Tuesday, March 30, 2010

everybody's gotta learn sometimes

It's official, kids: Three months, three shows, and three sellouts--Jon Brion's shows (mach, er, four?) at Largo at the Coronet are no longer casual affairs. Procrastinate at your own risk.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, March 26, 2010: Technically, with the late announcement of Jon's Saturday date, the count is up to four shows, but I couldn't make it to the Saturday gig, despite the promise of a superspecial guest. Since we're crunching numbers and talking tallies, I'll also mention that this is the second time this year I've missed an exclusive Largo appearance by an unnamed musician. You can kinda blame a certain band for dominating my calendar, but truth be told, I was on my way to western Maryland for a hard-won brunch reservation. I don't regret it at all!

For the first eight songs of his set, Jon drifted between moody, introspective pieces and his more energetic numbers, and you could chalk up the course of the evening to the typically varied and unrehearsed nature of his shows. Thus, Jon balanced the one-two punch of "Someone Else's Problem Now" and the ever stunning Magnolia theme with a build of "Girl I Knew," featuring a bluesy guitar breakdown in the middle.

Trailing the power pop of "It Looks Like You," a chamberlin- and MicroKORG-infused "Moon River" trickled out on a jazzy stream. He pulled no stops with "Walking Through Walls," though equipment problems threatened to derail him. I couldn't tell you what was happening with the gear, except that you could see Jon cursing at pedals and guitars at various points of the song. In the meantime, he managed to tease out a hint of Les Paul, and he drew us in to the chorus as he segued into "Rock and Roll." The Magnolia theme had inspired applause from the audience, but the Gary Glitter nod was one of the first signs of levity for the night.

If you had to pick a highlight for the first set, you could do worse than the next selection: a build of "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes," an already breathtaking song that Jon augmented with one of the finest uses of the video mixers I've seen from him. First, there was an unnamed orchestra; next, Jon called up the well-worn Nels Cline footage.

The former, as you might expect, supplied the strings. Nels, through the magic of modern technology, came through with an eerily appropriate guitar solo that sounded as if he had penned the tune itself. In hindsight, this title embodied the evening's emotional tone, as Jon somewhat confirmed with the soliloquy that ensued.

Jon spoke for the first time that night, thanking us profusely for--slightly paraphrased--letting him disappear his own ass. Then he cut to the chase, remarking on the recent abundance of death, specifically citing Mark Linkous and Alex Chilton. In addition to lauding their talent, he told us to not request their songs and to listen to their records instead--a familiar refrain to anyone who's been to Largo after the passing of any of the greats.

But he also referred to an unnamed friend and shared a story about the jacket he was wearing that night. Mind you, I've seen this jacket before--it's not an item you'll forget. Though it possesses a certain Touluose Lautrec quality, it's an, um, acquired taste. With his anecdote, Jon not only explained the jacket's origins, but paid tribute to the friend. I take back everything I've ever said about the jacket--he should wear it every chance he gets.

To break up the mood, Jon asked for requests and chose a song that he said he'd heard the other day on the iPod, reminding him of how much he loved the album. It was the Cars' "Just What I Needed," performed on the vibes, and we came through with the chorus and with giggles. About two-thirds into the song, a section of the vibes fell off, in keeping with the rash of technical issues that had popped up all night. Jon finished the tune, but at its conclusion, he turned over the setup, a la Keith Moon.

At the side of the stage, we could see some of the Largo regulars gawking and pointing at the seeming scrap heap, but Jon wasted no time in channeling that energy into "Tomorrow Never Knows." Atop the foundation of looped beats and piano notes, Jon added jangly riffs and an analog synth frenzy, then recruited several video contributors: Eric Clapton, early breakdancers, Buddy Guy, a Cajun fiddler, and Nels Cline (again). I know this song invites chaos, and it'd be hard to urge order on it, but this video mix proved less effective than the first outing. Nonetheless, I appreciated the return to the piano and Krautrock outro.

For the encore, Jon rolled out an especially echoing and chiming "Waterloo Sunset"--proving again to be a great emotional salve--and the charming Dylan-inspired take on "Knock Yourself Out." Then it was off to the Little Room for Set No. 2.

It was a slightly unusual scene in the Little Room: Occupying the bench at the front of the chamber were a few of talents who usually hover closer to the back of the space, waiting to be called to the stage for their contribution. Tonight, they seemed not unlike some of the patrons, enjoying drinks and each other's company. Their informal stance became clearer when Jon arrived, Kevin Barnes in tow for the second month running. Positioned at the piano, Jon stationed Kevin at the mic.

Kevin still doesn't carry the casual air of a Largo fixture, but his faith in Jon came through clearly as he belted out a couple of covers that couldn't have been more different from each other. The first, "I Want You Back," opened up the room and picked up our already high spirits. The second, "Mother," was raw and tormented. The tears visibly flowing down his face only confirmed everything you heard in his voice and the song.

Kevin left a huge hole with his departure, but Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch--whom I last saw in Seattle--took up the challenge. They knocked out one of their own, then a favorite cover (that brought out huge smiles from Gillian), and from there, the stage became a revolving door of sorts. Sara and Sean Watkins, naturally, appeared for a couple of tunes, and Benmont Tench stepped in too.

I didn't catch the name of the Johnny Horton song, but we all caught sight of Gillian dancing along to it, her cowboy boots also conveniently supplying the beat. Though Dave struggled with the second verse, you gotta give him some credit--the tune had a lot of words.

This old-time marching anthem inspired Jon to proceed down a path that perhaps only he could carry off: a bluegrass version of the Smiths' "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now." The mind reels at the thought of what Johnny Marr might've wrought had he listened to more Ralph Stanley records, but I'm not going to argue with the thesis set forth tonight. Also, I'd like to mention that my second request of the evening ("Suedehead") was shot down during the lull that followed; I will, however, revisit the possibilities of "9 to 5" in the future.

"Flat Foot Floogie" ostensibly started as a duet between Jon and Benmont, but Dave--standing just offstage with his guitar still slung across his shoulders--contributed so much to it, from the opening urging of a "barrelhouse" tune to random notes through the course of the song, that Jon and Benmont convinced him to come back to the spotlight.

Still, it wasn't over. The musicians left the stage, and the lights flickered on and off, yet one more song awaited. Jon concluded the show with a jazzy instrumental number, the kind I'm completely useless at identifying. I'm going to throw out the highly debatable opinion that it might've been "Ain't Misbehavin'." If you have information to the contrary, feel free to let me know.

Set 1
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Magnolia theme
--Girl I Knew
--It Looks Like You
--Moon River
--Walking Through Walls
--Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes
--Just What I Needed
--Tomorrow Never Knows

--Waterloo Sunset
--Knock Yourself Out

Set 2
--I Want You Back *
--Mother *
--Everything Is Free @
--Tired Eyes @
--Early in the Morning #
--Reality Calls #
--? $
--? [Johnny Horton song] %
--Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now %
--Pretty Peggy-O %
--Flat Foot Floogie ^


* = Jon Brion and Kevin Barnes
@ = Jon Brion, Dave Rawlings, and Gillian Welch
# = Jon Brion, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Sara and Sean Watkins
$ = Jon Brion, Dave Rawlings, Sara Watkins, and Gillian Welch
% = Jon Brion, Dave Rawlings, Benmont Tench, Sara Watkins, and Gillian Welch
^ = Jon Brion, Dave Rawlings, and Benmont Tench

See also:
» three-god night
» really quite out of sight
» this old rain's just about soaked through

Thursday, March 18, 2010

i play the ones from yesterday

I don't make it to Chicago as often as I used to, but certain engagements require little thought on my part. Take, for instance, a pair of Jeff Tweedy benefit shows at the Vic. As always, I packed accordingly.

Jeff Tweedy, Vic Theatre, March 12-13, 2010: During the course of these shows, I started to wonder how long it's been since I've seen a "normal" Jeff Tweedy gig--er, apart from that one-off in Phoenix just last December, which was kind of a party for his sister anyway. But aside from that date, if it does indeed qualify, most of Jeff's solo concerts over the last several years have been benefits or charity shows. Furthermore, Jeff hasn't booked an extended tour in my part of the world (as if that's ever stopped me) since at least 2006.

Jeff Tweedy, Vic Theatre, 03-13-10Anyway, Jeff's spectacularly arch tone, from start to finish, inspired this train of thought. If you've seen a Wilco show, you know Jeff's humor often comes across as tongue-in-cheek--when he chooses to speak to the audience. Lately, though, his statements have leaned toward an earnest appreciation for the cities the band has visited and the crowds that have attended.

But if history is any indication, these benefits bring out another side. As I recall, Jeff got in some barbs at last year's gigs, and that tendency showed no signs of abating at this year's outing.

The format pretty much guarantees this trend. The drill, for review: The first 30 people in line get to request songs, many of which are downright dares. Jeff, in turn, does his best to fulfill their wishes and, in the execution, score some laughs at our expense.

I think I steered clear of most of the digs, partly because I go for the (relative) softballs. Hey, I've admitted to my teacher's pet tendencies, but the truth is I actually want to hear these titles. This year, that meant "Either Way" and "Solitaire," neither of which show up often on Wilco's setlists, I'd like to remind everyone. Besides, I figured more than one person in line would make up for my pandering--and they did!

Jeff Tweedy, Vic Theatre, 03-13-10

Though I escaped the sharpest comments, my requests were immediately juxtaposed with Jeff's remark about how all the songs would be "bad" (or was it "not good"?), and Jeff didn't pass up the chance to point out the lack of electric guitar in his solo rendition of "Either Way." Still, this was nothing compared to the retorts a lot of other requesters--including my own friends--received. At one point, he called us "creeps," but more specifically, Paul couldn't catch a break for asking for an outtake from the first album ("Promising"), and there may have been a hint of indignation in Jeff's spoken-word performance of "Single Ladies" for Brianne.

As a fan, I can't help but love this format, and the masses came up with some good ones. There are far too many to name, but I loved hearing titles resurrected from old Lounge Ax recordings ("A Fool Such As I" and "Shaking Sugar"), current covers ("Broken Arrow" and "Fake Plastic Trees"), and all-around favorites ("Laminated Cat," "The Long Cut," to name two). Throw in a bunch of B-sides ("The Good Part") and even more Neil Young ("The Losing End"), and you'll start to get an idea of what we heard over two nights. Oh sure, there were some forgotten lyrics along the way ("Secret of the Sea"), but Woody Guthrie tends to have that effect.

Among all these songs, a couple jumped out at me--I mean, beyond the enjoyment factor. Though Jeff played down "Screen Door" as one of his earliest compositions--and drew attention to his improper use of a preposition--he also slightly slowed the pace and imparted the tune with a mature and maybe even resigned tone. In the process, this typically guileless work took on a worldly feel I'd never detected before.

The other was "Spiders." I'm not sure how many people reading this blog remember the controversy over this song's journey from its striking acoustic form to its eventual Krautrock-inspired studio rendition, which has become a mainstay of Wilco's sets. I'm going to go out on a limb and declare that anyone who heard "Spiders" in its early stages--almost 10 years ago, if memory serves me right--will always have a soft spot for that arrangement. Then again, maybe I'm just being self-serving because during Jeff's performance, I had a hard time recalling the electric version, despite having heard it about a million times. This is no slight on the band, however--it's more a testament to the song's good bones.

Amid this pleasing turn, a few bona fide surprises popped up; notably, Jeff claimed he had no stories to tell, so he opened up a Q&A session instead. Unfortunately, he called on one yahoo who asked about Jay Bennett, but a couple of other developments helped make up for that lapse.

The first was a question about Jeff's favorite song to play; naturally, he chose whatever he's working on, which turned out to be a piece he wrote for Mavis Staples. I deserve to have my English degree revoked for unimaginatively calling it soulful, but trust me, you could easily imagine how she'd shake up and raise its already heartfelt foundation.

The second came from a kid in the balcony, who offered $5 (to Jeff, not the charity) to play a G chord on Jeff's guitar. His wish was granted, and under Jeff's tutelage, he followed up with a handful of complementary notes. I'm not sure Jeremy (the kid in question) paid up in full, but his unadulterated enthusiasm inspired the audience's outright amity. I was hoping he'd crowd-surf back to his seat, but as it happened, I'm pretty sure he was floating across the entire expanse anyway.

See also:
» fixed bayonet through the great southwest
» feels lucky to have you here
» i don't want to leave this walking dream
» the park grows dark
» with songs about things we all know

Sunday, March 07, 2010

due for a change or two

Last month, I promised some eventual variation in the blog. You got it: Midlake's return to the Great American Music Hall in support of their new record The Courage of Others--if, that is, your definition of "new blood" encompasses a band touring behind their third album. If you're just happy that I'm writing about someone other than the usual names, thanks for slogging through, and check back in mid-April for the rundown (I hope) on someone who's a bit of a stranger to these parts.

Midlake, Great American Music Hall, March 4, 2010: I know he isn't reading this, but to the newbie who had no prior knowledge of Midlake but bought a ticket to the concert as part of a friend's birthday celebration: I apologize for snapping at your Jethro Tull comparison. I couldn't have been more insufferable, but you were cool enough to laugh it off. Truthfully, I was just as surprised by the flutes and woodwind instruments as you were by, well, probably the whole gig. Also, if the band turned out not to be your cup of tea, I hope you moved the party to Mitchell Brothers, as suggested.

Midlake, Great American Music Hall, 03-04-10For those of you who are familiar with the band, please join me in thinking of all the '70s touchstones that apply to Midlake. Got 'em? Now, I'd like to suggest another one: ch-ch-ch-changes. No, I'm not talking about eyeliner, sexual ambiguity, or Mick Ronson; I mean that in the general sense, evidenced by the bushier beards, the longer locks, the two new faces in the lineup, and the huge reproduction of the band's new album cover draped across the back of the stage. (You may recall that the band retired its art films a while ago.) Finally, add to that list one more item: the new sound they're promoting.

As someone who, for a long time, barely listened to any music issued before 1977, I wouldn't have pegged The Trials of Van Occupanther as a potential favorite when it was released, but I fell deeply in love with it, especially its mid-decade groove and ornate arrangements. In fact, if I'd bothered to issue a decade-end retrospective, Van Occupanther surely would've numbered among my dozen or so favorite albums of the past 10 years.

That's a high bar to set, and The Courage of Others has proved more challenging, as the band has reached further back into the era and plumbed more obscure depths. Certainly, I've listened to other groups that have waved the flag for the likes of Fairport Convention and Pentangle (see also: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks), but Midlake may wear those influences more prominently than anyone else in my record collection.

I've been trying to wrap my head around this realignment, but the band threw me for another loop when these pastoral leanings, in their live translations, became almost fully blown prog rock. They didn't shy from it either; the flute was the first instrument we heard, and we even got a couple of duets. Additionally, the electric piano imparted a suspiciously harpsichord-like effect at times. Thankfully, they spared us those other hallmarks of the prog persuasion: lutes, lyres, and overlong drum solos. Whew!

Midlake, Great American Music Hall, 03-04-10

I won't lie: This isn't my favorite musical epoch, and I'm not entirely sold on this direction (see also: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks), but at times, the alchemy of the live show kicked in. From the new album, "Fortune," for example, combined a touch of flute, multiple harmonies, delicate guitar notes, and an ascendant melody in a sweet, succinct tune, and "The Horn" provided a rawking interlude in a set dominated by low-key, measured treatments.

Midlake, Great American Music Hall, 03-04-10

Mixed reactions aside, it was clear to me that this change-up has allowed Midlake to grow in ambition and ability. Their technical mastery has never been in question, even going as far back as their show at Bottom of the Hill, but if you had any complaints about the band's skills, it'd be harder to sustain such gripes in light of their sheer musicality. This was especially evident in the transformation of the old "hits," each of which they graced with reworked intros that revealed themselves slowly and unexpectedly.

Midlake, Great American Music Hall, 03-04-10For instance, several jolts of electric guitar shot through "Young Bride" before the band hit the song's seductive sway and loping gait, and the entire assemblage worked up "Roscoe" with a wall of--be still my beating heart--five guitars in the prelude to those killer chords. Finally, "Branches" bloomed with an extended bridge in which their new guitarist channeled a young Clapton--in both sound and appearance. At this point, it's anyone's guess where their songs will end up in their next life, but I'll be back to find out.

Also hailing from Denton, Matthew and the Arrogant Sea opened the show with a sound steeped in several influences and inspirations you could probably pick out, but to their credit, their songs were instantly likable and nicely crafted. Texas is hardly lacking in celebrated music cities, but as long as it keeps nurturing the likes of Midlake and Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, Denton could very well join that hallowed list.

See also:
» too consumed with this world
» we like the newness, the newness of all
» top 5 albums of 2006