Spending two consecutive weekends at Largo--much less almost a full week in Los Angeles--in the same month that I'm supposed to be packing boxes and moving into a new apartment is probably not the most advisable course of action. However, I never gave it a second thought, and it all started, of course, with Jon Brion's Friday night show.
Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, August 14, 2009: Even if you didn't know that a very special guest was slated to join Jon's gig tonight, you might've started putting two and two together at the sight of the unusually large, buzzing crowd, when Jon promised to stay in the "upper to midtempo" range, or later in the evening, when the request process started breaking down. But before the audience could glimpse upon their favorite singer, they'd have to take in Jon's set first. (I hope they know how lucky they are.)
Red Bull in hand, Jon sat down at the piano and launched into his originals, including a piano-and-harmonica-laden "Roll With You," as well as the first song that came to my mind when he vowed to keep the show moving along: "That's Just What You Are." What I presume to be a new song fell squarely into the power pop camp, with a chiming guitar solo that would be ringing out of every bar and car radio if there were any justice in the world.
In my experience, any night Jon plays "Moon River" is a good one, even if this evening's rendition was slightly marred by the barrage of requests (some quite questionable) still hurtling toward the stage after he began the song. Jon good-naturedly commented on it, but that may have been lost on the shouters. The din eventually settled down, allowing us some quality time with this classic, which swelled with Jon's turn toward the Chamberlin and trailed off in a jazzy, fractured trickle of piano. Sigh.
Jon's video screens appear to be more than a passing fad, and for his first visual venture of the gig, he partnered Leonard Bernstein with Leon Theremin for a suspenseful, inscrutable build, upon which he added his own piano and MicroKORG touches to emerge with--ta da!--"Meaningless." Keener ears may be able to pick up on discrete elements of this multidimension mashup; I found the orchestra harder to discern, but the theremin came through loud and clear in all the right places. In addition, Jon's vocals suggested an eerie calm, unlike the exuberant iteration on the studio version, and they sounded great against the full-bodied accompaniment of his 2D collaborators.
Favoring the epic scale, Jon set off on "Someone to Watch Over Me" in all its grandiloquent glory, though this time with a bluesy tinge. And then he called on the guest of honor.
I'll say more about Neil Finn in an upcoming post, but for now, all you need to know is that any time Neil shows up at Largo, it's an event. The fact that he had just flown in from London about three hours prior only upped his cred in our eyes--as if he needed anyone's approval.
Neil and Jon kicked off with a couple of older Crowded House numbers, Neil strumming and Jon adding piano, celeste, and especially Chamberlin to the classics. But rather than play it safe, Neil (with Jon's help) created a drum loop of a "jungle" beat for the next song. As the song developed, Jon moved over to the vibes, then the Chamberlin, and from that point on, all other expectations fell by the wayside.
Neil may have instigated this experiment, but it mushroomed into the Manhattan Project in Jon's hands. To Neil's credit, "Private Universe" is a perfect candidate for Jon's newest techniques, as its free-form ending allows for all manner of deviations. And for all that Jon did with this song, there's no doubt he merely scratched the surface of its potential.
Our little corner of the room squealed in delight when Nels Cline -- via video -- joined in (according to reports, the footage had been shot after Jon and Nels's gig the week prior) and Jon isolated a burst of guitar to fill out the song. The virtual ranks would soon swell with the addition of Eric Clapton, John Entwistle, Louis Bellson, and an old-time four-piece quartet.
At one point, Neil himself would stop playing, transfixed by the spectacle and admitting that he just wanted to watch. While he could easily blame the jet lag for his astonishment, Neil contributed a bit of "Those Were the Days" over the mix, and though perhaps surprised, he hardly seem fazed by Jon's latest exploits.
Jon returned by himself for the encore, though Neil could be seen hanging in the shadows. I reckon the Red Bull from the top of the evening kicked in around this point, as Jon pummeled the drums and set the scene for "Tomorrow Never Knows." Talk about a perfect candidate--is there any song from the rock era more synonymous with experimentation?
The biggest highlights of this opus managed to show off two aspects of the video component. There's the musical element, best exemplified by the footage of Maria Callas, which matched up beautifully with the song's rising bedlam. Then there's the visual statement (and let's face it--music and video have gone together long before MTV went on the air), demonstrated on this occasion by Jon superimposing a clip of a ballerina over Nels's movements, in turn juxtaposed with a Bollywood dance routine. It might be overkill to report that Eric Clapton, the aforementioned singing group, Leonard Bernstein, Ravi Shankar, and Iron Butterfly clocked in as well, or that I think Jon pulled off a left-speaker/right-speaker separation during the course of the tune. File that one away.
We dashed off to the Little Room for the second set, which commenced with Jon on the piano for some Billie Holiday. Business as usual, right? Of course not! Neil Finn is in the motherfucking house, for pete's sake!
I could (and probably will) break down each song they performed together, but I need to mention this first: As far as I'm concerned, there are few artists who are warmer and more open than Neil. I can't approximate Neil's exchanges with Jon or the audience, except to say that he made this very small room feel ever more intimate, even for this longtime fan. (That could also be the wine and our front-row seats talking.)
Per Neil's suggestion, they delved into Carole King's greatest hits. Neil recalled that they tried it last time he was in town, but my records show we last heard these tracks during the previous visit. I'm not complaining--I've been requesting Carole King at Jon's shows for the last six months, and I'm grateful to Neil for taking up the slack. I'm also grateful to at least a couple of audience members for remembering the words and to everyone else who sang along.
Neil shared his abridged version of New Zealand's history, something along the lines of Sir Edmund Hilary climbing Everest to Lorraine Downes winning Miss Universe to Flight of the Conchords. In between, he told us of his personal track record with a local talent show, which he won on his third outing. In storytellers mode, he played the song he lost to ("Quando Quando") and the one he lost with ("Coming into Los Angeles"). However, I can't for the life of me recall what ditty finally nabbed him the title. Can anyone help with that detail? Though no one in the room claimed to know "Quando Quando," that didn't stop Jon from pouring some awesome piano over it.
Neil asked for requests, but demurred on "Running Up That Hill." No worries--it fell squarely into Jon's territory, and he obliged. Neil took the final two selections: the first tipping a hat to Hunters and Collectors, the second to his father. Though the night was drawing to a close, Finn Fest 2009 was only beginning.
--Roll with You
--Over Our Heads
--That's Just What You Are
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Someone to Watch Over Me
--Fall at Your Feet *
--Into Temptation *
--Private Universe *
--Tomorrow Never Knows
--I've Got It Bad (And It Ain't Good)
--Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow *
--You've Got a Friend *
--It's Too Late *
--Coming into Los Angeles *
--Quando Quando *
--Running Up That Hill * [vox = Jon]
--Throw Your Arms Around Me *
--I Can't Get Started *
* = with Neil Finn
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