Tuesday, September 16, 2008

singin' songs for pimps with tailors

Not that I'm implying the Largo crowd would likely choke a bitch or get their clothes Bedazzled in any way. In fact, judging from the ubiquitous T-shirt-and-jeans ensembles tonight, I'd venture the audience coming out to see Nels Cline and Jon Brion shop strictly off the rack.

Nels Cline and Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, September 10, 2008: My love of musical collaborations dates back at least to 1984, when Bob Geldof assembled some three dozen of my then-favorite performers under the Band-Aid moniker to record "Do They Know It's Christmas." Since then, I've certainly witnessed a lot more team efforts, though not always by choice. Aside from the more cynical marketing moves, I remain fascinated by truly artistically motivated pairings and, at times, even the WTF-worthy unions. I guess I like the notion that artists can be fans of each other, as corny as that sounds.

If you subscribe to this theory, you may also agree that nowhere is this more encouraged and evident than at Largo. I jumped out of my seat when the initial Nels Cline/Jon Brion show was posted on Largo's schedule, and I'm no less excited by their latest outing, their inaugural appearance as a duo at the new space.

Though Jon and Nels's working dynamic has proved far from static, I'm afraid my reporting style does not. Regardless, I'll break down each composition as best as I can.

Song 1: In a New Yorker article from May (which I just read), Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a group of very smart people who veritably breathe innovation. Here's one person's take on their achievements:
Bill Gates, whose company, Microsoft, is one of the major investors in Intellectual Ventures, says, "I can give you fifty examples of ideas they've had where, if you take just one of them, you'd have a startup company right there."

About two-thirds of the way into the opening number, it occurred to me that Jon and Nels aren't so different from these engineers, scientists, and inventors. Hear me out on this--in their own way, Jon and Nels generate as many musical ideas in these shows as some bands come up with over the course of their careers, and this introductory outpouring is a perfect example of this.

thingamagoopThis much I can tell you: Jon started out with a pretty piano pattern, while Nels dug up a bluesy guitar riff, thus establishing the vaguest plan of action for the rest of this number. That is, Jon stuck with mostly keys-based items, and Nels stayed close to his guitars, though the thingamagoop made a cameo appearance.

I counted at least six separate segments in this composition, but the transition I remember best took place around that aforementioned two-thirds mark. Nels and Jon had worked out a particularly spacey section that brought to mind transmissions from faraway NASA satellites--when they took an abrupt turn.

Jon picked up a piano tuning tool and made some adjustments to the instrument, while at the same time working out a melody. Nels, meanwhile, started cultivating an epic sweep of guitar that wouldn't sound out of place in a stadium, accompanied by a blanket of lighters and cell phones. This was that "startup" passage, which could launch a thousand bands.

Jon answered with a mad stab at the chamberlin, bringing them close to something like psych rock. From there, Nels's guitar playing mounted to a squall while Jon returned to wielding the hammer against the piano's guts.

The piece slowly drew to a lengthy denouement over a little more than one movement, though not exactly two either. Jon gave us gorgeous, cerebral piano work, including one segment that may have shared some DNA with Bowie's "Life on Mars," and the piano hammer came out again. In concluding, Nels switched between several instruments; he would make use of a banjo uke, a lap steel guitar, and a nylon string guitar before the song ended on his classical guitar notes.

Song 2: You don't want to know how long it took for me to write the description above, and I somewhat dread the task of encapsulating their second sprawling excursion. Well, I guess I can start from the beginning: Jon set down a drum beat, against which Nels worked a 12-string. From there, Jon grabbed his black-and-white Gretsch and took a spot across from Nels, first establishing the bass groove, then sharing lead guitar duties.

Jon and Nels wore their joy of playing as a team on their faces and in their fretwork, and their glee was infectious--as was the tune. They tore through a laundry list of styles, with Nels emerging as the lead. Perhaps to highlight this development, Jon backed out of the spotlight and to the front edge of the stage (jumping up and down giddily), while Nels continued to bend notes, our preconceived notions, the time-space continuum...

The interplay progressed; Jon added his own solo, a darker, bluesier counterpoint to Nels's sizzling moves. Nels would eventually bring out the spring, a favorite prop, and, more traditionally, an autoharp that he played a bit like a lap steel. Jon later switched to the piano and keyboards, as well.

This series of gigs has shown a lot of flexibility, starting out as entirely wordless affairs, later branching into original songs as well as covers, and inevitably adding friends and colleagues. In fact, at their last date, you wouldn't be off-base to guess that drummers comprised the entire audience, judging by the rate at which they took the stage.

The first newbie to join them tonight was Becca Michalak, a frequent collaborator with Nels. We spied glimpses of her saxophone catching the light from the side of the stage and heard its bleat before she stepped in proper. She found her groove quickly, slipping in as if they were an old, established trio, rolling out what sounded the most like a traditional jazz piece we'd hear all night.

Sebastian Steinberg soon plumped up their ranks, bringing with him the big, metal bass that should, at this point, be familiar to Largo audiences. Jon even opted for a seemingly preferred action plan: He dug out the brushes and mallets, parked himself on the floor, and played against the bass itself.

The three men fell into support roles, as Becca took the lead for this section. Unfortunately, Nels was forced to hold back, as sound issues soon surfaced for him. But when he was able to fire up the dobro, he coaxed out those transcendent, label-defying notes he's known for.

Song 3: As the crew investigated the technical issues, Jon offered one of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies: Honor thy error as a hidden intention. Well, if Nels had to endure random glitches, I suppose I have to take responsibility for my paltry addition to the show.

I always work out a request before attending a show at Largo, and I was ready with a suggestion in case Jon opened the floor to the audience. But he foiled my plans for requesting "Croatia" by asking for a title of a song that hadn't been written. I whispered "shit" under my breath--or so I thought--but thanks to a variety of factors (the Coronet's amazing acoustics, the audience's respectful silence, and my proximity to the stage), I may as well have yodeled it across room.

Jon announced they were going with "Shit," and all four players dove in without hesitation or restraint. As the song slowly subsided from its opening explosion, Jon introduced vocals and a hook. Nels, Becca, and Sebastian found their roles within the song, backing Jon beautifully through the song's real-time development. Becca was especially impressive, equally adept at the frenzied and the sublime, the latter in full display as the song rode out on her elegant notes.

Song 4: Following the earlier example, the crew served up "Sandwiches," as suggested. Sebastian took the reins on stand-up bass, and soon after, Jon introduced acoustic guitar to the mix, instantly imbuing the song with a Spanish accent. On electric guitar, Nels sped up the riff and added some heft, while Becca clapped along, echoing the exotic feel. Jon would also turn in a solo and Nels would switch to dobro as the song progressed. The Spanish tone persisted, though the song crossed genres, approaching '20s-era jazz toward its completion.

Song 5: I can tell you exactly what song they played here: "For the Turnstiles," thanks to the arrival of David Rawlings, bearing a banjo. It took me a moment or two to figure out who it was, a beard and a straw hat obscuring some of his features, but I almost fell off my chair when recognition set in. As I've mentioned before, David Rawlings is the only semi-regular Largo visitor whose unannounced appearance I'd be really sad to miss. I didn't need another reason to love this show, but I got one.

David offered minimal guidance to the rest of the band, suggesting they play in the key of D, but they needed little help. Becca went with brushes on the drums, Jon arranged himself at the piano, and Nels reached for the dobro, with which he painted beautiful instrumental strokes.

Song 6: I can name this one too! Though it took them a little while to get there, Jon provided the impetus, informing David that he would take the vocals and drums on a song especially chosen to match the single groove David claimed to know. After some fiddling and tinkering, David was finally mic'd and settled at the drums, and the song could start: none other than "Cortez the Killer."

I've heard Jon and various accomplices carry off this song several times now, with no rendition like the other, and I took away two major memories of this performance. The first was Becca's striking presence, her saxophone infusing the song with yet another layer of poignancy and longing. In fact, she proved herself a superstar throughout the show, and though it wasn't the first time I've seen her play, a very different side of her abilities emerged in this setting.

The second was the trifecta of guitar solos by, in order, Jon, Nels, and David. David and Jon pulled off perhaps the greatest piece of theater during this song, as they switched places with nary a pause, Jon manning the drums and David slipping out in time for his turn on guitar. Jon also assumed vocal duties for the coda, assisted by Nels's expert guidance on guitar.

Curtains fell on the show in the big room, but the night wasn't over. After a spot of socializing in the courtyard, we filed into the Little Room for the remainder of that set. It was my first visit to the other half of Largo at the Coronet, and I wasn't disappointed by the oddly familiar space--or by the well-known faces on the tiny stage. We managed to catch a handful of songs by David Rawlings, Sean Watkins, Benmont Tench, and David Garza before they--and we--packed it in. What a killer, indeed.

The Jon Brion/Nels Cline Largo series:
» i like jon brion. a lot. (part 1)
» i'll be back again
» three-god night
» and when you touch down
» just keep counting the stars
» the men stood straight and strong
» round midnight

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