Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, April 23, 2010: Nostalgia is kind of my kryptonite, but that doesn't preclude me from recognizing and enjoying an old-school type of night at Largo when I hear it. For starters, there was Jon's appearance at the top of the set to bring out an opener--the first I've seen for quite some time, not just at the Coronet, but even dating back to the last several years of performances at Largo's former Fairfax address.
This rare honor went to Alain Johannes, whom Jon called an old friend and one of his favorite guitarists. (For the record, Jon mentioned one other guitarist in this elite group: Nels Cline.) In this setting, Alain switched among a few guitars, most notably a cigar box model. As acoustic arrangements, his songs showed undeniable passion, but his guitar playing shined brightest. On one track, "Spiders" (no relation to that tune by my favorite band), his inspiration revealed itself early on, in the form of refined fingerpicking that brought to mind an arachnid's careful, creeping steps. In all, he played perhaps a dozen songs to impressive affect.
I have to admit that I'd never heard of Alain before he took the stage, but a quick round of Googling after the gig shed light on Flanny's off-hand comment about Them Crooked Vultures. In his remarks following Alain's performance and preceding Jon's turn, Flanny also revealed how to land an opening slot at Largo:
- Don't ask to be an opener.
- Drink up all the Stella Artois you can, especially if it's administered by Jon and Flanny himself.
- Be the nicest fucking guy in the world.
On that note, Jon's set commenced, with a modern-sounding piano piece that gave way to "Someone Else's Problem Now," followed by "She's At It Again" on electric guitar. I've been fixated on interpreting the latter in an early-'80s style, but now that I've heard it several times, I'm starting to get a better idea of its versatility and its potential retooling in any number of genres. I swear, I'm usually a much less proactive listener, but all these Jon Brion shows may have finally planted some seeds in my brain.
The next selection filled me with a slight sense of dread, as Jon's rendition of "Round Midnight" can easily extend into double-digit durations. Also, it's often a harbinger of a less than sunny show. No need to worry tonight, at least on one count--it was still an epic, one of many we'd hear, but as Jon cheerily reported, he simply wanted to test out a fuzzbox.
A couple of tunes later, Jon turned on the video mixers, layering, in progression, a Leonard Bernstein-led orchestra, Leon Theremin, and a Mexican band, then adding his own touches on Chamberlin. I should mention it's important to keep in mind the sometimes impressionistic links between the video segments and Jon's eventual song selections; that is, it's not always a chord or a melody that tie them together. It's often a more ephemeral quality.
This seemed to be the M.O. tonight. For a long stretch, I couldn't figure out where Jon was going with this segment, but he eventually landed on "Ruin My Day." I can't vouch for his motivation, but my guess is that the forlorn lyrics in the Mexican song sparked this pick and, in turn, the segue into "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want." All three songs share a doleful, self-aware tone--consider it a study in sadness times three.
From here, Jon asked for requests, starting with a couple of Zombies titles. For the first, "Time of the Season," he opted for the vibes (remarkably repaired after last month's debacle) and insisted that we sing along, which is exactly what we did, down to the syncopated exhalations that set the song's pace. As you might imagine, we weren't too shabby with the call and response either, if you didn't mind the inevitable giggles that accompanied our contributions.
Moving on from the Zombies, Jon chose, in his words, the "most unlikely" request as his next cover to "reinvent as a rock song," for his own "amusement." The drums came first, with an emphatic rhythm that brought to mind prime Attractions-era Elvis Costello and established the tune's power-pop direction. Without a doubt, "As Time Goes By" was a fantastic and bona fide Jon Brion interpretation of an old standard, but a part of me couldn't stave off the vision of a fourth-wave emo band aping the treatment when a superfluous remake of Casablanca is inevitably greenlit, starring whichever Mouseketeer has been deemed the nation's teenage idol. (Ed: Maybe you should ease up on the caffeine.)
You could chalk up "As Time Goes By" as the night's second epic, and we'd soon settle in for the third and final saga of the evening. "Here We Go" kicked off inauspiciously, but soon shaped up as a musical petri dish, which has been the pattern for at least the last few months. I recall first hearing an experimental take on this song last December and again in January. Jon expanded on this exploration, cooking up a 30-minute operation that brought in the EMS Synthi, drum loops, and tons of guitar.
The secret ingredient tonight was Alain Johannes, summoned from whatever corner of Largo in which he'd been cooling his heels. If Alain's opening set hadn't convinced you of his inherent talent, you had to believe it by the time Jon slid the guitar over his shoulders and left him to do his thing. Without hesitation, Alain stepped up--midsong, no less--and drew out some of the most evocative and poignant notes I've ever heard in "Here We Go."
Jon, meanwhile, warmed up the video mixers again, cuing up footage of Jacques Brel, '40s-era women singers, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Leonard Bernstein, a Cajun fiddler, Louie Bellson, and a ballerina; though most of those clips felt like slapdash selections, the Cajun fiddler complemented the song beautifully. Jon also supplied a touch of Chamberlin, and at the end, he controlled the pedals while Alain remained on guitar. He returned for a quick encore of "Knock Yourself Out," then it was onto the Little Room for the second set.
I understand why people can't always make it to the second set: babysitters, exhaustion, overload, hot dates. I guess I'm also thankful the crowd thins out, but I still think they're missing out big time. If nothing else, those who mourn the old Fairfax space will love the Little Room, which is an even more intimate arena, if you can believe it.
In the wake of that big, booming set in the main theater, this intimacy came into sharp focus during Jon's second show. For his part, instead of obfuscating his role, as has been his wont for the past several months, Jon settled in at the piano and simply played. It took me about 36 hours to figure out the opening instrumental (jazz era + me - lyrics = fail), but I had less success identifying a couple of other songs. The second instrumental sounded like one of Jon's soundtrack pieces, though I'm not sure which, and the third might be a new original--or my Googling could use some work.
I haven't heard "I Believe She's Lying" on acoustic guitar in--well, maybe ever. I think the same goes for "Girl I Knew." I'd hold up the entirety of the show up to this point as a perfect encapsulation of Jon's range, from the heroic to the hushed, and I probably could've gone home happy after just this batch of songs--but there was more to come.
Kicking it old school once more, Jon invited to the stage Grant-Lee Phillips, who's been missing from Largo for far too long, and the two quickly fell into their trademark goofy energy. Jon urged Grant into a downtempo take on one of the Beatles' more frenetic numbers, and while Jon grabbed lead singer duties on "Elenore," something in the song's backing vocals led Grant to "How Deep Is Your Love," delivered in the style of the Barry Gibb Talk Show:
"Oh Yoko" became a partial comedy too, when Grant ad-libbed some lyrics ("In the middle of a text") and the two of them faked a harmonica solo without a harmonica.
With the addition of Benmont Tench and a sartorial save by Griffee, the trio became Men With Hats, and their first order of business was not "Safety Dance," but rather "Visions of Johanna"--flat-out fabulous with Grant's vocals wrapped around all 17 verses. These three pros finished out the set with a few more classics, concluding with "Lady Stardust" and its deliciously appropriate lyrics.
--Alain Johannes opener
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--She's At It Again
--Happy with You
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Ruin My Day/Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
--Time of the Season
--This Will Be Our Year
--As Time Goes By
--Here We Go
--Knock Yourself Out
--I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)
--I Believe She's Lying
--Girl I Knew
with Grant-Lee Phillips
--How Deep Is Your Love
with Grant-Lee Phillips and Benmont Tench
--Visions of Johanna
--Judy Blue Eyes
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