Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the voices in your ear

If I had known that Jon Brion would follow up his gig opening for Of Montreal with his own show at the Swedish American Hall, I might've spared myself a trip to Southern California last weekend--but probably not.

Jon Brion, Swedish American Hall, 07-25-09Jon Brion, Swedish American Hall, July 25, 2009: I should've seen this coming. After all, Jon appended two visits to Chicago with intimate, hastily arranged gigs. It made perfect sense to do the same in San Francisco, but there was not a peep until Flanny announced it at last week's show. Fortunately, no flight changes were required to accommodate this extra date.

Wanna know the difference between a Jon Brion gig at Largo and one away from Largo? By my estimation, about a dozen guitars, a half-dozen microphones, and Flanny's intro. The moving truck parked outside the Swedish American Hall should've tipped us off that this wouldn't be a half-assed out-of-town gig, but it wasn't until we made it inside that the realization hit. The A/V club would soon come to session.

Pops and clicks from what turned out to be the keyboard mixer haunted the first portion of Jon's show, slightly marring the ever rueful "Someone Else's Problem Now" and the exquisite looping of "Strings That Tie to You." Quickly consulting with his techs and switching to guitar seemed to take care of the situation and brought us a couple more of Jon's mainstays, notably a Django-style "Me Myself and I."

Jon Brion, Swedish American Hall, 07-25-09

"Further Along" featured the first song build of the night, but Jon's second sortie, for "Someone to Watch Over Me," drew distinctly rapturous applause. Not that he was playing to crickets before, but the reaction clearly kicked up a notch--deservedly so--for Jon's marked reimagining of the classic song.

I suspect, however, that this bravura performance didn't prepare the audience for Jon's next bravura performance. That is, he fired up the video mixers, cued up two separate video clips (one of a Latin band and the other of some sitar players), tickled many, many keys, and brought it all together for "More Than This." Sigh.

Admitting that he mainly wanted to do standards in the style of the White Album (see "Someone to Watch Over Me" above), Jon checked in with the audience and came away with a good sampling of suggestions spanning his original material and covers. He generally opted for understatement for the former; the usually bombastic "Not Ready Yet" landed on acoustic guitar, and the song's customary middle freak-out translated to a flurry of nylon-string notes. "Ruin My Day," meanwhile, swooped in from the heights, settled into its more customary cadence, and eased out prettily and inconspicuously.

Jon Brion, Swedish American Hall, 07-25-09Emmitt Rhodes and Brian Eno, however, enjoyed the full treatment. Jon entertained us with "Knock Yourself Out" while he tried to figure out how he was going to carry off the former. I don't think anyone doubted that he could loop the outro, as he announced to no one in particular, but hearing it was another matter, as the song's relatively humble piano-based beginning opened up to a grand denouement of drums, guitar, and probably a number of other instruments too.

Though Jon claimed to send out the Eno selection to three people in the audience, I suspect the numbers are a little higher. With the energy he poured into the song, he might as well have been playing to 3,000. That pounding drumbeat, those penetrating piano notes, met by the eviscerating bass and guitar--I sometimes wonder if it feels as good to play the song as it does to hear it. My guess: No--it probably feels even better.

As we approached the end of the set, Jon teased out a brief piano interlude that he called "an antidote to white noise" and granted a fan's request to do "Knock Yourself Out" again. This time, he opted for the celeste.

He would also switch on the video mixers a couple more times: first, for "Felix Goes West," a black-and-white cartoon for which he provided live accompaniment. The one part I could identify was a a ragtime reading of "Lithium," and believe it or not, it suited the old-time footage nicely.

Jon Brion, Swedish American Hall, 07-25-09

For the final selection of the evening, he layered at least three different segments: one of a different Latino band, this time one with a more troubadour-like feel numbering only three men using guitars and fiddles, as well as two different theremin players. I'm oversimplifying, but through Jon's manipulations, they morphed into a string section for a song I haven't heard in ages, Cheap Trick's "Voices."

I've previously blogged about the version of "Voices" I heard at my first Jon Brion show, but it's been missing from his setlists for a while. Sounding nothing like that rendition from a decade (!) ago, tonight's reading lost the tinkling music boxes and traded them for rocking riffs and disc scratching. If anything, it harked back to his earlier statement about playing songs in the style of the White Album, with drawn-out arcs, dips, and drama.

Before leaving the stage, Jon mentioned that tonight's gig was a "recon" mission for future visits. I don't believe it for a second, and I don't need my friends who've seen his shows in New York and Chicago to confirm those suspicions. Still, the visit sure was nice while it lasted.

--piano/Jeopardy theme/If I Only Had a Brain
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Strings That Tie to You
--Me, Myself, and I
--No Excuse to Cry
--Further Along
--Punch-Drunk theme/Here We Go
--jazzy piano
--Someone to Watch Over Me
--More Than This [video mashup]
--Knock Yourself Out
--Promises I've Made
--Not Ready Yet
--Ruin My Day
--Baby's on Fire
--"Felix Goes West"
--Knock Yourself Out

See also:
» first-time high
» public service announcement

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