Sunday, February 28, 2010

really quite out of sight

For the second month in a row, a sold-out crowd took in Jon Brion's show at Largo at the Coronet, and patrons were turned away at the door--in a monsoon downpour, no less. Sound familiar? I don't think it's too soon to call it: Buy your tix ahead of time, show up early for your seat assignments, and dress for the weather. History may be repeating itself.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, February 19, 2010: A funny thing happened on the way to the Coronet: Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. You name it--flight delays, circuitous (and expensive) cab rides, bad weather, foolish assumptions--I hit them all. Fortunately, wiser parties planned ahead and secured our favorite spot, averting another semi-fiasco.

"Fiasco," by the way, applies to only my personal predicament and not to the music itself, which kicked off with a piano improv that I'm less equipped than usual to describe. Jon followed it with a string of originals reaching as far back as "Amateur"--the set-killing downer suggested by, not coincidentally, yours truly--and "Walking Through Walls," as sprawling as ever.

A series of new songs comprised the heart of this segment. The future classic "Piece of You" set heads nodding and feet tapping as always, but "She's At It Again" (if that's what it's called) really got under my skin this time, though I've heard it before. Currently, it's direct and spare, with a lovely arcing melody, but there's no telling how it'll sound when/if it reaches its officially released form. Personally, I'd like to hear it as a Joy Division-style monotone dirge, if only for a laugh. I'm not holding my breath for the transformation, but hey, hope springs eternal at Largo.

The final composition in this chain sounded entirely new to me. I can tell you it was steeped in a '70s singer/songwriter vibe and performed exclusively on the piano. Stay tuned for further developments.

I admit that I'm sometimes too close to certain experiences to offer an impartial opinion, and I'm sheltered from some realities. However, I honestly try to keep a balanced view. I mention this in light of recent comments from several friends about Largo at the Coronet.

This isn't the same spot where many of us first saw Jon and the like; you'd be a fool to argue that the crowds have remained static or that the vibe hasn't been transformed in some way. At the old place, it was easy to feel like you were a member of an exclusive group of determined souls willing to spend the better part of their Friday night lining up on Fairfax Avenue, followed by several more hours of jostling for position at the back of the club until your feet hurt so bad that you wanted to saw them off with a rusty butter knife. Pretty special, huh?

I was fortunate--and I overcompensated--enough to not have to worry about parking myself on the pavement most weeks, and as time passed, I became friends with many other regulars, who often welcomed me from nearby tables on each visit. But it never escaped me that the audience included at least a smattering of newbies every week. Heck, I often shared a table with those rookies--some of them long-suffering pals satiating their curiosity and/or humoring me, some of them strangers plucked off the street when my buddies couldn't fill out the reservation. At one point, we were all first-timers.

The move to the Coronet has definitely increased this mix--in more ways than one. At Jon's show, you'll recognize the junior league by the giggles that accompany his first loop of the evening, seemingly silly requests that never get fulfilled, or ecstatic receptions for semi-staples of his set. The thing is, it's been like this for a while, though maybe not to the same degree. Step back, and you may even admit that you'd have--or, more accurately, had--a similar reaction once upon a time.

Take, for example, when Jon extended another call for requests and landed on "Tomorrow Never Knows." Though he grumbled a bit about the "lots of looping" required, he struck up the band anyway. As far as I'm concerned, that's always the right decision. Along with being one of the premier showcases of Jon's talents, it makes for the kind of performance that everyone should experience at least once.

In addition to looping the drums, piano, synths, and guitar, Jon snuck in a sequence on the Chamberlin and worked up the video clips. Eric Clapton and Nels Cline made their customary appearances, and Maria Callas showed up too. Maria's portion, I'd argue, was the least effective element; I was distracted by her early contributions, though the pairing with Eric Clapton synced up nicely.

Overall, the song was less faithful to the original than previous versions I've heard. You can usually pick up echoes of the original's psychedelia in Jon's interpretation, but the guitar this time sounded meatier and more rocking. Mind you, he didn't forget such crucial touches as those seagull sounds (you know what I'm talking about), and the heady instrumental swirl could leave you to believe that the acid flashback long threatened by your high school health ed teacher was finally touching down.

Typically, "Tomorrow Never Knows" signals the close of Jon's set, and he indicated as such. However, his prediction turned out to be premature. It began with a request for "Here Comes Your Man," but because Jon claimed to not know all the words, he subbed in "Gigantic," though without the usual "Jesse's Girl" segue. He toyed with most of the suggestions, playing bits of Booker T, Mott the Hoople, the Talking Heads, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga, among others.

Based on audience reaction, Jon chose "Don't Stop Believing" among the dozens of titles lobbed his way. I have no problem confessing that I know this song extremely well; I can still picture my uncle's copy of Escape on cassette, long before Glee fever hit. If pushed, I can probably help out with "Open Arms" and "Separate Ways" too.

But it wasn't any old rendition. Jon took up the vibes, including a handful of massive solos (it was the '80s, after all), and made us supply the vocals. For the most part, we did well, though we skipped at least one verse ("working hard to get my fill/everybody wants a thrill"--see above for comments on my familiarity with this song). I belted it out with the best/worst of them, and by the end, it totally felt like the room had come together.

Other requests brought a more mixed reaction from Jon. Witness his comments upon hearing a request for Pink Floyd:

Jon: Do you think I just started this gig? [pause] Fuckers.

I don't know "Dark Side of the Moon" at all, so I can't weigh in on Jon's treatment for the song. But based on the fact that Jon brought in video of an old fiddler singing in French, paired it with footage of Jacques Brel, and offered a defiant laugh at the conclusion of the song, I wouldn't be surprised if it veered wildly from the standard. Maybe in a conciliatory gesture, Jon turned out an exquisite version of "Wish You Were Here" on the vibes, casting a new light on the song's isolation and otherworldliness.

For the encore, Jon once more picked our brains, then picked a song. He unfurled "Positively 4th Street," informing us, in keeping with the theme of the evening, it was one of "loop's greatest hits." I'm just glad that lots of jangly guitar factored into the formula as well. With that, the first portion of the night concluded and we rushed over to the Little Room for the second swing.

Unlike in previous months, Jon took more than a spectator role for this follow-up set. He made his way to the stage with a guitar and a guest in hand: Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal. It's no secret that the two have been working together, and bless them for gracing my city with their sole joint tour stop last summer. Still, I gasped when I recognized Kevin's profile at the back of the room.

They started off with an Of Montreal track, "Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider," which Jon has been known to cover, and next brought up Benmont Tench, who casually introduced himself to Kevin right in front of our eyes. Jon nonchalantly remarked that he and Benmont would play chords and Kevin would fill in the words. The blueprint established, they arrived at the Zombies, followed by Bowie, leading Jon to suggest they form an acoustic Bowie cover band.

While they tried to figure out their next move, Benmont excused himself, leaving the stage to Jon and Kevin. Jon took his place at the piano and maneuvered them to Hunky Dory territory, which Kevin promised he could fake well enough. They eventually circled to "Life on Mars," with Jon filling in when Kevin forgot the words.

If you've seen Of Montreal before, you know Kevin is the central figure in the production, commanding attention amid an undeniably colorful and magnetic cast. Tonight, he presented a more mannered figure, though in his nearly all-white ensemble, he wouldn't be mistaken for a typical Largo patron or performer. There were no props, no pyrotechnics, no glitter, and he modestly stood aside while Jon figured out their repertoire or supplied the lyrics.

I imagine that a performer's first visit to Largo, even under Jon's auspices, can be daunting, but while he dialed down his appearance, Kevin let the music shine in a way that can be lost in his band's all-out sensory blitz. "This Will Be Our Year" came through jauntily and with charm, but with "Life on Mars," he managed to sound arch yet raw, world-weary yet needy. Sometimes you hear a cover and think to yourself that the singer, even if he or she hasn't written the words, must've lived the lyrics. This was one such example.

Thus ended Kevin's portion of the show, as Jon urged Fiona Apple and Sean Watkins to the stage for a couple of tunes. Jon soon returned, though, this time with Matt Chamberlain, to whom he offered the back of a guitar in lieu of anything resembling a drum kit. (Funny enough, Matt's name had come up in conversation at a Wilco show the week before, though he apparently didn't make it to their Seattle gig.) Cementing his reputation as Largo's best sport, Matt accepted the challenge for two whole songs. Jon wasn't too shabby, either, throwing in a set of guitar solos too, before he and Fiona finished out the night with a winsome standard.

Set 1
--Knock Yourself Out
--Piece of You [new]
--She's At It Again [new]
--new song?
--Walking Through Walls
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Tomorrow Never Knows
--Don't Stop Believing
--Star Trek theme
--Dark Side of the Moon
--Wish You Were Here
--Positively 4th Street

Set 2
--Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider *
--This Will Be Our Year #
--Lady Stardust #
--Life on Mars *
--In the Pines @
--Jolene @
--Where I Ought to Be &
--Comes Love (Nothing Can Be Done) &
--After You've Gone %

* = Kevin Barnes and Jon Brion
# = Kevin Barnes, Jon Brion, and Benmont Tench
@ = Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench, and Sean Watkins
& = Fiona Apple, Jon Brion, Matt Chamberlain, Benmont Tench, and Sean Watkins
% = Fiona Apple and Jon Brion

See also:
» no matter what the future brings
» first-time high
» with soul power
» three-god night

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

this old rain's just about soaked through

Timbits, I promise, are the key to getting through customs. Hell, it's worked for me twice now, and I'll never bid Vancouver good-bye without a pack in my bag. The next stop was Seattle (again) for the express purpose of seeing the Dave Rawlings Machine at the Showbox.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Showbox, 02-14-10Dave Rawlings Machine, Showbox at the Market, February 14, 2010: Once upon a time, I used to see bands--plural--and not just a few groupings of select musicians. I won't presume any reasoning will suffice, but I'll try to point out that these favored artists have a way of keeping things interesting. They change up their sets to varying degrees and have a way of springing surprises. The Dave Rawlings Machine, while highlighting the album they're ostensibly promoting, revealed a couple of tricks up their sleeves at their show in Seattle.

Aiding and abetting their efforts were the Old Crow trio, as they had been for the duration of this tour, but they picked up another accomplice on this swing: Benmont Tench. It might be disingenuous for me to call Benmont's arrival unexpected, considering how often I've seen these players in combination, but his presence helped assuage the anguish--if "anguish" is the right word when I've already been so spoiled by their appearances--I felt over missing them (and even more friends) at the Fillmore the week before. By way of an introduction, Dave explained that he just likes to hear Benmont play, but the crowd around me, I venture, would've been on board with the addition, regardless of Dave's endorsement.

For all of Dave's kind words, though, Benmont wasn't exempt from abiding by the headliner's whims. Tonight, it meant he'd be subjected to one of the songs more often associated with his day job: "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." To his credit, he fully committed to the ride.

This song, among others, anchored the show's Valentine's Day theme. As Dave and Gillian noted early on, the old-time tunes and murder ballads they know so well aren't exactly conducive to the celebration. As proof, they shared a sliver of their vast knowledge of the genre, listing a couple rules of thumb if you find yourself in a traditional composition and want to survive:
  1. Don't go for a walk by a river.

  2. Don't date anyone named Willie.

In the spirit of the day, they gave us a truncated version of "Banks of the Ohio," called off before the events turned bloody, thus limiting the song to exactly one verse. As an antidote, they launched into their own romantic piece--singular--though Dave had to jog Gillian's memory as to what it could be ("My Dear Someone," for those playing along at home).

One of the biggest questions for me going into this gig had to do with how the audience would react to the Rawlings Machine and vice versa. Certainly, I knew the musicians would receive nothing less than a warm reception and put on nothing short of a fun show. But after taking in Largo's ragtag dress rehearsals, the Great American Music Hall's kinetic anticipation, or the Fillmore's outright hero worship (under Gillian's name) last October, I was curious to find out if this setting would distinguish itself.

The show got off to a solid, if polite start, but the acclaim grew louder as the night proceeded, to the point where the musicians were called back for three encores in all. Every time they polished off a song I thought they couldn't possibly follow ("Go to Sleep Little Baby"--performed a cappella, of course, and punctuated by Gillian's hand claps and finger snaps--and "The Weight," both in four-part harmony), the audience convinced them to come back again.

At the very end, Dave implied they had exhausted their store of love songs but managed to come up with their last serenade of the evening. They chose well--I love Dave and Gillian's way with a ballad as much as the next person, but I'll gladly take the rush of "Jackson," as we heard tonight, any day.

See also:
» when you gonna live your life right
» hotter than a pepper sprout
» time's a revelator

Sunday, February 21, 2010

the park grows dark

When I really want to see a gig, it takes a lot to deter me, but a couple of words, when applied to a concert, instantly inspire dread: "free" and "festival." Throw Wilco into the mix, however, and all previous statements fly out the door. Thus, we made our way to Vancouver's David Lam Park for the band's free show--quadrennial international sports gathering be damned!

Wilco, David Lam Park, February 13, 2010: I sometimes complain about Wilco playing bigger and bigger venues, but the truth is they're nowhere near being a household name. For example, at their Bridge School appearances, they've hovered near the bottom of the bill, and in Vancouver, despite the band's solid local fan base, it took a little while for David Lam Park to fill up. Heck, we got there at an hour that would usually give me the hives, yet managed to gain a decent foothold at or near the barrier. The park would eventually reach capacity later in the night, but a friend who had to wait for spaces to open up before being allowed in reported seeing a steady stream of people leaving, even as the band played.

Wilco, David Lam Park, 02-13-10

If you check the archives, you'll see that Wilco last played Vancouver 2.5 years ago. It's no wonder then that the crowd could barely hold its anticipation, breaking out in a chant--not the norm at Wilco shows--before the band took the stage. I have my doubts, though, that this chorus had more to do with the crowd's fervor than with the Olympic spirit, as the newbie nature of the audience became evident soon enough. For example, I overheard the teenage boys in front of me gushing over "Impossible Germany," which they called "the most beautiful song ever," but showing little overt reaction to older titles. Then again, it's entirely possible that they weren't moved by those other songs.

I don't need to reiterate all the asterisks that accompany a festival show, but I noticed the band made a couple of crucial choices to appeal to a more general-interest audience and not just the die-hards. For example, they passed up a couple of recent concert staples: the "Jesus etc." sing-along and, sadly, "Broken Arrow." However, I'm a little perplexed why they didn't highlight the most recent album as much as they could've, given this was (1) a good platform, with new fans there for the picking, and (2) their first show in Vancouver since the LP's release.

Wilco, David Lam Park, 02-13-10

As they had been for most of the tour, the group was in good spirits, with Jeff frequently stating how much the band loved the surroundings, joking about taking part in the Olympic contests, and reciprocating a thumbs-up sign at an audience member that, I assume, was flashing the same at him. That cheeriness tends to suit my personality and preferences, but I have to say it's a little jarring to see these musicians smiling and giggling at each other while they're playing out the coda to "Misunderstood."

Before the show began, we watched Nate the drum tech spend five-plus minutes ensuring that Quatchi (pictured right), the cutest of the Olympic mascots, was properly secured beside Glenn's drumkit. Adjustments were made, tape was utilized, and finally, Quatchi reported for duty.

Less tenderly treated were Quatchi No. 2 and Mukmuk, brought onstage by Nels and Mike, respectively. Mike seized the mascots for the clamor of keyboards he unleashes on "Shot in the Arm," willfully smooshing their fuzzy, innocent faces against the console. He eventually reached for the much more prosaic pillow he's been using since at least last year, but by then, the damage had been done. I was relieved to see Nels rescue Quatchi No. 2 a few songs later.

Wilco, David Lam Park, 02-13-10

An unforeseen benefit of this large-scale show was the excellent PA system; the band sounded perfectly in balance, which is no small feat in big, makeshift outdoor spaces. This technical detail may have kicked the show up a notch above the typical festival fare. While Wilco benefited from the excellent equipment, Califone especially reaped the rewards, bringing to light many of the finer components of their songs.

Speaking of Califone, I started listening to them shortly after my Wilco conversion. Since then, I've seen them several times in concert, though all before I began blogging and not for several years. This spate of shows reminded me of those early impressions, and this time, we got a dose of Tim Rutili's sense of humor too, whether he was relating the band's journey to Victoria or dismissing local vernacular.

The event MCs described Califone's music as "cinematic," which surely applies, but that characterization only hints at the group's range. I can throw more labels at you: At times they're driving; at others, esoteric. They have two drummers and a whole load of unusual percussive elements, yet the banjo figures prominently. Sometimes, they use words in their songs, but they'll let the instrumentation speak for itself for long stretches. In short, they're an entity unto themselves, and I want to hear more (again).

Califone, David Lam Park, 02-13-10

Earlier in the day, we had caught two acts on the bill preceding Wilco and Califone. Bollywood Olympics was pretty great, but I can't say the same for the dreadful local band that followed them. In fact, the group was so appalling that I won't even bother naming them. If anything, they served up a rueful reminder of how lucky we are that bands like Wilco and Califone do what they do.

And now we reach the final foodie filing for this trip. My biggest foodie geek-out occurred on our first night in town, when I spied an immersion circulator in action at Refuel--coincidentally, mere steps from where we watched the Olympic torch on its journey and on the same street as the excellent Zulu Records. However, I didn't take a photo. We also enjoyed a fine round of Japadogs, which makes me ponder the possibilities of an itinerary centered around notable purveyors of encased meats, but Japadogs is well covered in the blogosphere and elsewhere. Instead, I'll conclude this round of reportage with Siegal's Bagels tribute to the Games--a fitting summation of a week of adventures.

Bagel Olympics

See also:
» amateur
» upwards to the vanguards
» i see my light come shining
» waiting for a postcard
» are the roads you travel rough

Saturday, February 20, 2010

are the roads you travel rough

Allow me this indulgent proposition: There are, in fact, parallels between us humble rock tourists and the rock stars that we follow. Take away the entourage, the adoring fans, the paycheck, the performance, and the catering to every whim and we're mirror images. Well, no, that's not true, but I can assure you that we enjoyed our day off, so to speak, before Wilco's show at the Royal Theatre in Victoria, British Columbia.

Wilco, Royal Theatre, February 12, 2010: As our local guide pointed out, Victoria easily qualifies as a tertiary market--two of my favorite words as a rock tourist. In case we doubted her judgement, the ferry ride provided ample proof; thus marks my first journey to a concert that requires a boat. My only regret is that we didn't get to town in time--or meet the dress code--to partake in the Empress Hotel's legendary high tea service.

I don't want to get too much into the sitting-vs.-standing debate, but I have to report that we were reprimanded twice for our exuberance. The first accuser bagged the quote of the night; after we, er, shot up for "Shot in the Arm," then sat down again (come on, it was "At Least That's What You Said"), she requested that we not stand up for the rest of the show because "they already gave you one song." I didn't know there's a quota for fun!

Wilco, Royal Theatre, 02-12-10

The other critic, however, employed a classically passive-aggressive tone, posing it as a sage suggestion instead of an actual request. Mind you, this was after the show ended; we hadn't heard a peep from him all evening. I'm not saying we would've listened, but his post facto appeal capped off a gig filled with schizo audience reactions (standing ovations, followed by sedate sitting during the actual songs).

Enough of the griping, though--after some reflection, I grudgingly admit that this may have been the best concert of the run. I say "grudgingly" only because of my preference for GA shows, no offense to the companions or the setting. The fact that Nels wore personalized monogrammed Air Jordans instead of his usual steel-toe rock boots secured this gig's place in Wilco history, but fortunately, other highlights awaited.

Wilco, Royal Theatre, 02-12-10

From our seats, at third row center, the sound and visuals were spot-on. The intros and spotlights were perfectly timed in the "Wilco (The Song)," and I heard keyboard details from Mike that were completely new to me, such as the lovely touch he shows off on "You Are My Face." Every musical twist in "Broken Arrow" came through loud and clear, and as a bonus, I listened to it in the company of a thrilled and appreciative Canadian seat mate.

On a purely technical level, Victoria surpassed Portland, but the set itself bettered Seattle's showing. Without a curfew hanging over their head, the band whipped out two encores that kept most of the crowd on its feet from "Spiders" on. Even the audience's clapping stayed mainly in time. Also, I welcome any encore that works in tracks from Being There. The night can't end late enough whenever you see your favorite band, but by the evening's conclusion, it felt like we'd seen a comprehensive show, highlighting the group's full talents, if not its discography.

Wilco, Royal Theatre, 02-12-10

Jeff stated how much the band loved the area and promised they would return to Victoria, but with a caveat: It would be for vacation, not a concert. I think the locals will join me in hoping that he was kidding. However, I'll take his testimonial as tacit agreement that, yes, Victoria is worth the journey by sea.

For the food porn portion of this post, I'll include a photo of our breakfast in town the next morning. Americans, you may be pleased to know that the proportions on these pastries could put even us to shame.

Chocolate and almond croissant at the Mirage Cafe

See also:
» springtime yawning high in the haze
» i believe in locomotion

Thursday, February 18, 2010

i believe in locomotion

We left Portland early in the morning, but not before running into a familiar bearded face at the train station. Next thing I knew, we were in Seattle and loading up on porcine pleasure at Salumi--as, I'm confident, any sane person with taste buds would do. It was only after a few more orders of business (hotel, coffee, record shopping) that we set about fulfilling the purported reason for our visit: Wilco's show at the Paramount Theatre.

Wilco, Paramount Theatre, 02-10-10Wilco, Paramount Theatre, February 10, 2010: As I indicated in the last post, I could've been at home enjoying a highly anticipated gig on Tuesday night, but the Wilco masterplan prevailed. Furthermore, an incredibly enticing last-minute offer came up for Wednesday night back in my home state, but I stuck to my guns--as if there was any doubt that I would.

Though I had a great time at the Portland show, Seattle was the gig I'd been waiting for and the experience that's more familiar to me. There was no question of sitting vs. standing, for starters, and even Jeff commented that the Paramount was the perfect theater, allowing each camp to choose their preferred manner of enjoying a concert. Then again, if we had heard the same first three songs--"Wilco (The Song)," "A Shot in the Arm," and "Bull Black Nova"--in Oregon, we might've been on our feet a bit sooner.

Throw in some of the less frequented tracks ("Radio Cure," "Pot Kettle Black," "Theologians," "Box Full of Letters"), perhaps the most complete Wilco (The Album) representation I'd yet heard in a show, and a very able sing-along, and I'd say the musical portion was all sewn up.

Wilco, Paramount Theatre, 02-10-10

But it wasn't all about the music. The band debuted (I think) some electronic intros, inspiring both confusion and laughter. Additionally, Glenn went for both the gong and the Todd Trainer tribute on "I'm the Man Who Loves You," and we wished Wilco's tour manager Jason Tobias a happy birthday with a weak serenade and a gluten-free cake, for which Jeff thanked the city of Seattle (gotta love West Coast living).

Wilco, Paramount Theatre, 02-10-10

Scott McCaughey returned for a second night on "California Stars," and in case we had any doubt, Jeff dubbed him the "seventh member of Wilco." Also strapping on a guitar was Bill Frisell, looking a lot more assured than he did at the Marymoor show in 2007. It wasn't that easy to hear him from our side of the stage, but I detected a less reticent take on this simple song, and Nels generously gave up his solo so that his good friend could take another run at the tune.

Wilco, Paramount Theatre, 02-10-10

The only small aside to this concert might've been the venue's curfew. It didn't take long for the encore to kick into high gear, and to accommodate the time restraints, the band played one extended segment instead of the customary two shorter blocks. By the time they hit "Hoodoo Voodoo," they managed all they could with the clock ticking, but I couldn't help but think that the Seattlites missed out, with only an abbreviated Nels-Pat vamp-off to wet their appetites.

SalumiSpeaking of appetites, I can't offer too much on the foodie front since Salumi's porchetta sandwich was hard to photograph, thanks to the dour gray lighting perpetually hanging over Seattle. Also, I don't want to provide irrefutable proof of our gluttony. Hell, you try choosing--or, in our case, not choosing--between the soup, the pasta, and the hot and cold sandwiches when you know you're going to be in town for only 24 hours! Instead, you can view the lovely storefront and imagine the unctuous, meaty goodness and the lovely, knowledgeable staff waiting inside for yourself. Salumi, I'll be back! Don't change a thing!

See also:
» springtime yawning high in the haze
» don't let anyone say it's wrong

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

springtime yawning high in the haze

What do you call it when the exact opposite of what you wished for comes true? Bad luck? Murphy's Law? A curse? Because when this current batch of Wilco dates was announced last fall, in addition to making all the usual arrangements, I crossed my fingers in hopes that a certain group wouldn't tour at the same time -- three guesses as to how that turned out. Well, I now have more confirmation of where my loyalties reside; this week, those bonds led me up the Western seaboard. First stop: Portland, Oregon.

Wilco, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, February 9, 2010: Let it be known that it's been a good seven months since I last saw Wilco, and technically, that show preceded the official release of Wilco (The Album). I realize that's chump change to anyone else, but for me, it might as well be a drought.

Wilco, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 02-09-10

On second thought, I might do well to avoid further mentions of precipitation, as Portland was the only destination in this run where the rain stayed away. Later in the week, the soggy skies would get to me, and the beautiful start to this adventure would be remembered even more fondly.

Wilco, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 02-09-10Seeing Wilco in a big, fancy concert hall is not an entirely familiar or welcome sensation to me, even if our seats were pretty good. Thankfully, we were too busy playing "spot the Portland indie rocker" to pout.

From our vantage, we spied Eric Johnson from the Fruit Bats and Richard Swift, both of whom have opened for Wilco in the past. Later, we noted an ex-Decemberist, and we may have sighted a Blitzen Trapper and a Modest Mouse. We heard an NFL quarterback was in the house as well, but we can't confirm that. We weren't the only ones to notice this mass of musicians; Jeff mentioned it from the stage, claiming that the Dharma Bums were the only band in Portland when Wilco first toured. He also suggested that taco carts provided the livelihoods for everyone else in town.

These grand rooms with their high ceilings can take a particular type of song and hold the sustain so well that you can almost see the sound waves bouncing off the walls. The opening "Sunken Treasure" and, a couple of tunes later, "Hell Is Chrome" easily qualify for that group. "Sunken Treasure" presented another surprise for me, ending in a jazzy trot--yet one more variation on this track that I've previously heard embellished with Eastern psychedelia, forceful rumbles, and all-out cacophony, to name just a few approaches.

Wilco, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 02-09-10

Up-and-coming indie rockers weren't the only musos in attendance; old friends Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey dropped in for the obligatory "California Stars," and I heard actual jangly guitar from Peter this time, which was not the case in a previous appearance. Playing deeper into the locals' hearts, Jeff also subbed the city and state names into "Kingpin," a move that I always eat up.

Speaking of eat, I'm introducing a new feature in this blog for this run of shows: food porn. In the course of a single day, we hit Kenny and Zuke's, Laurelhurst Market, and Voodoo Doughnut. Oh my aching arteries! They were all delicious, but I think you can see why Kenny and Zuke's earns the spotlight in this go-round:

Kenny and Zuke's

See also:
» where the blacktop cracks
» i have no idea how this happens
» much too busy to worry

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

built up with their bare hands

Before I get started, a warning: If you're looking for anything approaching a change of pace in this blog, don't come back until next month. It's going to look a lot like Groundhog Day around here for the next few weeks, and kicking off this coming chorus is the Dave Rawlings Machine with a show at the Mystic Theatre.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Mystic Theatre, February 8, 2010: Years ago, when a British friend tried to disabuse me of my love for a certain U.K band, he based his appeal on the fact that the group came from Birmingham, aka the Midlands, aka the English equivalent of flyover country. In other words, they had funny accents. I brushed off his slander and informed him that some of my favorite cousins, when they first arrived in the United States, also settled in Birmingham--Alabama, that is. No stigma there!

I remembered this story when I realized that this blog has taken on a discernible bent recently. You see, my family originally settled in Louisville, Kentucky, when we arrived in the States--you know, bluegrass country. So it makes perfect sense that I'm lining up to see the Dave Rawlings Machine again, right?

I don't buy it either, but fortunately, the artists--by virtue of being so damn good--provide all the cover I need. Besides, this isn't exactly the same Rawlings Machine I last saw in April. For one thing, their album Friend of a Friend has come out, and they've gathered a few members of the Old Crow Medicine Show for their nationwide tour. It would've been enough to hear some of the songs they've kept secret and to take in the new arrangements on the more familiar titles, but even though I've seen the Rawlings Machine more times than I can name, Dave and Gillian's music jumped to another level with this assemblage of talent.

In short, they had a real band now, and with them they brought multipart harmonies, reworked arrangements, double teams on both harmonica and fiddle, expanded bridges, new solos, and in the case of "Sweet Tooth," a little choreographed dance routine. If I had to cite any one aspect of Dave and Gillian's talent as their ultimate strength, I'd point to their vocals, but their already solid standing got another boost with the melding of Willie Watson's and Ketch Secor's voices.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Mystic Theatre, 02-08-10I've discovered that no Rawlings Machine gig would be complete without someone pining for a secret Gillian Welch show, and this appearance was no different. Take, for example, this classic statement I overheard while waiting in line to get into the theater: "I like him, but I'm really here for her." Sigh.

What can you do, right? I hope that the aforementioned patron came away with some appreciation for the duo as a whole and maybe an understanding of how they complement each other. Barring that, I'll assume he enjoyed Gillian's turn in the spotlight with "No One Knows My Name" and "Look at Miss Ohio," the latter reworked to take advantage of all the singers onstage and to highlight what may be the best refrain in a song full of quotables.

Dave and Gillian's string of shows at Largo over the last year-plus has never lacked in appearances by their coterie of musical friends, and the same can be said of their Bay Area concerts. The guest tonight was Peter Rowan, who joined them for several tunes, including a Grateful Dead mini medley and the bulk of the encore.

Often, Dave and Gillian's choice of covers mystifies me, simply because they draw so deep from the American songbook and frequently in expanses that are completely foreign to me. Imagine my relief, then, when I noticed Peter Rowan shaking his head in admiration and, perhaps, respect in reaction to Dave's suggestion for a cover--"Walls of Time," I believe. If even a veteran musician can be daunted by Dave and Gillian's mastery, there's hope for the rest of us yet.

See also:
» when you gonna live your life right
» i've been traveling near and far
» time's a revelator

Sunday, February 07, 2010


I'm back in Los Angeles for the second weekend in a row, but this time for (ostensibly) a family gathering. You know me, though--I will carve out a few hours for my entertainment needs. Thus, I headed over to Largo, where Chris Thile was wrapping up a short series of solo shows in the L.A. area. While I didn't see any of the preceding engagements and, thus, have no points of comparison, I have no problem decreeing that he saved the best for last.

Chris Thile, Largo at the Coronet, January 28, 2010: I've seen Chris Thile in several guises now: with Nickel Creek, with the Punch Brothers, and as a guest at Jon Brion's show. Though I already had a good idea of Chris's versatility, he still provided plenty of surprises over the course of this gig.

Chris Thile, Largo at the Coronet, 01-28-10Chris first showed up to help out Gabriel Kahane, the opener, who happened to be Chris's friend and neighbor as well. Amid several jokes invoking Josh Groban, they managed to squeeze in some music, but soon it was on to the man of the hour.

It should come as no surprise that Chris drew from his extensive discography, including his work as part of the aforementioned Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, as well as his solo pieces, for a good chunk of the set. Nor should it be a shocker to learn that he targeted numerous traditional and old-time titles popularized and/or written by the likes of the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley Brothers. Even the Fiona Apple song has become a semi-staple for Chris, both with Nickel Creek and in one-off appearances.

But Johann Sebastian Bach--or, rather, his pieces written for the viola, but interpreted through the mandolin--turned out to be the star and the inspiration of the night. Since my knowledge of classical music is pretty much limited to long-ago viewings of Impromptu and Immortal Beloved, the closest you'll come to specifics in this blog is the setlist pictured here. However, what you won't see reflected on that sheet of paper is any mention of Chris's expert transitions, weaving together all those influences that have poured into his music and embodying the very definition of "cross-disciplinary."

Chris pulled up a couple of friends for his main set, including former bandmate Sean Watkins, but the real eye-opener was Bela Fleck. The two of them improvised and entertained for a good 15 or 20 minutes, touching on a bunch of things I can't name, with an occasional foray into more mainstream territory as well. I don't know if they've tried it before, but it never felt labored or awkward. In fact, it came across like a typical Largo collaboration: respectful, charming, and atypical.

At the end of the main set, Chris mentioned for the first time a follow-up round in the Little Room, so we hurried over and took our seats. The special guests streamed in for this performance, including some Largo mainstays, but at least one new face as well: Ed Helms on banjo! Rounding out the crew were Benmont Tench, Fiona Apple, Glen Phillips, and once again, Sean Watkins and Gabriel Kahane. Jon Brion was invited to join, but he stated his preference to watch from the back. However, he helped encourage the Mclusky medley, so his touch wasn't entirely absent.

Nonetheless, they rolled out jazzy standards, a couple of Radiohead covers, and a bunch more old-time tunes. A week and then some after the show, the finer details have escaped me, but if you need titles, I can report that they opened with the traditional folk song "In the Pines," Glen Phillips handled the vocals on "Exit Music," and Fiona returned for "Walking After Midnight." The rest of the selections? Well, you'll have to show up next time and find out for yourself.

See also:
» don't get around much anymore
» no one will be a stranger

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

i'm a realist

Though I have no qualms traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles for a concert, the prospect of dragging myself off the couch and catching a couple of buses across town to get to a gig can sometimes be daunting. It helps, though, when I know that a group of good friends, one of my all-time music heroes, and a great club await me at the end of my journey. That may sound like a tall order, but it can be achieved--as evidenced by the Cribs in their visit to Bimbo's 365 Club.

The Cribs, Bimbo's 365 Club, 01-27-10The Cribs, Bimbo's 365 Club, January 27, 2010: The memory may have faded by now, but it was pouring rain the day before the Cribs' show at Bimbo's. Ordinarily, it would've been pretty discouraging, at least for those of us with feeble West Coasters sensitivities, but at a friend's urging, I made a point of hitting this Cribs show.

One of the lingering effects of my longtime Anglophilia is a belief that I can like only British bands or only American bands at any given time. Additionally, according to my self-imposed--and utterly unfounded--restrictions, there can be no cross-pollination among each nation's musicians. I'm starting to wriggle free of this straitjacket, but I still can't help comparing the two traditions. Thankfully, bands like the Cribs are setting me on the right path.

Though originally hailing from northern England, the Cribs (I'm told) call the Pacific Northwest their home now, and those cross-cultural leanings showed. Perhaps the most obvious examples were their brief homage to San Francisco's own J Church, as well as the film clip of Lee Ranaldo that played in the background against one of their tracks.

But the Stateside influences popped up in a subtler manner too, notably in their lean, brisk sound--bearing no resemblance to the bloated, stadium-ready production I often associate (rightly or wrongly) with British music. In a word, I'd describe them as scrappy, though songs such as "We Share the Same Skies" and "Be Safe" revealed layers of melody and tantalizing hooks as well. Then again, when Johnny Marr is stationed stage right, you know the gig won't be some two-chord travesty--you will hear real songs throughout the night.

The Cribs, Bimbo's 365 Club, 01-27-10

It's no exaggeration that the Smiths (along with Duran Duran) ruled my teenage world, and their influence continues to be felt in my listening habits, especially in my lingering preference for sad, clever lyrics set to pretty guitar tunes. That alone would win my eternal fealty, but then Johnny had to work with even more artists I love and lend a hand with some of my favorite records. And I'll admit it doesn't hurt that he's resisted the offers for a Smiths reunion, even if my parents didn't let me see them play at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in 1985. (I'm not bitter.) As a music nerd, I already owe Johnny a huge debt of gratitude for all his work over the years, but I'm more excited to discover that he isn't resting on his laurels and has plenty left to offer.

The Cribs, Bimbo's 365 Club, 01-27-10

Previously, I caught Johnny on tour with Neil Finn in what would eventually result in the first 7 World Collide collaboration. Johnny's very participation was mind-blowing at the time, but he was more a sideman who took a couple of spotlight turns. This wasn't the case with the Cribs. Here, he was a part of the band, not calling out his presence in any way (even shooting down the drunk fool who barreled to the front in an attempt to give Johnny his hat), except where it counted: with some lovely harmonies and a truckload of gorgeous riffs.

The Cribs, Bimbo's 365 Club, 01-27-10As a kid, I listened to the Smiths for Morrissey's lyrics, but I eventually recognized the genius of the music and arrangements behind those words. Still, it didn't prepare me for what I heard at this show. The sheer variety of sounds coming from Johnny's guitar was mesmerizing: hard attacks, soft shadings, and so much in between. Certainly, the Jarman brothers deserve major props for their songwriting, but during the course of several songs, I mostly marveled at the eloquence and musicality Johnny brought to the table. These direct, fuss-free numbers bloomed with his contributions.

By the end of this gig, I came away with an ideal mix of emotions: the gratification of seeing a talented young band earning their stripes, the satisfaction of watching a master ply his trade, and the sheer spectacle of the delighted fans taking it all in. This won't be the last time, I'm sure.

See also:
» above you and beyond me too
» Obscurity Knocks: Marion, "The Program"