Tuesday, January 26, 2010

no matter what the future brings

Did you make any New Year's resolutions? I didn't, but I'm vaguely trying to be more relaxed and less clinical--the tortuous setlists that pepper this blog exempted, of course. Thus, I didn't bother with year-end wrap-ups or rankings, though I think my favorites are all too clear. Still, you gotta know some things aren't going to change--such as my continuing attendance at Jon Brion's shows, including his first outing at Largo for 2010.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, January 22, 2010: Didja hear? It's not only a new year, but a new decade as well! And despite sitting within spitting distance of several calendars, I apparently didn't get the memo. Case in point: The fact that I showed up at Largo with the misguided expectation that it would be business as usual, that I could waltz up to the gate and purchase a ticket on my own timetable, and that the rain would keep the droves away.

Rankin/Bass Rudolph's Shiny New Year

Wrong! (On two counts anyway.) Tonight, the masses were in attendance, including a gaggle of youths, as well as a recent Golden Globe-winning actor, if my stalkervision is to be trusted. Alas, my favorite seat had been claimed long before I arrived, but I was happy to get in at all.

In his opening remarks, Flanny noted that the night's proceeds would go to Habitat for Humanity, then made way for Jon, who arranged himself at the piano for the introductory passage: his simultaneously typical and atypical piano improv, a fairly straightforward "Ruin My Day," and an off-kilter "Same Thing." Regarding that last tune, if I had any real knowledge of music, I'd not only suggest he was playing a counterpoint-based version of the song, but I'd even know what that meant.

Or I can stop trying to show off Dot Com and tell you that Jon veered from playing the melody, favoring weighty undertones instead of the song's normally ebullient air. In fact, it almost sounded like a different tune.

Jon went with more originals--and unreleased ones, at that--for his next rock block, leading me to entertain the idea that last month's promise of a follow-up to Meaningless may come to fruition after all. There's no telling what will happen to a song between the time Jon plays it onstage and when it's locked down in the studio, so it's kinda useless to describe what we heard at this show--but I'll try anyway.

The first tune was spare and distinct, with a lovely melodic lilt, and I don't recall hearing the last selection (performed on the piano) ever before. However, the middle work, titled "Piece of You," as Jon revealed in response to an audience inquiry, is a gorgeous reminder of why we want him to record a new album: It sounds fucking great.

Warm and jangly, it's steeped in a late-'70s vibe, definitely extending a nod to Neil Young, but with an undeniable pop hook. I'm completely biased, of course, but I can't tell you how many times I've had this very reaction to a new Jon Brion song, only to be left wondering if I'll ever hear it outside of Largo. At least it gives me a reason to come back.

The video mixers were next called into action, and Nels Cline was the first guest of honor, joined soon thereafter by Maria Callas. After a meandering prologue, Jon unveiled the selection: "Here We Go." It wasn't the scorched-earth version we heard in December, but Jon drew out the piece to incorporate symphonic strings, as well as his own touch of guitar and drums. The song, usually the epitome of stability and understatement, arced and swayed in Jon's hands tonight, until it brought to mind the outro to "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." "Here We Go"? More like away we went.

We got one more original, then dove into the covers, starting with "Life on Mars" on the vibes. The people sitting behind us were clearly delighted, based on the stream of giggles and gasps I overheard. They weren't alone, if the applause and laughter throughout the room were any indication.

In fact, I'd argue that the audience's very enthusiasm sent Jon into crowd-pleaser mode for this segment of the show. The newbie-dominated group gushed their appreciation of Jon's transitions and selections, and Jon, in turn, seemed to capitalize on this freshness with an extensive survey of his talents and versatility. Thus, we got Tom Waits doing Led Zeppelin (says the woman who knows nothing about either), a classic delivered with a healthy dose of distortion, and finally, the long-awaited return of the Beatles to Jon's setlists.

"Tomorrow Never Knows" is nothing less than a blowout in any performance, but tonight's rendition resulted in a broken guitar string, though it didn't stop Jon from playing; briefly quoted "Revolution" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey"; and drew on more video footage, including a segment that Jon manipulated to make it appear as if Nels were record scratching. Whew! Oh, and those gigglers/gaspers behind me? They got a kick out of this one too--as did I.

For his encore, Jon took it down a notch with a solo acoustic "Love of My Life So Far." But the show wasn't over--on to the second set!

Over in the Little Room, Sara and Sean Watkins were the first to arrive onstage, and the presence of Jon's guitars gave us hope that he would show up eventually too. The siblings traded off songs, including some brand-new works and audience requests. Benmont Tench joined in next, then finally Jon took his place alongside them. Then it got really interesting.

Nature or nurture? It's a question that often crosses my mind at Largo. Do I come back again and again because the club draws so many of the artists that helped form my musical vocabulary? Or do those names dominate my listening habits because I've seen them at the club? The case can be made either way, but when certain faces pop up seemingly out of the blue, I lean toward the former and start wondering if some form of destiny is at work.

Granted, large tracts of my musical upbringing have never surfaced at Largo, but when Neil Finn drops in or Glenn Kotche is coerced onstage or Jon plays a Spoon song (then, years later, goes into the studio with them), I want to think it's not mere coincidence. At tonight's show, Charlie Sexton got me looking up star signs and reading the tea leaves all over again.

As I understand it, Charlie Sexton has been in Bob Dylan's touring band for a while now, but I'll always see him through the eyes of my 13-year-old self, thanks to the magic--or the curse--of music television and his hit single "Beat's So Lonely." I'm not sure how the clip stands up to contemporary scrutiny, but when it debuted, Charlie's striking profile couldn't be ignored, even in an era of aggressively telegenic musicians. Truth be told, the song wasn't effete enough for my teenage tastes, but the video stayed on my mind. See for yourself:

Flash-forward 25 years (OMFG, kill me now), and there he was, on the tiny stage of the Little Room, summoned by none other than Jon Brion. How did Charlie look? Pretty damn good, especially as he, Jon, and Sean threw goofy rock 'n' roll shapes around the mic.

But how did he do? Not too shabby there either. With Sara, Charlie spearheaded "Bye Bye Love," but Jon and Sean kicked in their harmonies too, while Benmont imbued it with a swinging beat. With that, their performance quickly shot up my list of favorite Largo moments.

The quintet went back to round-robin mode, sharing vocals and solos, as well as making requests of one another. By now, my eyes were glued to Jon and Charlie. For example, they contributed tasteful guitar notes to Benmont's downtempo take on ELO, and they came together to mine the rootsier aspects for "I'll Cry Instead"; coincidentally, it featured Jon's only true lead vocal of the second set. I hope it won't be the last I'll see of Charlie at Jon's shows.

To close out this long second set, Jon released the group and brought up Margaret Cho for a song they wrote together. I don't recall catching the title, but Margaret gave us some background on the song and explained that it's about an ex-boyfriend who stalked her after they broke up and didn't recognize himself in the lyrics. All you really need to know, though, is that Margaret has penned the greatest couplet in existence, rhyming "hottest girl you know" with "Margaret fucking Cho." Need I say more?

Set 1
--Ruin My Day
--Same Thing
--new song ["She's at it again/Once my rival, now my friend..."]
--Piece of You [new song]
--Here We Go
--Please Stay Away From Me
--Whole Lotta Love (?)
--As Time Goes By
--Tomorrow Never Knows

--Love of My Life So Far

Set 2
Sara and Sean Watkins
--Any Old Time
--new song [Sara]
--Bella and Ivan
--new song [Sean]
--Hello Goodbye

Sara and Sean Watkins and Benmont Tench
--Hold What You Got
--I Go to Sleep

Sara and Sean Watkins, Benmont Tench, and Jon Brion
--Early in the Morning
--Mexican Home

Sara and Sean Watkins, Benmont Tench, Jon Brion, and Charlie Sexton
--Bye Bye Love
--Brand New Heartache
--Midnight Shift
--Can't Get It Out of My Head
--Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)
--Pink Triangles
--I'll Cry Instead

Jon Brion and Margaret Cho
--new song?

See also:
» it's the end of the things you know
» i can teach you, but i have to charge
» i'll be out on the town
» owner of this corner and not much more

Friday, January 01, 2010

fixed bayonet through the great southwest

Happy new year to you all! This post was supposed to go up before the end of 2009, but as it turned out, I had less downtime than expected during my holiday break. I'm not complaining, though, as I managed to lodge the requisite hours with family and get in a quick road trip to Phoenix for a Jeff Tweedy show. You don't have to find out how it went at the homestead, but you can read a little about the Jeff Tweedy concert below.

Jeff Tweedy, Orpheum Theatre, December 27, 2009: Though solo shows by Jeff Tweedy aren't uncommon, you can't exactly set your clock to them either. I've had the good fortune to enjoy at least one gig each year for the last five years, and I've caught him on a handful of solo tours, some of them even documented on this blog. Nonetheless, I had no intention of passing up this show, conveniently scheduled during my company's holiday break and in an adjoining state. (You don't consider that convenient? Would you rather I schlep across two states?)

Jeff Tweedy, Orpheum Theatre, 12-27-09

I'm not generally a fan of sit-down gigs, but it was hard not to be impressed by the Orpheum's beautifully restored details, including a ceiling that shifted in color with changes in lighting (bringing to mind the Venetian in Las Vegas). Moreover, the acoustics were gorgeous, which became apparent almost immediately, when Jeff opened the show with "Sunken Treasure." If you've seen Jeff solo before, there's a good chance he's kicked off the gig with the same song--heck, it's the title of the DVD of his 2005 solo tour.

I'd argue, though, there's a good reason for it. That soulful harmonica, those rippling chords, and the ringing refrain are a great test of any venue, and they came through crystal clear tonight. The lyric I'm referring to ("I am so out of tune with you") is pretty satisfying to hear for any number of reasons, but when it comes through with such a rich sustain and timbre, you know it's going to be a good night. While we're at it, count "So Much Wine" in the same category. The Handsome Family song, in addition to being timely, has a point of view you're unlikely to find anywhere else, and it shows off Jeff's voice as if it were written for him.

Believe it or not, regarding those musicians who dominate this blog, there are differences from gig to gig. I can't say whether anyone else notices these trifles, but I can (usually) hear them. "Remember the Mountain Bed," for instance, loped along at a Dylan-esque pace and not at its usual insistent cadence. Other variations were much more apparent, such as the forgotten lyrics to "Hummingbird" and "Spiders" or the wholesale reinvention of acoustic-averse "Impossible Germany," which sounded like an entirely different work without its signature guitar solo.

Still others, specifically songs from Wilco (The Album), were new to me in this setting. Both "Country Disappeared" and "You and I" stayed faithful to their album renditions, which you might not expect, given the album's extensive production.

I Heart TripodsSpeaking of "You and I," Jeff dedicated it to his wife Susan, and it was indicative of the casual family vibe permeating the entire show--which should've been immediately evident based on Jeff's choice of onstage wardrobe. For example, Jeff shared some wise words from younger son Sammy on the legitimacy of zucchinis--before seguing into "The Ruling Class," go figure--while "Please Tell My Brother," semi-retired from the song rotation, was reinstated by request of Jeff's sister Debbie.

The two women inspired more selections ("I'm the Man Who Loves You" and "Heavy Metal Drummer," respectively), and Debbie, in fact, served as a convenient point of reference for both Jeff and the audience throughout the show. Jeff joked about her long guest list and her general popularity in town. Meanwhile, one fan asked if they could come over to Debbie's house after the show; in response, Jeff offered to reveal her address to the group.

Before the end of the night, we'd get two sing-alongs: "Jesus etc.," for which Jeff requested our participation, and the more spontaneous harmonies on "Heavy Metal Drummer." But the show wrapped up with "Someone Else's Song" and "Acuff-Rose," both delivered without amplification, which happens to be one of my favorite treatments and one that Jeff has adopted over the years for his solo appearances. For the last show of the year--much less the decade--I couldn't have asked for more.

See also:
» i don't want to leave this walking dream
» it's still beyond me