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.
--Knock Yourself Out
--Piece of You [new]
--She's At It Again [new]
--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
--Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider *
--This Will Be Our Year #
--Lady Stardust #
--Life on Mars *
--In the Pines @
--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
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