Friday, August 14, 2009

manifestation of desire

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since the last Nels Cline/Jon Brion show at Largo. In between, Nels hasn’t exactly been a stranger, paying at least a couple of visits to the Coronet (one of which I sadly missed), but as an avid fan of this series, I love having them back.

Nels Cline and Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, August 8, 2009: The show opened with a short greeting from Jon, followed by an entreaty to Nels to speak. With that, for the first time, Nels presented their plan--or at least their "manifestation of desire"--for the evening. "We would like this to be the most psychedelic night in West Hollywood in the last 30 years," he said.

Granted, just because Nels and Jon have committed to an idea doesn't mean it's any easier to describe what they do. Consider the following, then, a rough outline of the night. This is truly the kind of show you have to see for yourself.

Song 1: One of the things you have to know about these Nels/Jon sessions is that there is no premeditation whatsoever. They don’t discuss any of this; they just get out there and play whatever the hell they feel like. Thus, you could regard the first song of the night as their warm-up. It just so happens, though, that they do it in front of the audience.

Historically, they’ve been in no hurry to take the night’s temperature, and this evening wasn’t so different except they managed to rein it in at a relatively brief 30 minutes. I counted five movements to this piece, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who claimed more or fewer. If I had to break down this piece to its most basic elements, I'd say it started with a brooding build-up, morphed into a rocking, robotic segment, bloomed into a '70s-style epic, went all spacey and Eastern-sounding, then finished on equal parts menace and melody.

Along the way, we beheld several delightful sights and feats, such as Nels playing drums (always a blast), as well as a small tulip-shaped guitar, though I'll leave it to the gearheads to identify the latter. Nels also switched between all his customary accoutrements, such as the spring, the megamouth, the thingamagoop, and the Kaoss pad.

Jon, of course, was all over the map as well, and tried out a couple of things I hadn't seen before. In one segment, he beat against the piano strings with the vocoder, creating an industrial sound effect. For another, he taped himself using a small handheld recorder, then played it back through the vocoder, shaking it along the way for even more sonic dissonance.

Ordinarily, their dual guitar attack would stack up as my favorite portion of the tune, and they didn't hold back tonight. Jon even broke a guitar string as he accompanied Nels's bluesy notes with wails and spasms of his own. But I think I preferred the coda, with Nels on drums and Jon buzzing away on guitar. I could easily see that fitting right in on one of Nels's records, even if he wasn't manning his usual post.

Song 2: I'm not sure whether a chronological chronicle of events would help illuminate this song, so I'll try to stick to the highlights. This exercise may have been most notable for Jon's use of the video mixers and Nels' immersion in it--marking the first time I've seen anyone other than Jon join the video guests. Jon started with footage of Leonard Bernstein leading an orchestral performance of Charles E. Ives' "The Unanswered Question," mixed in with video of Ravi Shankar and Sonny Rollins. Before this tune drew to an end, we would also seem cameos by Louis Bellson, Nina Simone, and Maria Callas. Whether any of them surfaced in the mix, however, is open to debate.

I have no problems pinpointing two of the peaks of the performance. The first had to be when both Nels and Jon threw on their guitar straps and hit some huge, resounding notes, sounding not unlike the Clash at their most rousing and anthemic. At the risk of sounding reductive, that passage alone was worth the price of admission.

But in addition, we were witness to Nels accompanying Sonny Rollins to the best of his ability, as well as breaking a string on another passage. Jon, however, may take the cake for the move of the night. Not content to twist and turn his whammy bar in directions it probably shouldn't have gone, even suspending the big hollow body by that metallic sliver, he at one point threw down the guitar altogether and dove at his pedals. For several minutes, he -- stop me if you think you've heard this one before -- lay supine, slapping at his pedals with abandon.

Song 3: Every Nels/Jon show has at least one contrary number, a song you wouldn't expect of them and they may not have guessed at themselves. Tonight, each picked up an oversize acoustic guitar and plucked out some of the prettiest notes you can hope to hear. I thought I heard a slight nod to Billie Holiday, but I can't be sure. Certainly, however, it served as a delicious palate cleanser to a heady evening.

Song 4: Nels and Jon returned for their encore, leading Jon to ask--rhetorically, I think--"What's left?" I guess that depends on what you believe has already elapsed.

Their answer came in a cold, electronically inclined dystopian composition. Nels kicked it off by creating a drone and a suggestion of heavy machinery at work. He would also bring in the megamouth, the thingamagoop, and a new contraption--some kind of revolving lampshade?--I'd never seen before. Jon, meanwhile, fired up his analog synth to create a background of blips and beeps.

That psychedelia they requested at the start of the evening? I wouldn't say they fulfilled that ambition, but I suspect they hit upon several unanticipated milestones along the way. Let's do it again!

The Jon Brion/Nels Cline Largo series:
» i like jon brion. a lot. (part 1)
» i'll be back again
» three-god night
» and when you touch down
» just keep counting the stars
» the men stood straight and strong
» round midnight
» singin' songs for pimps with tailors

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