The toughest part of coping with Largo at the Coronet hits at the end of the work week, when I finally let myself admit that I can't make it to the Jon Brion show, some 400 miles away, that evening. What is this--2005?!! I'm steeling myself for the inevitability of being MIA when some musician or another--OK, David Rawlings--pops in for visit, but I also know it's an exercise in denial. TGIF, my ass!
Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, June 27, 2008: Reality, however, couldn't impinge on this weekend's plans, as I made my latest trip to Largo this month. Honestly, I have some limits, though. I mean, I didn't drop in last weekend for the Largo film premiere. See? Total self-control!
I've been pretty sanguine about Largo's move from Fairfax to the Coronet. After all, if you've followed any musician's career over the years, you've seen (when plans proceed accordingly) said artist graduate from supporting slots to headlining gigs, from bars to clubs to theaters and so on. Of course, it's entirely your choice whether to follow this trajectory, and lord knows the vast majority of musicians lose me before they even make it to the Fillmore. For the ones I really like, though, I've battled unrelenting wind chill, barometer-busting heat, and small-town America, all for the service of a gig. In comparison, Largo's move to a 300-capacity theater is small potatoes.
Not that I necessarily felt that way a few weeks ago at Jon's first show in the new room. I mean, I wasn't prepping the obituary, but the show's hits and misses gave me pause. It wasn't the ideal debut, but it'd take more than one wonky night to drive me away. In fact, it would probably take a whole string of busts, police intervention, and a plague of locusts to shut me out.
As it turned out, I had absolutely nothing to fear. Though the show itself started on familiar footing with lots of piano improv, Jon just sounded better than those few weeks before. Additionally, he exuded bonhomie, despite also downing coffee like, well, Guinness. Thus, he giggled at himself for sneaking in the Space Odyssey theme, borrowed from the "Ashes to Ashes" mold for "Over Our Heads," inserted a Supertramp-like (can I even name two Supertramp songs?!) piano breakdown on the keys-and-harmonica-based "Roll with You," and rung in the summer with "O Christmas Tree" on solo electric guitar.
He took a couple of requests for his own tunes, and just as "Walking Through Walls" got under way with that huge helping of drums, it hit me that the new digs were going to work out after all. Again, he sounded amazing and dug in doggedly, and you could feel it through the whole room.
The next instrumental round-robin encompassed "Here We Go," preceded by what sounded like an old standard; the bass-and-harmonica-driven "That's Just What You Are," which Jon also adorned with some falsetto trills toward the end; and "irrational rocking" in the form of his own "Get Over Yourself."
There was definitely a mischievous air to the show, further amplified when Jon took a couple of animal-shaped items off the celeste and wound them up. Not just cute toys or, perhaps, beloved companions, they were music boxes that spun to the tune of "On Top of the World," leading Jon to take it up on piano and vocoder for a line or two. This, in turn, triggered a long deconstruction of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which Jon simultaneously reveled in ("that was fun") and reprimanded himself for ("oh no, it's me!") after the workout. The piano remained the focus for much of the rest of the set, as Jon dispatched three more of his own songs at the bench.
For the near-finale, he requested a familiar element (a sing-along), but in a manner I hadn't seen at the old place. He explained that at the Coronet, they could, ironically, do things that made the room feel more intimate than they ever achieved at the old spot. And to illustrate his point, he picked up an acoustic guitar, perched on a monitor at the front of the stage, and went completely unplugged, letting us fill in the melodies, harmonies, and all the magical bits of a couple of Beatles songs. The vocal fills were indeed gorgeous on "Here, There and Everywhere," and though less subtle, "I'll Be Back" was no slouch either. I was already feeling the love much earlier in the show, but this double play sealed it. Extending our reverie, Jon closed out with "random harmonium" before the break.
The second set opened with a couple of Jon's numbers, including my suggestion for "Nothing Between Us," this time accompanied by the music boxes. Requests for Jon's work had been strong all night, but "Strings That Tie to You" marked the last of his originals we'd hear for the evening.
The first two covers of the set couldn't be more divergent in style, from the short, bemused take on "Sgt. Pepper's" to the jeremiad known as "You Don't Know What Love Is." We tried our hardest to harness the power of our voices once again for "Good Vibrations," but it paled (though still delighted) in comparison to the Beatles rock block earlier that evening.
Jon delivered his own harangue on Guns 'n' Roses when the request for "Welcome to the Jungle" popped up, though he gave it quick whirl on the banjo anyway. Despite what sounded like a protest of doing "a lot of fucking Beatles tonight," he obliged the "Sexy Sadie" request as well.
I think it was around this point that Jon called out a bunch of familiar names, most of whom weren't around, but one turned up: Sebastian Steinberg. They recruited a young, lanky drummer from the audience and tore into a selection of Hendrix songs, even if Jon skimmed over some of the lyrics to "Wind Cries Mary." A different drummer from the audience beat Tom Biller (I think) to the stage for the T. Rex tune, but no substitutions would be allowed for the next guest: Grant-Lee Phillips, who clambered up midsong to lend it a little piano and backing vocals.
As soon as he got the chance, Jon removed the guitar from his frame and draped it over Grant's shoulders, while he moved back to the drums and sort of commanded Grant to come up with something. I'm not sure if Grant's next move was an original song or a cover, but it was a jangly tune that sounded great.
The next act was slightly more theatrical, as all eyes went to the back of the room, we craned our necks, and the spotlight followed: Benmont Tench had arrived, after Jon had inquired several times. Exhibiting that semi-swagger that's become his norm lately, Benmont took over the mic for a bluesy turn before planting himself at the piano for his better-known abilities. The floor was all his, as even the performers onstage settled into the background to listen in. Following Benmont's showcase, the four-piece carried off "Benny and the Jets," then brought Sean Watkins in to join them.
For this portion of the evening, Jon made some adjustments, ensuring everyone had an acoustic guitar and setting up the old-fashioned microphone for them to gather around. This was, in a way, an extension of the acoustic set we heard earlier. Jon kicked it off with "Positively 4th Street," then invited Sean to take up "Write Myself a Letter," complete with a solo opportunity for each musician.
As requests rolled in, the woman who asked for "'Train Bound for Glory' into 'Monster Mash'" may not have lucked out if Benmont hadn't picked up on it. However, the execution fell to Grant, and I'm going to have to leave it at that because I can't hope to describe it, except to say it was hilarious and spot-on.
The room had fully dispensed of reverence now, so while "Mother's Little Helper" was pretty traditional, "Suspicious Minds" may have gone overboard in that direction, with Grant aping Elvis's delivery to a T--then carrying over the same vocal style to "Night Moves," which sent both Jon and Benmont into spasms of laughter mixed with groans of horror. Benmont composed himself enough to guide them over to "Crimson and Clover," which Jon and Grant welcomed with various techniques for re-creating that wobbling, doppler-esque effect for the backing vocals (fanning the air, thumping their chests, pinching their throats, for example).
The next tune might've been Bowie's "Andy Warhol," but don't quote me on that. I'm, however, confident in reporting the rest of the set, which comprised all '80s synth pop. The Men Without Hats/Dexy's Midnight Runners medley was a mere appetizer as they delved into Human League with vocals provided by Mike, Largo's favorite enforcer, switching off with all the girls in the room, as the song required. (Also, I got a secret thrill from remembering that I requested it some months ago). The final song, Jon admitted, was "cheating," but that didn't stop anyone from joining in anyway.
I had halfway prepared a carefully worded assessment of the room's progress, but no need--it's on! The good folks on La Cienega have done their homework and created yet another magical venue. To borrow a certain phrase we've been hearing a lot of lately, this is a change we can believe in.
--noodling/Thus Spake Zarathustra/more noodling
--Over Our Heads
--I'm on a Roll with You
--O Christmas Tree
--Knock Yourself Out
--Walking Through Walls
--Here We Go
--That's Just What You Are
--Get Over Yourself
--On Top of the World/Somewhere Over the Rainbow
--Ruin My Day
--Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way
--Stop the World
--Here There and Everywhere
--I'll Be Back
--Dead to the World
--Nothing Between Us
--You Don't Know What Love Is
--Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
--Strings That Tie to You
--Welcome to the Jungle
with Sebastian Steinberg and Noah from the audience
--The Wind Cries Mary
with Grant-Lee Phillips, Sebastian Steinberg, and John from the audience
with Grant-Lee Phillips and Sebastian Steinberg
with Benmont Tench, Grant-Lee Phillips, and Sebastian Steinberg
--Benmont piano extravaganza
--Benny and the Jets [Grant]
with Sean Watkins, Benmont Tench, Grant-Lee Phillips, and Sebastian Steinberg
--Positively 4th Street
--Write Myself a Letter [Sean]
--This Train Is Bound for Glory/Monster Mash
--Mother's Little Helper/Suspicious Minds/Night Moves [Benmont/Grant/Grant]
--Crimson and Clover [Benmont]
--Safety Dance/Come On Eileen [Grant]
--Don't You Want Me [Mike + audience]
--Always Something There to Remind Me [Jon + audience]
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