overload will beckon soon enough.

Aimee Mann, Largo at the Coronet, June 9, 2008: One of the things I hate about growing older as a concertgoer is the choice of venues I'm supposed to favor. OK, I don't exactly love general admission campouts, and I'm not really willing to deal with two opening acts and 11:30 p.m. headlining slots these days, but dammit, I'm not dead yet! I hate that I'm expected to patronize the summer winery circuit--those prim, seated, admittedly lovely outdoor venues, usually out in the 'burbs, intended for musicians and fans of a certain age. Unfortunately, that's where the likes of Aimee Mann, Crowded House, and others often end up these days.

I, however, get to gloat that I don't have to put up with them, as long as I'm willing to make a trip down south. And if you've read this blog before, you know where my compass points. Also, I'm now hooked on seeing Aimee at Largo, where she seems more willing to take chances and diverge from the premeditated plans.

Aimee's first utterance to the audience certainly fell into the "divergence" category, as her disembodied voice sounded out over the PA. It was so unexpected, in fact, that we didn't realize she was talking until she sharpened her tone and told us to shut up and to welcome Paul F. Tompkins to the stage. I'm kinda killing it here, but I swear it was a lot funnier than I can get across.

Speaking of funny, PFT was, as usual, great in his brief opening set. He was probably at his most hilarious not during his act proper, but when he went to introduce Aimee, who was still tuning and asked him to keep talking until she and the band were ready. There followed several minutes of the two of them jokingly sniping at each other through the Coronet's heavy drapes. I can't say much more about it except that PFT capped the conversation with the most hyperbolic introduction ever (there was something about us chopping off our hands after the show because we would never clap as we had this evening)--which Aimee not so humbly accepted.

The Largo schedule listed Aimee with a full band tonight, but only Paul Bryan and Jamie Edwards accompanied her. She explained the omission later, but I didn't particularly mind, as I love this grouping. They weren't alone, though, as a harmonica player (Jack Rudy), Aimee's customary drummer (John Sands), and even PFT himself joined them at various points in the set. In PFT's case, he filled in for Sean Hayes on "Ballantines."

As you might expect, they went heavy on the @#%&! Smilers material and filled out the rest of the set with older titles, including Magnolia tunes, the seasonally apt "4th of July," and the relatively left-field choice of "Long Shot." In addition, they covered '70s-era Elton John and Rod Stewart, keeping with Aimee's comments in recent interviews that she was going for the decade's singer/songwriter vibe for this album.

I'm pretty crazy about Aimee's music, but I gotta say, Smilers is the first of her albums since Bachelor No. 2 to grab me so quickly. For me, at least, the difference is clear: Paul Bryan's production chops have proven a worthy match for her impeccable songwriting. His arrangements and other creative details really bring out the nuances of her music: the gallows humor and the damning self-knowledge, especially in contrast to her utterly hummable melodies.

As much as I dig Smilers, I was surprised to hear the songs in their final studio versions, especially after listening to several of them develop over the last few years. Who knew there'd be so much Moog on the record? Or that "Medicine Wheel," which she first played at Largo two years ago (as a tip of the hat to Fiona Apple), would morph from a challenge to herself to a stinging rebuke? In fact, all the songs I thought were charming jaunts in their earlier incarnations ("Borrowing Time," for example) reveal their thorns on the album, and they carried a lot more weight tonight. However, I chalk up this disparity more to my general denseness than to Aimee's writing.

My hatred of the winery circuit isn't the only rationalization I dredged up to see this show; I just love the affect Largo has on Aimee. In addition to bantering with PFT, she rolled out great stories, including the belabored process of making music for movies ("Borrowing Time"), the famous director who inspired "Cigarettes and Red Vines," and not so much a jab at Feist, but at the biz's short-term memory, including that of her manager.

Largo's halo effect was probably most evident in the encore, which extended beyond her typical couple of tunes. As a bonus, she didn't dismiss most of the audience requests out of hand (though she commented that she's the "anti-Jon Brion" because she never remembers words or chords or if even she's heard the song before). I thought for a second we might get my request for "Ray," but my hunch proved wrong. Still, I can't complain about the final cut of songs, comprising one of my favorites from The Forgotten Arm ("Video"); the misheard "blue balls," which Aimee sarcastically berated until she discovered that the fan had actually asked for "Little Bombs"; and charmingly cobbled-together "Ghost World."

One final note before I go: Due to crossed signals and general miscalculations, we barely made it to our seats before they shut the gates. Man, I would've had egg on my face if I'd screwed up this one. To anyone who might accompany me to Largo at the Coronet in the future: It won't happen again, I promise!

See also:
» unless you hate baby jesus
» i'm the stuff of happy endings
» today's the day

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

es como el pan

I'm no stranger to the more breakneck speeds of rock tourism, but I also enjoy being able to slow down and settle in for a bit. That was the original plan for lingering in Los Angeles a few hours more than normal. I had no idea it would also mean that we'd take in a Jonathan Richman in-store at Rockaway Records, but I was glad to avail myself of the opportunity.

Jonathan Richman, Rockaway Records, June 7, 2008: A common lament among music fans is the challenge of taking friends--who may also be dedicated concertgoers--to a gig that you think they'll like, but when it comes down to it, you have no clue whether they'll be delighted or bored. It may very well turn into a train wreck that's never spoken of ever again if you want to maintain your relationship. We've all been there, right?

Jonathan Richman, Rockaway Records, 6-7-08

The memory of such situations serve to remind me why I'm nuts about the music fans who I happen to call my dear friends. We frequently go to gigs on each other's recommendations, just because we know it'll be good time. Thus, for the second occasion, I found myself accompanying Evonne to at a Jonathan Richman show.

Evonne had provided a rundown of Jonathan's performances at the Mint, the site of his four-show residency that week. I'm acquainted with his gigs, having seen him open for several of my favorite musicians over the years. This in-store performance served as a tidy representation of his current tour promoting his new album. He played old songs, mixed with the new ones, some of which featured his explications and translations. There wasn't too much dancing, but there was plenty of good cheer. And of course, Tommy accompanied him, this time on a pair of bongos.

Jonathan Richman, Rockaway Records, 6-7-08

The situation with his vocal chords has seemed to improve since the last time I saw him, as he spoke quite a bit to the audience, with no audible signs of wear and tear. The fans at this well-attended show, some of whom had no idea he was even due to play until they walked in, responded with huge grins and hearty applause.

See also:
» jonathan, why so heavy on the latin?

Monday, June 09, 2008

no one will be a stranger

Though merely month a since Jon Brion's most recent show, it's felt like ages. It probably didn't help that the sense of anticipation rode shotgun with a worrisome mix of questions, concerns, and rumors about the new space. After now having seen Jon Brion's first show at Largo at the Coronet, I admit that skepticism is in part justified. On the other hand, the new room holds lots of promise, as revealed in sometimes dazzling bursts tonight.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, June 6, 2008: It's never a bad sign when the first sight you behold at Largo is Bobb Bruno clambering onstage, bunny suit and all. All gussied up, he presented the Jon-based medley we first heard last month. Oddly, it served just as well christening the new spot as it had summing up the old room.

From there, the curtains pulled back to reveal a familiar setup, if also a new context. Having seen Jon at some fairly large venues, the updated layout didn't faze me; in fact, I was happy to see the big magical panel of knobs and switches not threatening to spontaneously ignite in an electrical fire.

Jon, like clockwork, settled in at the piano. I heard a touch of "Rhapsody in Blue," but I couldn't tell you what else lurked among the notes. The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, however, turned out to be the Eternal Sunshine theme.

It was only natural that "Same Thing"--a longtime staple of Jon's set--would figure into this debut, especially since it's been a few months since we've heard it at his shows. But it was still anyone's guess what he'd do with it; if you predicted that he'd include an extended MicroKORG/celeste passage and some sotto voce readings, pat yourself on the back because that's exactly what crept into the final mix.

Jon asked for requests, which elicited a bunch of uninspired suggestions. Then again, I had nothing to contribute, so I shouldn't talk. Jon ended up piloting "Baba O'Riley" through a ragtime interpretation, making use of that big ol' analog synth that hasn't missed a show since last fall, adding some drums, and wringing it through the vocoder. In the course of this sequence, Jon genially proclaimed, "That's horrible!" Regardless, he finished out the song, though he also casually dismissed it by the end.

The Kinks request put us back on firmer ground, though only for a spell. I can't remember if it was at this point or later in the show that various audience members requested more covers, only to be brushed aside by Jon's comment that he felt like playing some of his songs. Anyway, we got a run of originals, including "Girl I Knew" with a tiny ad-lib at the beginning and "Trial and Error" with a fancy introductory flourish.

Early in the night, Jon warned us to consider the first month of shows to serve as a public soundcheck, and backing his point, he gestured to the soundbooth throughout the set, asking them to make some adjustments. In one instance, he even resignedly told Scott that whatever he had done hadn't worked. Meanwhile, Bret had been stepping onstage after nearly every song to adjust one of Jon's amps. Even I, usually clueless about technical details, noticed that the guitar during "Girl I Knew" was nowhere as loud as it needed to be. Tonight, it wasn't just a matter of the artist as a perfectionist; there was still work to be done.

But amid this sequence of originals (and semi-originals), "Someone Else's Problem Now" was one of the unadulterated successes of the first set. For those three or four minutes, it didn't matter what room you were in; the song hit you where it counted.

On the heels of that wonderful tune, "Purple Rain," much like "Baba O'Riley," got a less than reverent treatment from Jon, who let the keys-based instruments do all the talking. I loved the ragtime breakdown in the middle, and the mellotron sounded strangely appropriate, even if it's nowhere to be found on Prince's recording.

Jon started wrapping up the set with "Knock Yourself Out," which came across a bit like a nursery rhyme, thanks to his understated delivery and an old-timey, harpsichord-sounding passage he worked into the song. When he asked for a cover and fleshed out the Les Paul-style notes for "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," you had to know it was the end of the first set.

We were asked to leave the theater between sets so that the crew could make technical adjustments, and gathering in the courtyard, we cautiously voiced our doubts. I'm not going to take on the compare/contrast angle; surely, other bloggers and attendees will predictably hammer away at that angle. But I can say that as a debut, the first set was not a dazzler. I've seen Jon command big rooms filled with unfamiliar audiences, so I know he's not defined by a venue, even a beloved one. But something was clearly off tonight; the new space, along with its complications, served as the most convenient scapegoat, but there was more to the story, even if we couldn't quite put our finger on it.

Not that there was any doubt whether we'd head back for more. Chris Thile from Nickel Creek was Jon's first guest for the second set. Bearing his usual mandolin, Chris accompanied Jon (who played acoustic guitar) first on an unfamiliar instrumental number, then Jon's own "Happy with You," which was upbeat, delightful, and perhaps the first real sign that we had made a wise decision to stick around.

From there, they tried to figure out what song to do next and hit upon Of Montreal, for which the two of them shared vocals and lots of laughs. They followed with a goofy, geeky, and giddy testimonial to the genius of Kevin Barnes, with Jon giving Chris full credit for turning him on to Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

By the way, I'm not kidding when I say "geeky." In addition to urging us to buy the CD, they referred to previous two-man performances to the album in its entirety, floated the idea of busking in front of the band's gigs, squealed over the possibility of meeting the frontman, and marveled over Kevin's eyeshadow.

Exhaustive, obsessive knowledge, in and of itself, is stultifying; I know this setlist shit gets downright sterile. But every now and then, there's an opportunity to harness that familiarity for good rather than evil and maybe nudge the performers toward their strong points--that's my excuse, anyway, for once again offering the no-brainer request. And though I asked for "Croatia," I had no idea that it would be accompanied by an entirely spontaneous and hilarious guy-on-guy pas de deux.

So while Jon and Chris expertly carried off the song's funky, syncopated seesawing melody, they also treated us to the sight of two grown men charging toward each other, only to race away, stomp the boards, dive yet again into each other's personal space, and generally mug it up for all it was worth. As surely as we were rolling in the aisles, Martha Graham must've been rolling in her grave. And confirming that I wasn't the only one thinking that they couldn't have pulled it off at the old place, Flanny yelled out from the back, "Fuck you, Fairfax!"

Once we all pulled ourselves together, they asked Fiona Apple to come to the stage. She was the first person to comment on the old-fashioned microphone that Jon had brought out for the second set. I didn't realize it until she mentioned it, but indeed, the equipment made a huge difference, catching their voices and the instruments with amazing clarity and warmth. They took further advantage of its capabilities when they took in the rest of Nickel Creek (Sara and Sean Watkins, mais oui), and the five of them brought to life some old standards.

Following Fiona's turn, Jon recruited John C. Reilly, who's no stranger to Largo, thanks to links with Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as Aimee Mann. The unifying element for this particular grouping is the upcoming film Step Brothers, starring John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell. As it happens, Jon's helming the soundtrack, with help from the likes of Chris Thile, Nels Cline, and Greg Saunier, among others--i.e., business as usual at Largo.

If Nickel Creek decides to embark on another farewell (for now) tour, they'd do well to add John C. Reilly to the bill, as they had with Jon and Fiona for various legs of last year's shows. His songs of choice turned out to be traditional numbers and a perfect match for Nickel Creek's knowledge and strengths. In fact, Jon took more of a background role for this mini set, leaving the Nickel Creek kids to divvy up the harmonies and solos.

They put David Garza to work for the next couple of tunes, and he tagged Fiona for the second half of his set. Once David and Fiona nonchalantly but rather abruptly wandered off at the conclusion of the song, the others followed, and it became apparent that the performance itself was winding down.

For the last number, Jon ceded the floor to Chris Thile, but not before he waxed admiringly over Bach for his compositions, his dedication, and his ability to hold his liquor. This served as a prelude for Chris's interpretation of a Bach piece I won't even try to identify (the second movement of something or other?). We listened attentively as Chris plucked out notes on his mandolin that, at times, sounded almost like a harpsichord, in their fine, precise inflections.

I wasn't around for Jon's first shows on Fairfax. By the time I got to see him, he'd had a couple years and 100-plus performances to get a handle on the room. Of course, you could also argue that he never quite reached that goal--or whether it was a goal at all! Anyway, it's a blessing, a curse, and a testament to the reputation the club achieved over the years that Largo at the Coronet won't have the luxury of flying under the radar. Growing pains are inevitable and, tonight, evident.

I make no claim to being impartial when it comes Jon Brion, though I'm realistic enough to say that tonight's show was, at the least, uneven. But I'll take the long view, knowing full well what the amazing feats the Largo crew has pulled off over the years--and yes, even tonight.

Set 1
--Bobb Bruno

--piano (including "Rhapsody in Blue")
--Eternal Sunshine theme
--Same Thing
--Baba O'Riley
--This Is Where I Belong
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Girl I Knew
--Trial and Error
--Love of My Life So Far
--Someone to Watch Over Me
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Purple Rain
--Knock Yourself Out
--Don't Think Twice [Les Paul style]

Set 2
with Chris Thile
--instrumental *
--Happy with You *
--Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider *
--Croatia *

with Chris Thile and Fiona Apple
--After You've Gone **

with Nickel Creek and Fiona Apple
--? (lyrics: "no nothing for me") ***
--I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know ***
--You Belong to Me ***

with Nickel Creek and John C. Reilly
--Rank Stranger ****
--Angel Band ****

with Nickel Creek and David Garza
--Love You Out Loud

with Nickel Creek, David Garza, and Fiona Apple
--I'll Be Around

Chris Thile solo
--Bach piece

See also:
» all is full of love
» look at those cavemen go
» always counted us as lucky
» some people gonna get ideas
» here's a working model