I wasn't planning to catch two Jon Brion shows in a row. If nothing else, I'm putting off the inevitable: those dark spells where I'll have to wait weeks or--heaven forbid--months between visits to Largo. But until diminishing reserves of denial or fossil fuels take their toll, you know where to find me.
Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, July 11, 2008: My brother likes to quip that I'd be a cinch to assassinate, thanks to my well-worn habits. I'm not sure if these weekly Jon Brion shows at Largo help or hinder the case, but hey, there are worse ways to go.
After Flanny's intro (in which he referred to Largo's other favorite sons and daughters as "peasants"), Jon ambled onstage with Red Bull in hand, bade us good morning, and touched down on the piano keys, tickling out his usual improvisational preamble. He followed with a hint of the 2001 theme, then a meatier portion of "Tomorrow Never Knows," though without vocals.
The call for requests rang out instantly, and first out of the gate was "Mayor of Simpleton," a song I not only love but have discussed with Evonne for months on end. Evonne has even requested it, though to no avail, so it was doubly regretful that she couldn't attend tonight. Confirming my suspicions, Jon warned us there was no way he'd remember all the lyrics, and even working out the melody and chords took a little while longer than usual. But he carried it off, delivering it as an instrumental, then singing a bit of the chorus a cappella at the very end.
The hint of Abba may have been triggered by an audience request, and Jon added his own comments on the upcoming Mamma Mia movie, but "Play the Game" was the real thing, free of the effects he often piles upon the song.
Following this sequence, he reprimanded himself for being stuck in a "G-hole" for six months, playing nothing in any other key. To break the spell, he spun 180 degrees on the bench, hid his eyes, and reached behind his back to blindly pick a random key. The winner: D, but I'm not sure how much he stuck to this, as he offered that the next song had some D in it. Oh well, it was his own "Girl I Knew"--not a bad consolation prize.
Jon wanted more requests, and we tried to supply them. He entertained "Sentimental Lady" for a couple of lines, then admitted that was the most Bob Welch ever played at Largo. "Paranoid Android" got a fuller treatment, with the chamberlin/mellotron/whatever (I gotta find out one of these days) beautifully supplying a chorus-like effect on the song's bridge. I think Jon slipped another tune, something more rocking and not typically paired with Radiohead, into the mix, but I couldn't guess at a title, so that hunch remains unsubstantiated.
After one more selection on the piano (a Dylan title), Jon picked up the guitar for the first time that night for his own "Further Along," trimmed with nothing else but harmonica. He went even more minimal on the Evan Dando collaboration "It Looks Like You," which required only the bass.
"Sleepwalk" eased in, as is its languid, seductive wont. We got no more than 30 seconds of the Dick Dale song, but "Hey Joe" elicited the first song build of the night. Jon faced some guitar difficulties along the way, forcing him to switch up in the middle of the song and almost--almost--making him miss a vocal cue. The guitar troubles led him to the Rickenbacker and the ensuing request for "She Said She Said," which shifted seamlessly to "Within You, Without You" toward the end.
Ultimately, though, the technical glitches drove Jon back to the piano, where he dispatched a roster of his personal favorites, his own songs, some improv, and a bunch of requests. I got in a suggestion for the Smiths, and Jon worked up a gorgeous reading of "Famous Blue Raincoat" for another audience member. He had to beg off "Let's Misbehave," as he didn't remember the words, but "All in the Family" played out in the end, morphing into one of those crowd-pleasing ragtime takes he often manages to wring out of unlikely titles.
The vocoder featured prominently in the next string of requests, obfuscating songs Jon doesn't necessarily like. But it also offered an avenue into "More Than This," which reminded me how fortunate I am to have abandoned all logic at the same time that Jon decided to make the tune a mainstay of his shows.
I'm not sure if we've seen any traditions yet establish themselves at the still new Largo at the Coronet, but if the closing sing-along becomes a reliable part of the venue's fabric, you won't hear me protesting. The audience, to no one's surprise, settled on the Beatles--and a mercifully short selection, at that. I think we did pretty well, especially that one guy a few rows back who nailed every intonation and wasn't shy about sharing it. OK, so as Jon indicated, we sang over the guitar solo, but I chalk it up to bright-eyed enthusiasm and not mere incompetence.
The second set commenced with something resembling a plan, as Jon knocked out a couple of welcome favorites, including the relatively rare and always heartfelt "Happiness" by Elliott Smith. Maybe they'll figure out the guitar issues at the Coronet one of these days, but if that means we'll instead get Jon primarily at the piano, that's cool too.
Jon left the bench to welcome Sebastian Steinberg onstage, carrying a metal stand-up bass. Jon proceeded to tell us how the bass came into his possession (apparently, the military used to make them, and Jon found it at a used instrument store in Seattle), then jumped on it in tandem with Sebastian. While Sebastian plucked the strings, Jon pounded on the instrument, first with a brush and a mallet, then only his hands. The initial bossa nova-like sway folded into a more rocking attack until the two of them found a way to conclude this unlikely diversion.
Jon returned to the piano, where their musical meandering led to the Star Trek theme, complete with lyrics--not the first time Jon has revealed this knowledge to a Largo audience. This was no mere joke, either; Jon's propulsive body language showed that he was fully invested in this work. Even Sebastian had to marvel at this glimpse into Jon's thought processes.
The Coronet arguably holds one major advantage over the old room: It lends itself beautifully to group performances, especially of the impromptu variety that Largo is known for. Sure, it was a lot of fun--and a bit sadistic--seeing how many people could squeeze onto the old Largo's tiny stage, but it seems to me that the lack of physical constraints at the Coronet has freed the performers further. And thanks to that one amazing microphone, they sound better than ever.
Jon and Sebastian took advantage of this setup to channel Django Reinhardt for a couple of Who tunes and, with the help of Sean Watkins, the Sex Pistols as well. From there, they circled back to more traditional selections, then changed up a bit to carry off the Dylan request, carting the magical microphone to the piano instead of leaving it at the center of the stage. Helping out was Sean on harmonies and acoustic guitar, adding up to an evocative, emotional version of "It's All Over Now Baby Blue." It's a song we don't hear enough at Largo, but then again, perhaps that's why each performance of it feels so remarkable.
Jon tried to close out the second set with another sing-along, but our ideas refused to take hold. He vamped through a couple of them, such as "Young Turks," which he guaranteed was not being replicated anywhere in Los Angeles that night. With the audience's collective brain trust exhausted, Jon went with his own instincts, first easing out a jazzy instrumental I should know but can't quite name, then with the Billie Holiday classic.
The Coronet experience continues to evolve, and we saw a new facet tonight: an encore. We clapped, we cheered, the lights remained low, and Jon returned, then brought Sebastian, Sean, and another Sean: Nelson, of Harvey Danger. Jon and Sean Nelson soon emerged as the main players, with Sean Watkins leaving first, then Sebastian retreating soon after. Neil Young provided the impetus, but the rest of their set comprised Ray Davies songs. Sean started out strong, but by the end, Jon was in the driver's seat, helping Sean when he couldn't remember the lyrics.
When Sean exhausted his repertoire, Jon finished up as he started: by himself. He sent us off with a favorite Hank Snow song, ostensibly for Sean's ears, but enveloping us all.
See you in August.
--noodling/Thus Spake Zarathustra/Tomorrow Never Knows
--Mayor of Simpleton
--Play the Game
--Girl I Knew
--Just Like a Woman
--It Looks Like You
--She Said/Within You, Without You
--I Don't Hurt Anymore
--The Way It Went
--Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now
--Famous Blue Raincoat
--All in the Family theme
--You Shook Me All Night Long/Cheers theme/L.A. Woman/Controversy/Light My Fire
--More Than This
--Happiness Is a Warm Gun
--Life on Mars
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Thelonius Monk piece
--two-man, one-bass improv
--Star Trek theme
w/Sebastian Steinberg and Sean Watkins
--Anarchy in the UK
--My Baby Left Me
--The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me [Sean Watkins]
--It's All Over Now Baby Blue
--I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)
--This Is Where I Belong
--Get Back in Line
--Tired of Waiting for You
--Do You Remember Walter
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