Wednesday, January 21, 2009

million dollar bash

Don't be deceived--it wasn't as easy as you might think to attend this week's shows by both the Nels Cline Singers and Jon Brion. But it's nothing that a measure of machinations, airport Wi-Fi access, and a smidge of subterfuge can't carry off.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, January 16, 2009: With all due respect to the musicians who've already played gigs prior to this date, I now know that my concert year doesn't truly begin until I get to a Jon Brion show at Largo.

Witness: Twelve months ago, Chicago had the honor of kicking off 2008 with Jon, but in my humble opinion, Jon's inaugural Largo appearance for the year--again, with all due respect--topped that formidable achievement. And just when I thought the Rawlings Machine set the bar last week, Jon's show reminded me to reconsider. Again.

Speaking of inaugurals, both Flanny and Jon referenced Obama in their opening remarks, and this joy seemed to carry over into Jon's performance. If you've been to any number of Jon's shows, you know they can start out on a subdued note, but we didn't have to wait long tonight for the pace to pick up. Apart from a down-tempo "Here We Go" (performed on solo bass) and "Please Stay Away from Me," Jon kept the beat rolling with a strident "Ruin My Day," the instant pick-me-up known as "Same Thing," and a stomping build of "Further On."

These happy hints crystallized into a self-selected cover for which Jon sheepishly apologized. However, that didn't stop him from regaling us with 10 (15? more?) minutes of "Misty Mountain Hop," with a slight detour into "Stairway to Heaven." He followed up with a snippet of a request from the audience, something he called an "obvious" choice but that escapes me. The gloves--albeit loosely fitted to being with--weren't just off. They had been trampled, torn, and tattered.

Now Jon asked for our requests and thus commenced the '80s block--i.e., heaven. Let the record show I had nothing to do with "Hungry Like the Wolf" performed à la Fats Waller, though I would've been happy to jump in with lyrical assistance--and maybe reenact some of the scenes from the video--if needed. I've always wanted to request Duran Duran at Largo, but I could never bring myself to force it on the rest of the audience. My gratitude goes out to the like-minded soul who did the dirty work.

I'll gladly take credit for the next request: "How Soon Is Now," though Jon required the sing-along. He demurred a bit on his contribution to the song, claiming that the tune's timing "kills" him, but I'll come clean on our pathetic vocals. We didn't even last until the legendary third verse.

For the final act in this look back, Jon opted for a semi-regular selection from his repertoire. Though audiences seem to favor "Raspberry Beret," "Kiss," or "Controversy" when it comes to Prince, from what I can tell, Jon tends to go with the less celebrated "Pop Life" when left to his own devices. And it's not hard to understand why; his addition of that warm, soulful undercurrent really transforms the tune. Also, he got to use a new toy (some sort of electronic drum pad) for the number.

It was back to Jon's originals for the next segment. "Knock Yourself Out" sounded refreshingly folksy and airy on a regular acoustic guitar, and performed on vibes, the already ethereal "Strings That Tie to You" flitted effortlessly through the room. "Croatia" extended the upbeat tone of the show (I still want to hear Nels Cline take a swing at it).

"Stop Your Sobbing" encompassed a grand buildup that kept us guessing for a while, and when it did land, the bass shook the room. But this was merely a prelude to the night's coda.

Jon solicited our requests but didn't warm to them immediately. When he settled on "Heroes," he indicated some reluctance--not for the song itself, but for the laborious looping it entails. It was the first time I've heard him voice these reservations, but it makes perfect sense. I guess I've always been so wrapped up in the song by the time he starts looping the piano--at which point I'm usually barreling toward ecstasy in expectation of the vocals--that I've never reflected on the physical and technical expertise it requires. As if I didn't love this song enough, my appreciation of it deepened with that insight.

Behind the curtain, a crowd started to gather. I spied Gillian Welch first, then Benmont Tench. They put their heads together in conversation before inching out on stage while Jon, unaware, wailed away on guitar. Gillian played the accomplice, holding up Benmont's BlackBerry, from which he read the lyrics to the song. When he finally looked up, Jon encouraged Benmont to continue (perhaps for longer than necessary).

Ben eventually found his way to the piano, and Jon took over the vocals. Gillian had left the stage, but with some encouragement from another latecomer--David Rawlings--she returned, this time to take over the drums. Their numbers increased as David walked up and was duly delegated to take over for Jon on electric guitar. Finally, Don Heffington staked out a spot next to Gillian to play the electronic drum pad.

Their roles expanded as they drew out this epic for several minutes more. Ben contributed backing (not lead) vocals; David, after a gradual start, was shredding before long; and Jon flitted about. He dabbled with the analog synth and the vibes; he sang while sitting on the floor; and for David, he switched the guitar pedals on and off, as well as acted as a human mic stand. I think we also got a tiny nod to "Waiting for the Man" at the end.

Though the Bowie song had been intended as the finale, the quintet wasn't about to stop. Right about here, I requested "Ballad of a Thin Man" because (1) I knew they were capable of it, and (2) I wanted to hear it. Jon immediately passed the buck to David, but David nixed the idea on account of (he claimed) the verse about the midget. Not too surprisingly, they went with a couple of different Dylan numbers instead. Funny enough, they kind of had to sell Gillian on "Gotta Serve Somebody," as she professed her fascination with the electronic drum pad. A team player, she came round and kicked in harmonies and tambourine--but got in a couple of shots at the pad too.

I've said it before, but it might be worth repeating: Of all the musicians I've seen share the stage with Jon, David Rawlings could be his most formidable match in terms of talent, knowledge, and fearlessness. This is no slight on the amazing artists I've seen at Largo, but not many of them have shown the willingness to take over the reins--or at least collaborate to such an extent--at a Jon Brion show as David has.

This became evident again tonight. Jon had ceded the floor to David and Gillian by now, and unlike many of the guests at Largo, they weren't shy about taking up the slack, even going so far as directing their ad hoc bandmates on what instrument to grab, what solos to take, and what cues to look out for.

For their last number, David suggested that Gillian take the mic, and after some back and forth, they decided on the Rolling Stones. She didn't quite remember all the lyrics, but on a more positive note, David and Benmont extended themselves beautifully on the song. Benmont gilded it with a touch of celeste, while David opted for the slinky slide guitar, not to mention a quick exploration of the vibes. Jon supplied the low end, but as the song drew to a conclusion, he momentarily resumed command and directed them toward a segue that I couldn't catch.

Just before Jon left the stage, he informed us that he had cleaned out some storage space and was giving away some of his clothing. Lo and behold, two racks were parked in the courtyard. We picked up a few items; they may never see the light of day, but they'll likely be my favorite Largo souvenirs ever.

Largo at the CoronetSetlist
--Ruin My Day
--Same Thing
--Here We Go
--Further On
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Misty Mountain Hop
--Hungry Like the Wolf
--How Soon Is Now
--Pop Life
--Knock Yourself Out
--Strings That Tie to You
--Stop Your Sobbing

w/Don Heffington, David Rawlings, Benmont Tench, and Gillian Welch
--Heroes [vocals = Benmont and Jon]
--Million Dollar Bash [vocals = David]
--Gotta Serve Somebody [vocals = David]
--You Can't Always Get What You Want [vocals = Gillian]

See also:
» blues, too
» don't give yourself away
» the first one said to the second one there
» hear them all
» singin' songs for pimps with tailors
» i remember standing by the wall

Sunday, January 18, 2009

blues, too

This midweek madness needs to stop. But it probably won't--at least not when some of my favorite musicians are playing one of my favorite rooms.

Nels Cline Singers, Largo at the Coronet, January 14, 2009: What I didn't care to mention in my first concert report of the year is that my second (and, full disclosure, third) gig for 2009 would return me to Largo. While I was holding up the status quo, others were--fortunately--flouting it. I'm talking about the Nels Cline Singers debut at Largo at the Coronet, and in the big room, no less.

I remain, as ever, useless at reporting much about the music the trio carries off, so I'll talk about what little I can grasp.

On the whole, they played a similar set to what we saw at Cafe du Nord just a few months ago. The selections somewhat favored tracks from Nels's upcoming solo album Coward but with the odd cover and unreleased track, as well as older titles, thrown in. We saw familiar implements such as the megamouth, the spring, and the thingamagoop. We even got a little of Nels's deadpan commentary.

Nels Cline Singers, Largo at the Coronet, 1-14-09But this wasn't a typical Singers gig either. For one thing, they delivered one long set instead of the two shorter sets that usually comprise their shows. And they even had a setlist! Finally, though the trio was no less gung-ho in their playing, there was a certain seriousness to this performance that contrasted sharply with that goofy, loose air in San Francisco last November.

Perhaps my favorite song of the night was "The Angel of Angels," a sober, piercing elegy among the ferocious, complex epics Nels is better known for. At the other extreme was "He Still Carries a Torch for Her," which concluded with Nels settling on his haunches and holding to his guitar strings a creepy doll that simulated playing a stringed instrument, propelled by--I don't know what, to tell you the truth. But I'd hate to run into that doll in a dark alley.

This blog wouldn't be this blog if I didn't mention the penultimate number, "Something About David H.," performed with assistance from Jon Brion, his frequent foil on the Largo stage. Coincidentally, Jon also played on the album version of the song. Though I should know better by now, a part of me always hopes that Jon will show up at very Largo gig I see, no matter who's playing. I wasn't kept in suspense too long tonight; Jon slipped out for a second in the middle of the set to adjust his keyboards. However, I might not have otherwise figured out that his equipment was parked right in front of us.

For this song, Jon was any other ensemble player supporting Nels's vision, kicking in the swells and slacks, and adjusting accordingly. The four of them ran the gamut from the delirious to the delicate, in the end filling the big room with a fragile eeriness that suits the Coronet quite well.

Bobb Bruno opened the show with his typical supporting cast, but played a longer set than I've seen from him. Though I find it hard to describe his music, I got a sense of the song's arc and intent, amplified by the Keyshia Cole sample in the final passage.

See also:
» hear them all
» still carries a torch
» singin' songs for pimps with tailors

Thursday, January 08, 2009

hear them all

This might be a precedent for me: a 24-hour turnaround, in the middle of the week, all while putting in a full day at the (virtual) office. Foolhardy? Frivolous? Flagrant? A word that doesn't start with "f"? Judge if you must, but keep in mind that we're talking about David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and the first show of the year at Largo--a capital combo.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Largo at the Coronet, January 7, 2009: I was a bit baffled that this show wasn't listed as sold out; under Gillian's name, the duo packs much bigger venues. This gig wasn't even a secret, as it was noted on her Web site and mailing list. Sure, it was announced at a time when people are typically on vacation and away from their computers, and money can be tight after the holidays. But you'd think 300 people in a major metropolis/media hub would find their way to the Coronet.

As it turned out, the multitudes eventually arrived, and there was some scrambling before the show could commence. We weren't immune to this shuffling, but I'm happy to report that at least one of us got a surprise in their seating assignment.

After seeing David and Gillian's shows in the Little Room last month--not to mention that giddy, epic, almost hallucinatory night on Fairfax two-plus years ago--the biggest question for me was how they'd handle the move to the big room. Mind you, I always figured it was just a matter of time; Largo's main space is still a fraction the size of the venues the two typically play.

I can tell you what remained the same: their off-the-cuff manner, marked by David's admission after their first song, "Diamond Joe," that the planned portion of the evening had concluded. Gillian later commented that the show was simply an excuse to kick off the new year at Largo with friends and that they were merely the designated hosts.

Overall, their set comprised many of the songs the Rawlings Machine is known for and that we heard in the Little Room in December. We're talking about "Hear Them All/This Land Is Your Land," "Monkey and the Engineer," "Throw Me a Rope," and "Knuckleball Catcher." In fact, that sums up the first five songs of the night.

My notes break down after this because (1) I simply don't know several of the songs they played, (2) it's dark in the back of the Coronet, and (3) Gillian's promised "cavalcade of stars" joined in. What turned out to be a considerable roster of musician friends marked the biggest change from their show at the Little Room--well, that and David's lovely vintage suit. Don't think, however, that this revolving cast affected the show's overall tenor. There were no slick hand-offs or costume changes; the stage didn't revolve. Instead, David and Gillian excused themselves a number of times to duck behind the curtains and take account of the talent.

First up was Morgan Nagler of the Whispertown 2000 to reprise the "Sweet Tooth" (?) song they wrote together. I suspect you can read numerous double entendres in the lyrics, but it was an apt companion piece to "Big Rock Candy Mountain," sung--and partially flubbed--by David just a couple of songs prior.

As Morgan left, Benmont Tench and Don Heffington arrived, settling in as sort of the house band for much of the rest of the show. Benmont, of course, sat down at the piano, but Don, without a drum kit onstage, brought his own small snare drum and a set of brushes. They first kicked up "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," then brought it down a notch with Harper Simon's appearance for two songs, one of his own and Neil Young's "Birds," sung with Gillian. For the latter, Sara Watkins also took her spot with them.

Harper's departure signaled Sean Watkins' arrival, and he fell in for a good run. My favorite selection from this segment was probably "River of Jordan." Though Sara was seemingly singled out for lead vocals, it became almost a four-fold chorus, with David, Gillian, and Sean chiming in too.

They didn't lose anyone when Willie Watson of the Old Crow Medicine Show stepped up. I was thrilled that their first choice was John Lennon's "Crippled Inside," but I didn't know their second song, "We're All in This Together," until informed after the concert. I saw Willie once before at the Watkins Family Hour, but his strong, distinctive voice rang out tonight.

Bonus: Benmont painted both songs with amazing details, though in entirely different ways. For the Lennon tune, he poured out the passion, then dusted the second song with the filmiest, prettiest notes you can imagine.

For me, the biggest surprise of the night came next: Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice. With David, Benmont, and Don, they sang "Love Hurts," currently a staple of their live set. But just as quickly, they were gone--to make way for Benmont's solo turn!

Not that it was intended as such--David egged Benmont on, then used the opportunity to check on the status of the next guest. Regardless, we took in Benmont all alone on the stage, the spotlight and our attention focused solely on him as he serenaded us with Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean." Benmont has always been a great sport and thrown himself into whatever situation Largo requires, but this was one of the purest expressions of his talent and inspiration I've yet seen.

Furthermore, David was able to take care of business during Benmont's segment and returned with the last guest of the evening: Jackson Browne. With David, Gillian, Benmont, and Don, Jackson did one of his own songs, and at the risk of sounding ever more repetitive, I'd like to report that Ben brought it on this tune. David and Gillian's harmonies were sublime, as well.

For the big finale, they invited everyone back, though not everyone took them up on the offer. But rather than list the absences, let's check out the returnees: Benmont, Don, Sean, Sara, Harper, and Willie. Together, they built up a fierce, sweeping "Queen Jane Approximately." With Benmont and Don setting a particularly bracing foundation, David was free to deliver driving vocals and a relentless guitar solo.

David and Gillian honored our calls for an encore, just the two of them covering Neil Young's "Tired Eyes." Then for the true end-all, Benmont and Don once more took their spots, David and Gillian urged excessive reverb from the sound booth (though still not enough, in my book), and they regaled us with another of their favorite covers, "White Rabbit." In this respect, the Little Room couldn't measure up; heady and intoxicating, Gillian's voice and David's guitar swirled to the farthest recesses of the Coronet.

It's gonna be a great year.

See also:
» please take my advice
» that's all they really want
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg
» any old time
» i'm not looking for a cure

Saturday, January 03, 2009

favorite shows of 2008

Happy new year to everyone! First off, I won't bother naming my favorite releases of the year, as my listening habits deteriorated drastically in the past 12 months. Second, I almost didn't post this list because it was so laughably, pathologically homogenous, but I rejiggered it so that it doesn't read like a bad, unsolicited PR sheet (I hope). Nonetheless, it gave me a great excuse to review the awesome concerts I saw in 2008. I'm looking forward to even more great musical memories in 2009.

1. Jon Brion, Largo, January 12, 2008
Jon's last show at Largo on Fairfax was undeniably affecting and powerful, but this gig wins out for an entirely selfish reason: They played my request for "Band on the Run"--and it was awesome. I'll coast along on that memory for years.

British Sea Power, Maxwell's, 5-19-082. British Sea Power, Maxwell's, May 19, 2008
Chaos is de rigueur at a British Sea Power show, but I'm confident we crossed over to pure pandemonium at Maxwell's. And I mean that in the best way possible. I just hope they bring Ursine Major next time--and that there is a next time. Also, if I were ranking albums, Do You Like Rock Music would easily top the list of my favorite records of 2008.

3. The Verve, the Warfield, April 23, 2008
If I weren't so uptight, I might declare a three-way tie for my favorite show of 2008, but dammit, I need my rules. Split decisions aside, I gotta say the Verve concert packed the most powerful wallop of the year, simultaneously delivering the sensitivity and the swagger that their music, at its best, has always embraced.

The Verve, Warfield, April 23, 2008

4. Wilco, Riviera Theatre, February 15-20, 2008
It took me about a month to recover from standing out in the Chicago winter for five days, but it was a small price to pay for the chance to live out my dream scenario of seeing my favorite band playing (almost) every song in its catalog. Consensus says Saturday's show was the best, thanks in part to Andrew Bird's guest spot and the truly spontaneous encore, but in this case, the whole exceeded the sum of its parts.

5. Broken Social Scene, Outside Lands Festival, August 27, 2008
I'm not generally a fan of festivals, but some bands are meant for those expansive, oversize stages, and Broken Social Scene has to be high on that list. At Outside Lands, this Canadian supergroup reminded me that "indie" and "larger than life" don't have to be antonyms. Also, they brought out Scott Kannberg!

Broken Social Scene, Outside Lands Festival, August 24, 2008

See also:
» top albums and gigs of 2007
» top 10 concerts of 2006
» top 5 albums of 2006
» top 10 concerts of 2005