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.
--piano (including "Rhapsody in Blue")
--Eternal Sunshine theme
--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
--Knock Yourself Out
--Don't Think Twice [Les Paul style]
with Chris Thile
--Happy with You *
--Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider *
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
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