Sunday, November 29, 2009

don't get around much anymore

I'm back in the gig game, however briefly, after a visit to--surprise, surprise--Largo at the Coronet for a Jon Brion show. As the year wanes, I'll post less often, but the well won't dry up completely. However, the names will look awfully familiar--I mean, moreso than usual--in the weeks to come. Caveat lector!

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, November 21, 2009: In case you've been wondering, I have, in fact, been living under a rock for the last month. To be more specific, I've been settling into the new apartment, loading up on freelance work, watching a lot of TV, and living within my means (for a change)--in short, being boring. It kills me that I haven't wanted to see any bands coming through the Bay Area in the past few weeks, but alas, my gig requirements aren't what they used to be. Fortunately, salvation lies, in weekly allotments, to the south.

We got a sneak preview of the guests scheduled to drop in tonight, both via the Largo email list and with our very own eyes, but that's never been the point (for me, anyway) of seeing a Jon Brion show. However, it sort of explained Jon's emphasis on his own compositions in the first part of the set. As is his wont, he opened the show with a range of styles, from the airy "Over Our Heads" to the soulful "Someone Else's Problem Now" to the spare "It Looks Like You" to kind of a '90s-era college rock version of "Same Mistakes," all discord and fuzz.

But then he sprung a new song on the audience, a piece I first heard in August, according to my not especially trusty notes. But even without my reference material, I probably would've reached the same conclusion based on the irresistible jangly guitar riff alone.

Jon finished this first figurative lap around the Largo stage with a visit to the video mixers, summoning footage of Andrés Segovia, then joining it up to a clip of a string band playing alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Jon spliced, diced, and looped the sounds, culminating in "That's Just What You Are," then added more effects, including what I want to call the "Little Mermaid" detail--you know, where it sounds like everything's under water. Next up was Maria Callas; I heard her voice as something akin to a guitar solo, punctuating the song with an undeniable emotionality, before Mr. Segovia's measured fingerpicking wrapped up the tune.

"Please Stay Away from Me" nearly marked the last of Jon's originals before we plunged into audience requests. The Summer of Love went ragtime for the Jefferson Airplane suggestion (I swear I heard a hint of "Big Spender" in there too), though cowbell fans might've been disappointed by the piano-and-vocoder "Don't Fear the Reaper." Jon cut through the rest of the requests with a guitar medley that strung together the Rolling Stones, the Turtles, Nirvana, and Village People, among others. Actually, one more cover awaited: a Les Paul-style "You Really Got Me," which took a while to come together, but his perseverance won out--big time.

Jon used to end his sets with those Les Paul tributes, but a whole new phase beckoned, kicked off with another new song that recalled the White Album in its pacing and a sweet, yet weary tone reminiscent of George Harrison's best works. With that, he set the stage for his guests.

First up was Fiona Apple, performing some of the standards she's known for. She sounded rawer than I've heard before on "River Stay Away from My Door," though overall, she looked a lot more relaxed than usual onstage. She and Jon were soon joined by the guest we saw crossing the courtyard earlier that evening: John Paul Jones, visiting on a night off from touring with Them Crooked Vultures.

The trio convened for two songs, including a gorgeous tune popularized by Hank Snow, before Fiona left the stage to Jon and John. Jon runs through "My Baby Left Me" pretty often at his shows, so it'd be hard to call it a novelty, but you had to appreciate where this song led. I'm pretty sure it started with two solos each by Jon and John, and the next thing you know, we listened to a funky wordless jam between the two of them, invoking James Brown here, conjuring Curtis Mayfield there.

When big-name artists stop by Largo, they seem to revel in the opportunity to bypass their hits and play songs you wouldn't expect to hear from them--good luck getting in a Tom Petty request when Benmont Tench is around, for example. Color me surprised then when Jon stepped up to the mic during this extended exchange and started singing "Good Times Bad Times." Picture it yourself: Jon Brion on vocals, John Paul Jones on bass, and a Led Zeppelin song between them. To shake us out of shock, they tried it one more time, the second go-round taking the form of a slow jam and Jon kicking in bursts of Robert Plant-style vocals here and there.

Jon closed out the first set with a video mix of the old-time Latin band he frequently calls up for such purposes, a classical music conductor that I should probably know but can't name (Googling "conductor shock of white hair" didn't help in the least), and Jacques Brel, all in the service of "More Than This." Of the three, Jacques' contributions were less discernible, but I especially enjoyed the orchestra's synth-like accents.

During the main show, the artists had fielded several inquiries into the whereabouts of the Punch Brothers, and each time, they were told that the band was on the way. I think we had their tardiness to thank for the lengthy early set, and as it turned out, they were ready to make up for lost time in the Little Room. Jon appeared briefly to introduce the group, then retreated to the back, content to throw out requests and other bits of guidance. In the process, he offered us a glimpse of the role he fills as a producer--entirely fitting, as the Punch Brothers are currently filling up his dance card, according to reports.

All together, they tried out a few of their older songs, a number of as yet unreleased tracks, and many covers, including Radiohead, Gillian Welch, the Cardigans, the Strokes, D'Angelo, and even an old banjo tune called "Sled Ridin'." Unfortunately, they couldn't tackle the Of Montreal request we fielded, though many of us had seen Chris Thile and Jon carry it off when the Coronet opened; Chris claimed that the rest of the band didn't know it, despite his best efforts to teach them.

Instead, they brought back Fiona for one of her songs and a cover, followed by Benmont's aiding and abetting on another tune. Finally, Jon took his place with them for "Tonight You Belong to Me," though the Punch Brothers claimed no knowledge of the song. Jon and Fiona assumed the bulk of the responsibilities, while the others tried to fill in where they could. I have to commend the Punch Brothers for not only playing along but taking us nearly to the 2 am mark, but for those few minutes, Jon and Fiona needed no accompaniment.

Set 1
--Over Our Heads
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--It Looks Like You
--Same Mistakes
--new song?
--That's Just What You Are
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Somebody to Love
--Don't Fear the Reaper
--Paint It Black/Happy Together/Smells Like Teen Spirit/YMCA/other stuff
--You Really Got Me
--new song?
--You Belong to Me *
--River Stay Away from My Door *
--Don't Get Around Much Anymore **
--Lovesick Blues **
--My Baby Left Me ***
--Good Times Bad Times ***

--More Than This

Set 2
Punch Brothers
--Don't Need No
--Ninety-Nine Years and One Dark Day
--Rye Whiskey
--How to Grow One from the Ground
--One Mo'gin
--Wayside/Back in Time
--On the Bound *
--Walking After Midnight *
--Sled Ridin'
--Ophelia [with Benmont Tench]
--Tonight You Belong to Me [with Jon Brion, Fiona, and Benmont]

* = with Fiona Apple
** = with Fiona Apple and John Paul Jones
*** = with John Paul Jones

See also:
» i've got it bad
» bring it on home
» no one will be a stranger

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Obscurity Knocks: Six by Seven, "The Things We Make"

Welcome back to Obscurity Knocks, an intermittent series of posts highlighting my favorite unheralded albums. Coincidentally, these posts could also be titled British Bands I've Never Seen Live but Really Wish I Had. For this installation, we'll check in on the band Six by Seven, who qualify under both of the above guidelines.

Six by Seven, The Things We Make
Picture this: The curtains open on a group of chorus line of dreamers in 1970s leotards. It's 1996, and I, like so many other directionless liberal arts majors in the Bay Area, became a dot-commer, the effects of which continue to dominate my life. But among the run-of-the-mill rat race-type concerns, I enjoyed one surprising benefit: My Anglophilia rocketed off the charts. Thanks to the then-revolutionary technology known as streaming, the difference in time zones, and the fact that I was stuck at the computer for eight-plus hours each day, I had the perfect opportunity to tune into Steve Lamacq and the Evening Session on BBC Radio 1 every weekday. Not just any radio show, the Evening Session boasted access to exclusive tracks from and interviews with all the big names in British music, as well as a dedication to highlighting tons of up-and-coming bands.

Keep in mind that this was before the days of Napster, MySpace, BitTorrent, and the iPod, when only the chosen few were privy to leaked albums and you had to be an uber-geek to lay claim to a home broadband connection. (Note to self: You are old!) For me, at least, it was an invaluable advantage to be able to listen to music before paying exorbitant prices for the import single. And not just any old music, either--it was stuff I never heard and would likely never air on U.S. radio.

Granted, a lot of it was not very good; my CD collection is littered with discs that are not only unlistenable but unsellable. And the Evening Session wasn't immune to the bursting Britpop bubble; toward the late '90s, they spun horrible nu-metal bands--the very groups I wanted to escape. But for a few years, it was the radio show of my dreams.

I'm pretty sure I first heard Six by Seven on the Evening Session, very likely via "Candlelight." I remember thinking how much they sounded like the Charlatans (UK, I guess) on the single, which is kinda amusing, considering I'm not a Charlatans fan. There must've been something there, though, because I kept listening.

Somewhere along the way, I probably heard the singles "European Me" and "88-92-96," revealing roots more akin to the droney, shoegazer-based variety I love so much. Throw in a Flaming Lips (post-Zaireeka, but pre-The Soft Bulletin, thank you very much) remix of "Candlelight" and you get a pretty promising mix of influences and peers.

Perhaps a little history lesson is needed for those not steeped in the arcana of '90s-era British music. Though the band formed in 1991, Six by Seven didn't release their first single, "European Me," until 1997, followed by a couple more singles and a full-length album--the very subject of this post--in 1998. I don't particularly enjoy framing any artist in the context of another artist, but I'll say this about this record: It would've sounded conspicuously out of place in the Britpop landscape. In the wake, however, of 1997's landmark releases by Radiohead, the Verve, and Spiritualized, The Things We Make presents a logical progression.

Comparisons are cheap, and I admit they're a little tenuous in this case, so I'll try not to linger on the argument too much. What Six by Seven shares with Radiohead is a sonic boldness and a seeming dedication to art rock, and like the Verve, their music is imbued with palpable emotions. Of the aforementioned groups, Spiritualized may be their closest compatriot, albeit with fewer blatant drug references (on Six by Seven's part, that is). It's not hard to pick out the epic buzz and multilayered guitars, but I'll give the edge to Six by Seven in terms of passion.

I can't speak to the band's lyrics, and frankly, I can't recall many of them right now; if you're a word freak, this might be a pass. I also suspect listeners either love or hate singer Chris Ollney's voice, but it works for me, from the roar of "Something Wild" to the crooning "Oh! Dear" to the effects-drenched "European Me" and "88-92-96." As far as I'm concerned, it's really about the whole bundle--the voice, the guitars, the production, the pacing--and the mood that this album invokes. In a nutshell, it's a great package of pop and psychedelia.

Legend has it that "European Me" was heralded by the NME as "one of the greatest debut singles of all time" upon its release. Never mind that the NME makes that claim, on average, every other minute--the song is a great distillation of Six by Seven's trademark sound. The creeping tease, the deliberate pace, the intermittent squiggles of guitar, the seven-minute expanse--it sure sets the scene.

But for a pop girl like myself, "For You" may be my favorite track. There's no doubt that Six by Seven can carry off fractured, agonized dirges, but their power pop shines through on this tune, the closest to a hop, skip, and a jump that you'll find on the album. If I had my way, "For You" would play in the background of every sports highlight reel ever aired.

Rounding out the three faces of Six by Seven (for a total of 126?) is "Oh! Dear," a good, old-fashioned power ballad, or at least the late-'90s U.K. indie band version of one. If angst and abstraction dominate this album, "Oh! Dear" is the antidote, with the most straightforward lyrics of any song on this record. Don't worry, though; the fuzz pedal is still in effect, as is the single, elementary drum beat that characterizes many of the other songs on the record. Also, it clocks in at over seven minutes--but what's your hurry anyway?

I kept up with Six by Seven for a few more releases into the early 2000s, and for a time, my Two and Half Days in Love with You shirt never failed to spark conversation. As I recall, they didn't let up on the distortion on those follow-up recordings, but other impressions escape me. However, blame my attention span, not the band. As far as I'm concerned, they secured a permanent spot on my playlist with "The Things We Make."

Listen (right-click and choose Save Link As):
» Six by Seven: "European Me"
» Six by Seven: "For You"
» Six by Seven: "Oh! Dear"

See also:
» Obscurity Knocks: Marion, "The Program"
» Obscurity Knocks: Adorable, "Against Perfection"
» Obscurity Knocks: The Chameleons U.K., "Strange Times"
» Six by Seven on MySpace

Sunday, November 01, 2009

between two worlds

I dream of this kind of concert bill: one that brings together artists who've never before been mentioned in the same breath--say, Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard--and that won't likely be duplicated any time soon. Novelty factor aside, there's another advantage to seeing a major musician's side projects: It'll up your insufferable superfan cred in no time flat. Take it from me!

Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, Bimbo's 365 Club, October 24, 2009: Aside from some prominent exceptions, I try to go to shows with a blank slate, shut off from whatever gossip, PR spin, or blogger chatter might be circulating. But even by those standards, I approached this gig with nary an agenda. I hadn't heard a note of Jay and Ben's collaboration, I had no idea of what format the show would take, I couldn't guess as to whether they'd do any of their own material, and I hadn't a clue whether they'd be joined by supporting players.

Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, Bimbo's 365 Club, 10-24-09Truth be told, it wasn't so difficult to maintain radio silence, considering I'm hardly a devoted Son Volt or Death Cab for Cutie fan. Don't get me wrong--I like both of them fine, and I've seen Jay and Ben (separately) in concert before, in sort of one-off appearances. However, I'm much more familiar with the people they've worked with and played beside, rather than with their main gigs. Furthermore, I've never read Jack Kerouac (admits the English major).

I don't recommend that everyone adopt this willful ignorance, but believe it or not, it keeps me sane. Besides, most of those questions were answered soon enough. Joining Jay and Ben were Mark Spencer on pedal steel, guitar, and keyboards; Jon Wurster on drums; and Nick Harmer on bass. Though I didn't keep track of vocal turns, Jay and Ben seemed about even in their share of mic time, and each took to the piano once or twice. As it turned out, they did stick to the Jack Kerouac-inspired material, so the kids in line hoping for Death Cab or Postal Service songs were out of luck. Full disclosure: My half-joking wish for "Tear-Stained Eye" didn't pan out either.

Preferences aside, there was some question in my mind about which group of fans would be more likely to stage an uprising and demand their money back before the end of the night: Son Volt followers, so often set in their musical ways, or the Death Cab for Cutie tribe, especially those who caught on after the group went mainstream. Of course, fans of splinter groups are always self-selecting; almost by definition, your interest exceeds that of the average listener. Still, my guess is it was more of a stretch for Death Cab fans, particularly with the twangier tunes. To their credit, the pitchforks and torches were kept in check, no matter who was singing.

Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, Bimbo's 365 Club, 10-24-09I extend my kudos to Ben Gibbard as well. This marks the second time I've watched Ben apart from his primary band, and he's won me over on both occasions. Back in October 2007, I got to see him in a rare, unadorned light, but at Bimbo's, he took the opposite tack with a rootsier, more rocking sound. Clearly, Ben is willing to step outside of his comfort zone, to impressive effect.

Ben and Jay showed nothing but respect and consideration for each other, but if I had to choose, I'd say Jay emerged as the leader of the group. For example, Jay split the lead guitar duties with Mark Spencer, and more prominently, the rest of the band ceded the stage to Jay and Mark for two songs. In terms of the music, the project aligns more closely with the sound that Jay's known for than what we'd previously heard from Ben.

Ultimately, Jay's voice sounded amazing (as usual), his gratifyingly world-weary tone complementing the subject matter--especially those images of empty spaces and indifferent towns--beautifully. Moreover, Jay looked like he was having fun, peeking out of his notoriously closed shell more than you might expect. There was, for example, the matter of his capo flying off the guitar after the band's first song and incidentally landing directly in front of us. He accepted its return with a wide grin, an expression he wore for much of the night.

Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, Bimbo's 365 Club, 10-24-09

Jay revealed they'd been a group for all of a week, and he had plenty of kind words for San Francisco in general. I have only one other show to compare it to, so I'll leave it to longtime Jay watchers to confirm or deny whether this is typical behavior on his part. But it sure makes me want to hit Son Volt's show at the Fillmore in December.

As of this writing, the tour is done, and it's anyone's guess as to whether Jay and Ben will reconvene for more shows. Thus, you can disregard this small aside to a night of overall cool tunes, but I'll lodge the observation anyway: For all their cooperation and deference to one another, I didn't get the feeling that Jay and Ben were a band, as opposed to a couple of guys who happened to work together. It's a minor issue, and I'd love to stand corrected, but that was the view from stage right.

John Roderick of the Long Winters opened the show. I'd seen his band once before, many moons ago; if I'm not mistaken, they played with the Decemberists at the Great American Music Hall. I'm happy to report that his goofy energy remained intact, as evidenced by the pitcher of hot water he brought onstage. It was soon enriched with a shot of Theraflu provided by an audience member whom I like to think was a well-stocked fan and not merely a plant. Regardless, his work here was done, and the medication allowed John to try out a bunch of songs, including a tune about not moving to Portland.

See also:
» i see my light come shining
» we can be us
» worn-out wood and familiar songs