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

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