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.
--Ruin My Day
--Here We Go
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Misty Mountain Hop
--Hungry Like the Wolf
--How Soon Is Now
--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]
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