Monday, February 16, 2009

with songs about things we all know

I don't necessarily miss freelancing, but nowadays, I have to jump on that rare combination of shows that offer advantageous timing and worthwhile venues. The two Jeff Tweedy benefit gigs in Chicago over the Presidents Day weekend fit that bill perfectly.

Jeff Tweedy, Vic Theatre, Feb. 13-14, 2009Jeff Tweedy, Vic Theatre, February 13-14, 2009: Four years ago, I went to the first Jeff Tweedy benefit shows for Kawasaki disease research, among my favorite concerts ever, thanks to the cause, the music, and the collection of friends it brought together. This year was the first time I've been able to attend them again, but it's been so rewarding to see the gigs evolve and grow.

The benefits have certainly come a long way since that debut, when a dear friend essentially wrote the awesome setlist. Now, the first 30-odd fans in line choose the songs for Jeff to play (though he ultimately retains veto power). Call me selfish; though I'm no stranger to this approach, I assure you it doesn't get old.

Certainly, I have a high threshold for repetition; otherwise, I wouldn't sign up to hear many of these songs for the umpteenth time. But the shows included more surprises than I expected. Not from me, though--I hedged my bets and put in a couple of fail-proof requests: "Lost Love" and "Someday Soon," the latter with an impressive helping hand from the audience. Following the game plan for the night, Jeff credited each requester with their request. He came through for the former, even pronouncing my name correctly for the first time I can recall, but forgot on the second round--life goes on, however. Except for one major omission--and an equally sincere apology for said oversight--our gang got in all of our favorites, including "Blasting Fonda," "More Like the Moon," "All the Same to Me," and "The Long Cut."

Jeff Tweedy, Vic Theatre, Feb. 13-14, 2009

My favorites, though, came from other quarters. There was the supremely enthusiastic fan in the front row who asked for the divine "So Much Wine" by the Handsome Family; at the other extreme, grudging thanks go out to the drunk guy in the balcony yelling for "I Wanna Be Your Dog." The other noteworthy cover of the night was "Fake Plastic Trees," which is a current staple of Jeff's sets. And in terms of originals, the acoustic version of "Hate It Here" worked a lot better than Jeff predicted. Of these relative rarities, "Fake Plastic Trees" perhaps suffered a bit in the solo acoustic environment, but the pathos in Jeff's vocals was undeniable.

Tying together these songs and the entire performance was a supremely sarcastic singer. We may have laid out a respectable amount of dough for our tickets, but no one was safe from his barbs, be they parents from the school, the drunken peanut gallery in the balcony, or those with odd, obscure, or inappropriate requests. When he wasn't talking to the audience, Jeff directed many of his comments--also odd, obscure, and inappropriate--at his wife, Susan. He didn't exactly deliver a musical love letter as he had in Los Angeles three years ago, but the humor--and ultimately, the charm--came through.

See also:
» i won't be denied
» springtime comes
» turn our prayers to outrageous dares
» i don't want to leave this walking dream

Thursday, February 12, 2009

everything's a memory

Thanks to the rain, the night's crowd couldn't match the generous numbers we saw in January, but a good-sized audience grabbed their umbrellas, pulled on their wellies, and ventured out to kick off the weekend with--who else?--Jon Brion at Largo.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, February 6, 2009: An uncommon occurrence in L.A., the rain moved Flanny and Jon--transplants both--to comment on the weather. But if you were expecting more familiar topics, you would've been happy to hear Flanny's barb about Bush, as well as an aside over Jon's jacket. Plus ça change...

Under the soggy skies, the Coronet felt more than ever like a refuge, and a good portion of Jon's set tonight might've been the sonic equivalent of a thick robe, fluffy slippers, and a hot toddy--to a certain extent. Namely, tonight he favored his originals, interspersed with a handful of covers.

But of course, these familiar tracks held some twists and embellishments that I hadn't heard before and will likely never hear again in exactly the same form. For example, "Roll with You" rode out on a charming "la la la" outro, the guitar roared to life in "Happy with You," and "Trouble" levitated to a gorgeous, vociferous piano bridge. In between, nearly every song included some subtly different phrasings that reminded you why you come back again and again. We even heard a new tune, an upbeat number paced along the lines of "Knock Yourself Out," complete with a sweet, fun bridge and a wry ending.

Along the way, the covers provided comic relief. Jon granted the "For No One" request, but only if we supplied the French horn solo. Our second pass was slightly more respectable, but frankly, the less said about it, the better. (Full disclosure: I was absolutely useless, as it's one of the few Beatles songs I barely know.)

Jon flat out announced that "no amount of drugs or military coercion" would make him come around to "Radio Ga Ga," as suggested by an audience member; instead, he used it as a springboard to "Play the Game." Several audience members asked for "Happy Birthday" before Jon relented and guided the song through all the styles that come so easily to him: Vince Guaraldi, classical, then finally the absurd, as he turned up the vocoder and mashed it up with "Funky Town." Fortunately, he brought it home with "More Than This"--and I went ga-ga.

Jon closed the set with a Les Paul-style take on the Pixies (incorporating "Jesse's Girl," per usual) and his own "You Made the Girl." Though it's not my favorite song, the latter's psychedelic guitar treatment was a pleasant surprise this time. Even better, it didn't signal the actual end of the night, as Jon returned to the stage with the caveat that he needed to play something upbeat and without a guitar solo.

We finally redeemed our subpar requests from earlier in the evening, thanks to two separate callouts: the first for "Blitzkrieg Bop," the second urging Jon toward the vibes. He embraced the challenge--and carried it off beautifully, maybe to a greater extent than expected. Jon triumphantly quipped that the vibes never enjoyed a punk phase and pondered other similarly deprived forms. To cut to the chase, imagine the scene: Jon at the edge of the stage, acting out punk tap dancing. (Fear not, Savion Glover.)

Extending the punk motif, Jon refashioned the Dick Van Dyke theme on an acoustic 12-string after some helpful prodding from the audience. For the finale, though, he flipped the premise upside down, taking the Buzzcocks' "You Say You Don't Love Me" and fashioning a lush, mellifluous one-man symphony.

--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Eternal Sunshine theme
--Roll with You
--Happy with You
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--For No One
--Over Our Heads
--But Beautiful
--Strings That Tie to You
--Further On
--Please Stay Away from Me
--new song
--Play the Game
--Happy Birthday/Funky Town/More Than This
--You Made the Girl

--Blitzkrieg Bop
--Dick Van Dyke theme
--You Say You Don't Love Me

See also:
» million dollar bash

Sunday, February 08, 2009

oh me oh my oh

Often I could use a concert, but there are times when I need a gig. David Rawlings and Gillian Welch could've chased my week's worth of exasperation away on a comb and a kazoo, but to no one's surprise, they far surpassed those expectations.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Largo at the Coronet, February 5, 2009: Now that David Rawlings and Gillian Welch have established an intermittent residency at Largo, I'm less anxious about missing opportunities to see them. For example, I managed to limit my twitching to a mere hour or so last week when I knew they were scheduled for a late show in the Little Room.

I'll need to amp up those reminders that I've seen David and Gillian plenty and that there's a decent amount of repeats in their shows--because their gig tonight immediately forced me to eat my words. In the first half-dozen songs, we got maybe four perennials before the show settled into a set favoring less familiar tracks from their deep repertoire. Thanks a lot, guys!

But ultimately, I'm a glass-half-full girl, and I realize the fluidity of their sets is a sign that they're finding their bearings and growing ever more confident at Largo. Not only that, they're also extending the umbrella to a passel of new faces we might not have otherwise seen at the Coronet, while simultaneously retaining the support of many Largo regulars. I believe that, once upon a time, this was how musicians grew their reputation and their talent. Have you heard of such a thing?

Among these newer colleagues was trumpeter Nate Walcott, enlisted for a song that was technically off limits for the Rawlings Machine: "My Morphine," featuring Gillian on vocals. The trumpet's tones took to this ode to opium immediately; I think Chet Baker would've approved.

Nate stayed for much of the rest of the set, and soon after, Morgan Nagler came on for "Sweet Tooth," as she has for all the Rawlings Machine shows at Largo. However, her role expanded as well. For starters, the rest of the gang--Don Heffington, Sebastian Steinberg, and Benmont Tench--ambled on to back her for Whispertown2000's "Time Will Welcome Anything."

Their next move was less seamless, as they worked out what song to take on (Benmont was especially resolute in his recommendation) and brought out another guest: Mike Campbell, aka Benmont's bandmate and fellow Heartbreaker--as in "Tom Petty and the." Benmont's insistence proved fruitful--and well-founded--as Morgan warbled "Brand New Key," the '70s hit. It was an inspired choice, and Morgan hit it out of the park.

Morgan exited the stage, but nearly everyone else remained, leaving Mike Campbell as the rookie of this group. He wore that game yet reserved look often seen on Largo newbies, no matter what their actual talents, and slowly eased in, whipping up solos on the acoustic guitar, whether or not he originally knew the tune. He didn't exactly appear anxious to relive the experience, but it was a good start.

Benmont prodded them into "Deep River Blues" while Gillian was tuning her guitar for her other number of the night--"Look at Miss Ohio," the duo's hit single. After we caught our breath on the heels of that masterpiece, the main set roared to a close, in the form of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and what I'd wanted to request all night, "Jackson."

My rote cataloging doesn't do the performance any justice, though. Days later, I can't stop thinking about "Look at Miss Ohio" and "Jackson." Clearly, they both have their charms--the former, its exquisite narrative; the latter, its instant lift--but in the context of this show, I'm still in awe of the very different ways they brought out David and Gillian's voices.

For instance, there were points in "Look at Miss Ohio" where I couldn't get over how beautifully their vocals melded--and how many bombshells hide in plain sight among those lyrics. Does it even qualify as harmony when two singers are so perfectly matched?

"Jackson," of course, is not known for its subtlety; then again, that's exactly its appeal. I just loved the hootin', the hollerin', the back and forth, and the un-folk-like moves it elicited from the duo: Gillian's little fanning motion and David's rock-and-roll hop. Hotter than a pepper sprout, indeed.

They once more concluded with "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," a sure crowd-pleaser, even if David forgot a verse (which Gillian immediately forced him to redo). If I may be so bold, I'd like to offer one suggestion: They should bring out Morgan for this tune. It's not so far removed from "Brand New Key," give or take a decade.

See also:
» hear them all
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg
» used to be one of the rotten ones
» that's all they really want