Friday, December 25, 2009

it's the end of the things you know

There were, in fact, vague plans to see some shows and, when those dates fell through, post some fill-in blogs in the past month, but pesky real-life details, especially those unique to this time of the year, got in the way: annoying holiday parties, peripatetic cash flow, grinchiness. As much as I would've loved to catch a couple more Largo gigs this month, I set my sights on Jon Brion's last concert of the year, which has become a tradition I just can't pass up.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 18, 2009: I'd been looking forward to this gig for about a year, as it marked--deep breath--the 10th anniversary of my first Jon Brion show, give or take a day. Oh to be 19 again! (Editor: Uh, more like 19 plus 9.)

But that self-declared milestone took a backseat to another announcement: This gig would mark the last night of Jon's weekly residency. Instead, we should expect to see him on a monthly schedule for the foreseeable future. You'll have to excuse me if I forgo the rending of hair and beating of breast. By my calculations, this is the third era to come to an end, at least in the time I've been patronizing the club. Of course, there was the reports of tendinitis three-plus years back, followed by the news of Largo's last days on Fairfax. Compared to those alarming events, the promise of future shows by Jon, albeit on a lighter rotation, is no reason to panic. And on an entirely selfish note, it suits my arrangements perfectly.

Though I don't think these changes were explicitly confirmed at the show, I couldn't help but interpret certain events as a subtle acknowledgement of the changes afoot. On a hopeful note, Flanny's hilarious story about an ex-Beatles' visit to the old club helped disperse whatever dark cloud might've hung over the proceedings, and in his opening remarks, Jon indicated a long-awaited follow-up to Meaningless could finally get his attention. Of more immediate concern, Jon's choice of mostly original songs felt like an oblique affirmation of the coming shift--if any message at all was intended. I'm purely speculating at this point.

Want more speculation? Try the opening number, a jazzy piano instrumental that once again confounded me. I want to suggest it ran along the lines of "My Funny Valentine," but short of Harmonix introducing Duke Ellington Swing Band, I'm the last person you should ask about standards from the American songbook.

"Same Thing" brought us back to more familiar territory, beginning with that rhythmic foundation, to which Jon added vocals in a lower range. Tonight's twist, though, was an '80s-era feel--and if you've read this blog before, you know how much I love my '80s.

The first hint of the Reagan administration arrived via a tiny beat that recalled all those Fairlight-enhanced tunes of the decade--in other words, every song recorded between 1980 and, oh, 1988. Think of Art of Noise's "Close (To the Edit)," Scritti Politti's "Perfect Way," or anything by Thomas Dolby, among others. Can you hear that precise, mechanical cleaving sound? I know it well, and I swear it rang out again tonight. Though the essence of "Same Thing" remained intact, Jon revisited the decade in the outro, playing it out with a grand, synth-laden coda.

Jon completed his lap around the stage with a turn on electric guitar for a new song, as well as a build of "Get Over Yourself." Though a mainstay of Jon's set, "Why Do You Do This to Yourself" sounded different, with way more tremolo than usual and richer, twangier tone than the typically spare setup--a lovely touch.

The video mixers swung into action soon thereafter, as Jon cued up footage of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea and Chad Smith and jammed along with the duo. They ran through at least a couple of covers before Jon brought Sonny Rollins and Michael Tilson Thomas--the latter leading an orchestral rendition of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"--into the fold.

There was much mixing and matching of Sonny's sax with the symphony's brass section, but my spazz-out moment, as Heidi can attest, occurred when I realized Jon was working up the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps." In retrospect, I realize that Jon has performed this song often, but thanks to playing the shit out of it in Rock Band, I know it well these days--and now Overdrive will never be the same. Jon wrapped up the extravaganza with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, but frankly, my memories had already been made.

Jon wandered over to the vibes for his next selection, a take on "Happy with You" that eschewed the usual pyrotechnics--apart from a delightful vibes solo--for equal parts whimsy and soulfulness. Partway through the song, Sebastian Steinberg joined in to anchor the bottom end for this and the following tune "Please Stay Away from Me."

Jon stepped away from the spotlight as Sara and Sean Watkins rounded out the quartet. The siblings spearheaded a handful of covers, including a folksy version of Jon's "Trouble" featuring a round of dueling acoustic guitars between Jon and Sean. They left Jon on his own for the final song, which I want to call "Pieces of You" based on the chorus. I haven't indicated as much in my earlier posts, but you'll know it by its vast sweep and reverberating guitar. It's a keeper.

Before we could traipse over to the Little Room, Jon returned for "Here We Go." I've claimed ad nauseum that this exquisite waltz is Jon's most accomplished song. Concise, self-contained, and so darned pretty, it's the amuse-bouche, if you will, among Jon's works. Tonight, though, he broke out the brunoise, initiated the immersion circulator, then sent out the resulting sous-vide supper: a bursting ballotine, a velvety veloute, an enchanting escabeche (see below), a piquant pistou...

Escabeche of Halibut with Bouillabaisse Consomme, Parsley Coulis, and Garlic Chips

...or, rather, Jon drew from the full suite of instruments onstage to transform this peerless piece into something more dramatic and even a little harrowing. Along the way, he brought in Nels Cline and Eric Clapton via video, but it ultimately came down to Jon's singular vision. I don't think I've ever heard "Here We Go" with electric guitar, but I'd welcome the opportunity to listen again.

In the Little Room, Jon did something I've seen often in my last few visits: He turned over the proceedings entirely. Tonight, Sara and Sean Watkins dictated the events, then recruited Sebastian Steinberg a few songs in. In fact, the bassist sang one song, "She Still Thinks I Care," at his colleagues' urging.

As for Sara and Sean, they generally favored covers, but they threw in their own works, including some brand-new, yet-to-be-recorded titles. Sara's husband dropped in for a duet, and even Jon stepped up near the end. Would I have liked to hear more from Jon in this second set? Of course I would, but his warm harmonies on the Morrissey cover (requested by myself and, unbeknownst to me, a guy in the back) helped cap the night, the year, and the decade.

Set 1
--Same Thing
--new song?
--Get Over Yourself
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--Entrance of the Gladiators/Rhapsody in Blue/Maps/Within You, Without You/Kashmir

with Sebastian Steinberg
--Happy with You
--Please Stay Away from Me

with Sebastian Steinberg, as well as Sara and Sean Watkins
--The Late John Garfield Blues
--Any Old Time

--Pieces of You
--Here We Go

Set 2
Sara and Sean Watkins
--Polly Put the Kettle On
--Hold What You Got
--new song [Sara]
--new song [Sean]

with Sebastian Steinberg
--Buckley's Blues
--Reality Calls
--Never Call
--Early in the Morning
--She Still Thinks I Care
--Christmas song?

with Todd Cooper and Jon Brion
--Tomorrow Is Forever

with Jon Brion
--Feeling Good Again
--Last Word in Lonesome Is Me
--Steal Your Heart Away
--The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get

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