Wednesday, August 26, 2009

above you and beyond me too

At a club known for its residencies and regulars, with a rich roster of celebrated singer/songwriters, Neil Finn qualifies as something special at Largo. Maybe it's the incredible music he's made over the years; maybe it's his ability to charm and win over everyone within earshot; maybe it's the relative rarity of his visits. Whatever the case, any show with Neil at Largo is one for the books, and a three-night (and more) semi-secret engagement is even more monumental.

Neil Finn, Largo at the Coronet, August 16-18, 2009: Earlier this summer, Jason Jones of the Daily Show introduced the concept of aged news:

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Anyway, if you don't mind that this post comes a full week after the shows or that the activities--not to mention even more "surprise" appearances I couldn't attend--have already been well documented on the Internet, enjoy this aged blog!

Though Crowded House came through the United States on two tours in the last couple of years, I failed to catch a single show--for the first time in nearly 20 years. Both runs were unfortunately timed; I was, um, on the road for other bands. In addition, the first foray hit all the venues I hate. In other words, I was really looking forward to Neil's shows at Largo.

Technically, the first show of this three-night stand was a 7 Worlds benefit--I believe the fifth such gathering for this Oxfam-affiliated project that happens to bring together some of my favorite musicians. I was definitely one of those people who ate up all the details of this latest 7 Worlds collaboration when the artists and their families first met up last December. In the interim, I've downloaded the shows, watched the YouTube videos, and generally daydreamed about seeing them for myself.

Granted, the group sharing that "favorite" title was not present, but the substitutions--local and otherwise--helped assuage those pangs. Monday and Tuesday's gigs were billed as Neil solo, but Elroy Finn and Jon Brion would back Neil on all three outings. Meanwhile, Lisa Germano sat in twice, while Bic Runga and KT Tunstall clocked one appearance each. Bic, in fact, nabbed the title of the most miles traveled in the least amount of time, navigating a round trip between New Zealand and Los Angeles in a mere three days. Oh, and Mark Hart dropped in for the last song of the last night.

It'd be foolhardy to claim that any lineup short of the blockbuster bill convened in New Zealand last December could re-create that same buzz and excitement eight months on and an ocean away, but this assemblage succeeded in conveying their spirit and the laid-back give and take. If there were any blemish on Sunday night's performance, it might've been the dearth of guitar picks, as the players seemed to swap between exactly two picks the whole night. However, that was not the point. Rather, this would be the first time many of us heard for ourselves the songs played live; additionally, we'd help a worthy cause (Oxfam) and, last but not least, welcome Neil Finn back to Largo.

In case anyone was worried, both Flanagan and Neil assured us from the stage that Neil approved of the new Largo and all its ensuing changes. My guess is he wasn't alone; though neither Elroy nor KT (and maybe Lisa?) had visited before, they showed few signs of nerves. Elroy stepped up to sing his own "The Cobbler," and Lisa jumped between violin, piano, percussion, and vocals. In between, she exchanged many hugs with her follow players--especially with KT.

Speaking of KT, she may have stolen the show. Her energy and the chemistry she shared with the other musicians are impossible to quantify, but her derring-do was evident. The most bravura moment of the night may have come during the encore when she not only tried a new song (about Margaret Trudeau), but navigated a chain of technical difficulties before she hit her stride. This trial by fire, in fact, transformed the song from the avant-garde number she initially promised into a punk blast.

This blog wouldn't be this blog if I didn't mention Jon Brion's roles. At a show where everyone qualified as a jack-of-all-trades, Jon mainly assumed the stance of a background player and maybe equipment manager (all the gear appeared to be his), but I can cite a few standout moments. There was "All Comedians Suffer," when he broke a string on his guitar, but proceeded to play with abandon--twisting the whammy bar, producing all sorts of unimaginable sounds--anyway. And who could forget the cover medley toward the end of the gig, where his contribution of Spinal Tap's "Gimme Some Money" helped guide Neil from "Jean Genie" to "Eight Miles High" and eventually to "Sunny Afternoon"?

Finally, there was the, er, finale of Lisa's lovely "From a Shell." Everyone joined in, but Jon, Elroy, and KT yielded an atypical instrument of choice: Red Stripe bottles. I want to say Elroy started it, but Jon soon took the reins, arranging and directing the artists in between swigs of beer. Skoal!

The single element tying together the whole night was--no shit--Neil Finn himself. I can't do justice to Neil's legacy or his draw; the droves of longtime (and I mean longtime) fans should be evidence enough. But even if you're new to Neil's show, his appeal should be clear. And if it isn't, the respect he commands among his fellow musicians should jump out. He's one of the most easy-going leaders I've ever seen, yet he inspires the artists around him to stretch themselves and to take a risk.

Neil led this charge, introducing many of those elements of chance into the show, such as trying out the vocoder, playing instruments he doesn't usually man (bass on "Reptile"), encouraging the artists to step up (urging "more" piano from Jon on "Girl Make Your Own Mind Up"), or letting them shine on their own (KT and Bic on "Black Silk Ribbon"), not to mention placing a couple of long-distance phone calls: one to wife Sharon, and one to Sebastian Steinberg. I hope our appreciation came through more clearly than the songs themselves.

This is all window dressing, though. Neil's talent is what's kept us coming back all these years, and it was on fine display. That voice, the songs, those bridges (!) remain as appealing as ever.

Neil Finn, Largo, August 18, 2009
The setlist for Aug. 18, 2009
For his two "solo" shows, Neil favored the more obscure tracks from the catalog. I would've loved to hear, for example, "Distant Sun," just because I know Jon can go to town on it--and because I'll take any excuse to hear Neil raise high the roof beams--but that was not to be. However, it's hard to complain about any gig where Neil plays "Faster than Light" or "I Feel Possessed."

For my own selfish purposes, I was delighted to see Jon break out on "One Step Ahead," which he imbued with both sleigh bells and ragtime piano. Also, they worked up "Private Universe" once more, just as they had on Friday, complete with video, Neil's drum loop, and Elroy's live accompaniment. Finally, Jon's harmonium was a lovely and unusual touch on many of the songs.

Jon did not have a monopoly on unusual instruments, however. Neil succumbed to the MicroKorg, and with minimal instructions, he presented "Billie Jean" and another improvised piece. Lisa would turn out to be the mistress of the MicroKorg, effortlessly churning out a thumping beat. As Jon acknowledged, she proved to be the funkiest of the bunch.

Neil forgot the words to a few songs, most notably on "Sinner," which he had to try three times. He looked inconsolably perturbed by the lapse, but I don't think anyone held it against him. If there was a silver lining to these tiny missteps, it'd have to be the audience's immediate and vocal uptake, filling in the words that escaped Neil. It was an impressive display, I gotta tell you.

If I had to choose one shining moment from this three-night engagement, I wouldn't hesitate to name "Something So Strong" as the revelation. Neil explained we were to hear what the song sounded like before Mitchell Froom got involved. And despite his warning/apology to Jon that this would be a surprise entry (Jon: "You're a mean man"), they carried it off beautifully. Neil's demo was indeed a far cry from the radio hit that dominated the airwaves in the summer of 1987, leaning in a folksier direction, but its classic form couldn't be obscured. I'd love to hear that again. And again.

It only took 14 months to bring Neil to Largo at the Coronet, but I hope he knows he has a new home in Los Angeles--and it's not so different from the old one.

See also:
» i've got it bad
» wherever there is comfort, there is pain

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