Tuesday, September 02, 2008

you dream maker, you heartbreaker

At the peak of my sports saturation last month, I was sorely tempted to inflict upon my readership the worst Bob Costas impression of all time, freely spout the term "Olympian" as if I had grown up in the shadow of the Parthenon, and perhaps most mortifying, draw an analogy between Jon Brion's musical abilities and the feats achieved by various medaled athletes--but I didn't. Also, I knew it would come back to embarrass me soon rather than later--unless, of course, I revise this entry and eliminate all evidence of this train of thought (watch this space).

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, August 29, 2008: Newsflash: I saw a Jon Brion show tonight--no, not a Jon Brion and friends show, or a Jon Brion and random audience members gig, or even Jon Brion joined by Largo staff. It was Jon and Jon only, and just when I thought I knew what I was in for, I got something else altogether. Follow along below.

Before Jon took the stage, "Tim Cottonfield" from KCRW's Tofu Jungle program (actually, comic Craig Anton) took the mic to hit every L.A. public radio cliche you've ever heard. Because I'm so bad at selling comedy, I'll leave it there, except to add that he offered some vindication to anyone who's ever tuned into KCRW and asked of their radio dial "People donate to this?!"

Jon moved with surprising deliberateness through his first handful of songs, starting on the drum kit for "Croatia," which featured a slightly different guitar solo in the middle; meandering musically for a few moments before easing into "Magnolia" (I couldn't stop smiling); and transitioning easily into "Roll with You."

The evening's initial exploratory expedition took flight with "Moon River," which started on chamberlin and floated on billowy synthetic chords before Jon made an abrupt turn to coax it through a jazzy interpretation. He then concluded with what you could call the "For No One" take on the song--that is, that harpsichord-sounding effect he uses from time to time. I didn't want this languid and luxurious song to end.

For the follow-up, Jon went with a bunch of his own tunes. Among these selections, "That's Just What You Are" incorporated a different vocal take, in which (as I recall) he stretched out some of the lines, in contrast to the straight-ahead pop cadence of the recorded version. I love the song as is, but I also welcome his reinventions that make you question the narrative and the emotion, as they did tonight.

Around this point, Jon asked for requests, beginning with a bit of a lark: a mashup of "Fake Plastic Trees" and "Strawberry Fields," but in truth, this lasted for about three lines. The next selection, a sing-along "She's Not There," probably better qualified as a real performance. It was superfun to belt out (even if it took me until the third chorus to finally get the words right), and Jon seemed to approve of our contribution, punching the air with his fist.

"Alice's Restaurant" merited about a single line as well, but an audience member hit the sweet spot with an NRBQ request. On top of conveying genuine admiration for the band, Jon admitted with some chagrin that he might actually enjoy this set after all. He then wrapped up the rest of the set with a wide spectrum of songs: one more number on the nylon string guitar, a song build, two standards on piano, and another request, delivered in the style of Les Paul.

For the second set, Jon began with a couple of his songs. "Over Our Heads" streamed out from a cauldron of keyboards, while on "Same Thing," he mixed in tambourine and maraca, two instruments I don't recall hearing before on this number. There were some more details that differentiated the night's rendition from others I've heard before, but I suspect those notes are too minor to mention--and I'm not sure I could put my finger on them anyway.

The requests started again, and Jon entertained a number of unusual suggestions, including "Misty," as in "Play Misty for Me." (Evonne informed me of the connection after the show.) Speaking of, her call for "This Guy's in Love with You" brought about the straightest version of it I've heard at Largo. Of course, I've always enjoyed E's various interpretations, but it was no hardship to not break for laughter during the song.

Then things got fuzzy. The requests kept coming, and among the voices, an audience member exclaimed "Obama!" This, in turn, inspired a long soliloquy from Jon, assuming the role of the "weird dinner party guest" who only wanted to talk about the topics typically frowned up in polite conversation. Thus, with one taboo dispatched, a harangue on religion, nearly as drawn out as the political screed, followed. Several minutes elapsed before Jon decided it was time to play music again, but "Kashmir" didn't make it in its original form. Instead, Jon inserted lyrics urging "Don't vote for McCain" and other bits of advice I didn't catch in lieu of Zeppelin's typical Tolkien-inspired nonsense.

I've loved indulging in Jon Brion gigs over the last two-odd years, but I admit it's not always easy to get excited over the prospect of hearing certain songs from Jon's scant--by traditional industry standards--recorded output. I think each fan has his or her favorites and, errr, non-favorites, and well, I wouldn't object to retiring "Walking Through Walls" for a stretch.

Fortunately, I was proven wrong tonight, as Jon's latest performance of the song unleashed invigorating levels of energy and reinterpretation. Laying down the drum track, Jon was generous and boisterous in his looping of "motherfucker." I thought it was just a mischievous outgrowth of the evening's earlier diatribes; perhaps it was in part, but it also turned out to have a prominent role in the bigger scheme. In addition to echoing one of the song's most memorable lyrics, those very same "motherfucker"s were perfectly timed to alternate with the beat, in essence acting as another percussive element.

In the real-time portion of the song, Jon could be seen bashing away on the guitar. A broken strap did little to slow him down; instead, he descended to the floor, eased onto his back, and continued to strum away, without a hint of self-consciousness. On the side of the stage, his assistant Bret and (I believe) Sean Watkins could be spied snapping away, though neither moved to break Jon's reverie. Eventually, Jon rose to his knees to throw out a surf-style solo and administer more effects to the guitar--all icing on the cake.

Elton John was the next request that Jon picked out from the audience appeals, also noting that Elliott Smith often asked for the same, usually by way of napkins slipped to the stage. Naturally, someone asked for an Elliott song as well, though Jon sort of brushed it off.

Elton, though, had been promised and was helped along by the assemblage of audience voices, following Jon's wish. Then muttering "fuck it," he dove into Elliott's "Happiness."

Lately, I've heard Jon do "Happiness" more often than I could've guessed, and it's always a treat, not just because of the memory of Elliott or his artistry but also because Jon puts such a gorgeous spin on it. This evening's version of the song veered from the familiar outline in more ways than one.

On a purely objective level, it's easy to cite the surface changes: In addition to the integral piano, Jon adorned the song with the full range of instruments, including a touch of drums and gorgeous, ringing notes from a hollow-body guitar. He built the layers and extended the arc until it was as grand as any of Jon's other classic treatments that leave the audience talking for days and weeks on end (see "Heroes," "Creep," and "Tomorrow Never Knows," to name just three). And at the end, he quoted "Waterloo Sunset," another musical touchstone he shared with Elliott.

But there was another aspect to this performance that was as evident as the melody, the lyrics, or the arrangement: Jon's visible emotion, nearly on par with the poignant display we saw at his last show on Fairfax. There's no way in hell I'm going to speculate on what may have been going through his mind, and I'm reluctant to describe the facial expressions he betrayed because I fear I would be relating only part of the story. But I know that even as this gorgeous and epic work unfolded, it was hard for me to keep the sorrow in check, and after the show, I walked away feeling distinctly shellshocked. I've never been anything less than thrilled to hear this song, but tonight's translation served as the most ringing reminder of Elliott's legacy--how much he gave us, and how profoundly he's still missed--I've yet experienced at Largo.

--Craig Anton opener

Set 1
--Magnolia theme
--Roll with You
--Moon River
--Knock Yourself Out
--That's Just What You Are
--No Excuse to Cry
--So I Fell in Love with You
--Fake Plastic Trees/Strawberry Fields
--She's Not There
--Alice's Restaurant
--Riding in My Car
--You Say You Don't Love Me
--Further On
--Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key
--I've Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)
--If I Only Had a Brain

Set 2
--Over Our Heads
--Same Thing
--Yankee Doodle
--This Guy's in Love with You
--politics and religion rant
--Walking Through Walls
--Someone Saved My Life Tonight
--Happiness/Waterloo Sunset

See also:
» we could steal time just for one day
» the end is near
» her little heart it could explode
» all is full of love

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