Thursday, April 29, 2010

the song went on forever

For returning readers, here's the Largo Line Watch, April Edition: Jon Brion's show for this month was very well attended, but not sold out. All comers were welcome. Now, your regularly scheduled concert recap awaits below.

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.

Set 1
--Alain Johannes opener
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--She's At It Again
--Round Midnight
--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

Set 2
--I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)
--new song?
--I Believe She's Lying
--Same Mistakes
--Girl I Knew

with Grant-Lee Phillips
--How Deep Is Your Love
--Sunday Morning
--Oh Yoko

with Grant-Lee Phillips and Benmont Tench
--Visions of Johanna
--Benmont boogie
--Judy Blue Eyes
--Lady Stardust

See also:
» manifestation of desire
» everybody's gotta learn sometimes
» it's the end of the things you know
» no matter what the future brings

Sunday, April 11, 2010

forever's on your side

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned scheduling my vacation around a set of gigs. The time has arrived for second of those shows: Miles Kurosky, the former lead singer/songwriter of Beulah, in his return to San Francisco and Bottom of the Hill after far too long.

Miles Kurosky, Bottom of the Hill, April 8, 2010: Every now and then, I can look forward to a show by an artist whose music colors an abundance of favorite memories, who at one time or another dominated my listening habits, and whose return to the concert circuit leaves me sorting through too many words and thoughts now that I finally get to blog about him. Miles Kurosky is such a musician, and I'm trying to figure out the best way to frame this concert report.

Miles Kurosky, Bottom of the Hill, 04-08-10

I should probably backtrack to Beulah, Miles's former band. Local favorites, Beulah played in San Francisco a lot, and I hit as many of those dates as I could--you can spot me in a concert scene on their live DVD. I even saw their very last show in New York City (during a torrential downpour) back in 2004, but my favorite gig was probably a gathering of a dozen-plus friends in Chicago, also in 2004, at the Abbey Pub. We were actually in town for another show, but we took advantage of the great timing to get in one grand adventure that has yet to be duplicated. Alas, despite my promises, we didn't rush the stage for "Silver Lining," but it's hard to begrudge Rock 'n' Roll Jesus, also in attendance that night.

At the time, it was common knowledge that Beulah would split at the end of the tour. I typically don't get upset when bands break up and this news was less jarring than similar announcements, so it's not like we were holding a wake for them--but maybe we would've poured one out that evening if we had any idea of how long Miles would disappear from the scene.

Fast-forward to 2010, and based on the crowd at Bottom of the Hill, I'd say that many of the attendees harbored similar memories of long-ago (in rock terms) Beulah shows. At the same time, not everyone was a geezer, so there's hope yet that new ears are tuning into to Miles's music. Making no assumptions, Miles mentioned once being in a local band to the gathered crowd and gave a shout-out to Bottom of the Hill and its staff for all their support. (He also informed us he's moved to Portland, where he can afford to be a homeowner--a punch in the gut to many of us Bay Area wage slaves.)

Now that I've reverted to my more laissez-faire habits, I may not hear a jot of the performer's music before I attend a gig, and former local heroes are no exception. Thus, the evolution in Miles's songwriting was a surprise to me. Sure, his penchant for marrying dark lyrics to charming melodies, harmonies, and hooks remains intact, but the sound was notably beefier and, at times, discordant in a way I hadn't heard from him since Beulah's lo-fi days. Overall, though, it's still great stuff, and after the show, I headed straight to the merch booth to remedy the situation.

You may have noticed over the last decade or so the phenomenon known as reunion tours. I'm hardly a stranger to them, but lately, the prospect has inexplicably saddened me. I don't begrudge anyone who hits these gigs, but I find it hard to indulge in them (says the woman who sees the the same artist/s excessively).

Miles Kurosky, Bottom of the Hill, 04-08-10Despite my protests, I'm not going to walk out when a couple of old friends happen to get together and make music right in front of me. Joining ex-Beulahs Abbey and Eli in Miles's band was Bill Swan, Beulah's co-founder and its jack-of-all-trades. When Miles wasn't turning to him for what looked to be private laughs and cheerful chatter, Bill took his place in the horn section for both old and new songs, as well as providing backing vocals.

As I understand it, the old Beulah tracks "Emma Blowgun's Last Stand," "Landslide Baby," and "Popular Mechanics for Lovers" are part of the regular set at every show, and in that regard, San Francisco was no different. However, I'd venture that Miles and company went the extra mile in San Francisco with a performance wouldn't be duplicated anywhere else. Bill's presence had a lot to do with that, most notably during the encore, which shaped up to be Beulah request hour. With the help of Abbey and Eli, as well as on their own as a duo, Miles and Bill took on as many old songs as they could remember--and a few they couldn't.

The guy who yelled for "Space vs. Matter" was both gently corrected on the title--"Matter vs. Space"--and got to hear the opening notes of the song, but that was all Miles confessed to remember. In fact, he stated that it's been a good six or seven years since he's attempted these works, but I hope he knew we were thrilled to hear them at all.

This is when I wish I kept notes of the gig. I can report that Bill bailed out "Gene Autry" when Miles forgot the second verse (it happens to the best of us). I know he saved other songs too, but I can't name them off the top of my head. The titles that do come to mind: "You're Only King Once," "If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart," and "Silver Lining," to name three.

Miles Kurosky, Bottom of the Hill, 04-08-10

About "Silver Lining"--that was my request, which Miles quickly admitted to no longer recalling, but several voices (in addition to my own) reminded him of the opening lyrics and carried most of the song. Specifically, a couple of women in the audience knew all the words--and weren't shy about sharing them. I don't usually mind singing at concerts anyway, but they deserve some credit for moving the songs along. Miles certainly noticed too, as he called one of them onstage for "Maroon Bible." She did extremely well, but Miles cut off the performance, claiming that when the show devolves into Beulah karaoke, it's time to call it a night.

Unlike most gigs at Bottom of the Hill, we saw only two openers. The first was Lia Rose, a local singer/songwriter formerly of the band Built for the Sea. I'm not a big fan of female vocalists, but she sounded very lovely and did quite well for her first solo gig. The second was Pancho-San, which happened to (1) be Miles's backing band and (2) comprise Abbey and Eli, also formerly of Beulah. I hadn't heard Abbey sing before, but I wasn't at all shocked to discover that they favored a brand of upbeat, catchy pop that perks up my ears. I hope to hear more of them in the future.

Lia Rose, Bottom of the Hill, 04-08-10

I sincerely hope Miles is lying when he vows to never tour again, but I also know that he's not one to soldier on if he's not feeling it (witness: pulling the plug on Beulah). At the least, I hope he understands that many of us would welcome a night of Beulah karaoke anytime.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

try to downplay being uptight

I've navigated these roads before, but driving through several states in the same amount of time it'd take me to get halfway up the coast back home is still a novel experience for this California resident. On this occasion, the interstate eventually led from Scranton to the charming suburb of Montclair, New Jersey, where Wilco played a pair of jaw-dropping shows at the Wellmont Theatre.

Wilco, Wellmont Theatre, April 2-3, 2010Wilco, Wellmont Theatre, April 2-3, 2010: I try to consider each concert I attend on its own merits, but it's hard to escape some high-water marks. I'll cite, once again, Wilco's five-night residency in Chicago. Simply, it was every Wilco nerd's dream--minus, perhaps, the wind chill--and it'll be hard to top those gigs. These New Jersey dates, however, came close to matching the energy and the expanse of the shows we saw during that blustery, punishing, and utterly unmissable week in February.

For one thing, in terms of sheer numbers, these two nights in New Jersey roughly equaled--and maybe even surpassed--what we heard in two nights at the Riv. The setlists were impressive too, ranging from rarities ("More Like the Moon") to three different covers to a whole mess of Summerteeth tracks. And we heard both "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" and "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)" during the same show!

Granted, the band carried off the same feat at the residency, but far be it from me to refuse another opportunity to take it in; for the acoustic version, John and Pat's especially sweet harmonies jumped out at me in a way I hadn't noticed before. Again, this may have everything to do with the fact that I've heard the full-band version live exactly once previously.

It really came down to the songs these nights, and I could drone on about the fantastic tunes. First off, let's talk Summerteeth: "Candyfloss," "Can't Stand It," "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)," "When You Wake Up Feeling Old," and "Summerteeth," complete with bird calls that transitioned into "Misunderstood." That last diptych, with its seamless segue from sylvan beauty to brute force, may be the most succinct encapsulation of Wilco's abilities you'll ever witness. My mix-making mind thinks the one-two punch of "Laminated Cat" and "Misunderstood" would pack a wallop, but I admit the band's sequencing tells a different--and effective--story.

Then there were titles I'd never heard before, such as the full-band versions of "Someday, Some Morning, Sometime" or their semi-acoustic take on "Dreamer in My Dreams." But they cast a new light on more familiar songs as well. For example, the look Jeff directed at Nels for the latter's acoustic work on "Spiders" was nothing short of admiration and, perhaps, awe. He wasn't the only smitten party; it seemed like more than half the band spent a good chunk of "Impossible Germany" with eyes locked on the guitarist as well.

Even a warhorse like "I'm the Man Who Loves You" was revealed for what it is: a grand excuse to shine the spotlight on Glenn and for the band to indulge in their version of showmanship. I'm not sure I've enjoyed any version of the song as much as the one from the second night at the Wellmont.

The tunes alone made me giddy enough, but the band seemed downright playful too. They managed to check off a few of the requisite Jersey stereotypes (Jersey Shore, the Mob, and Bon Jovi), even as local boy Mike wore his native credentials with pride. Over at the side of the stage, Nels bided his time with fancy dance moves while Jeff handled the solo on "Can't Stand It," and all hands were on deck for "I'm the Man Who Loves You," with John, Pat, and Mike picking up their usual tambourines and maracas, while Nels accepted a rattle-like implement from Glenn and Jeff picked up that wacky-looking harmonica that's recently joined his arsenal. I keep thinking that one of these days, I'll get to hear "It's Just That Simple" again, but John and Pat's shared lead vocals on "In the Street" kept that yen at bay.

I had resigned myself to a pretty quiet summer after all this early indulgences, but it looks like the schedule will become more interesting in a few months' time again. Until then, it's great to know that I've ended my journey with a couple of exemplary gigs and a countless number of awesome memories.

See also:
» high above a sea of cars
» if this was still new to me
» i've run out of metaphors

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

if this was still new to me

For someone with no ties to Pennsylvania, I've seen an awful lot of shows in the state. It dates back to my best friend's stint at Penn, but it picked up steam with--who else?--Wilco, starting with the band's concert at Messiah College on Oct. 12, 2002, to be exact. This time, my travels took me to Scranton, a city I'd previously known only as the punchline on The Office. Ultimately, though, Wilco's appearance at the Scranton Cultural Center further confirmed the Keystone State's reputation as host to the kind of gigs I want to see.

Scranton Cultural CenterWilco, Scranton Cultural Center, March 31, 2010: I can't tell you how hard it was to schedule this trip. First, there was the matter of two can't-miss gigs in my general part of the world--and at the last minute, a third show was announced, though it turned out to be untenable. Then there was a hotly anticipated restaurant reservation to secure--Heidi, I'm still not sure how you did it, but I'm eternally grateful for your handiwork!

Adding to my hesitation was the fear that I had too heavily front-loaded my year in rock tourism, what with a jaunt through the Pacific Northwest already under my belt, the usual SoCal expeditions proceeding apace, and a visit to Chicago shoehorned in. However, I couldn't resist the promise of an evening with Wilco, and with my friends' guidance, it all came together.

If you've been reading this blog and wondering why I see this band again and again--well, I don't necessarily blame you. Also, after Wilco's Chicago residency, where they set out to cover their entire catalog, it might seem even more redundant to add to my concert count (whatever it is these days). But even for someone who's seen more Wilco shows than anyone should admit to, I can tell you the band can still deliver surprises and delights, as they did at this gig.

There's no doubt in my mind that the acoustic portion of these performances have lifted these shows above the norm, and within these mini-sets, two staples stand out even further. The first is "Spiders," which I first remember hearing at Jeff Tweedy's solo concerts in 2001. Just last month, I was musing over a whole wave of fans who've never heard the acoustic version for themselves, but it appears that situation will be, in part, remedied. I wasn't one of the fans incensed by the song's transformation in the studio, but I can't deny that hearing the band's acoustic treatment didn't bring tears to my eyes.

The second was the return of "Laminated Cat"--not to mention in an unprecedented semi-acoustic form--to Wilco's set. My immediate reaction to this song: a flashback to the Loose Fur shows eight years ago at St. Ann's Warehouse, one of the most significant gigs I've seen as a Wilco fan. Sentiment aside, this song continues to pack a wallop; you'll still hear that seemingly illogical combination of a bluesy guitar riff, a deceptively primitive beat, and a robotic drone, but now you have Nels adding his expertise and Mike stationed at the analog synth. Sure, both titles have popped up at Jeff's solo shows over the years, but let me assure you: You'll want to hear the six-man blitz.

That's not to say the band was slacking off during the electric portion of the show--and yes, that includes Nels' wholesale and uncharacteristic slip-up on "You Never Know." I partially chalk it up to technical problems, but I also cut him some slack for an unintentional flub. Heck, the band seemed to get more of a laugh out of it than anything else.

As for the rest of the electric set, the band mostly adhered to their live fundamentals, with a couple of major exceptions. As they'd been doing since the start of this tour, they paid tribute to Alex Chilton, but in Scranton, they debuted a cover of "In the Streets" to accompany "Thank You Friends."

Back in February, I loved hearing the band challenge itself with "Broken Arrow," but Big Star, with its characteristic jangly guitars, compelling hooks, and buttery harmonies, sits more squarely in my wheelhouse. One of Wilco's strengths is their ability to blend all these influences in their sound, but I got a huge jolt when an uncannily familiar riff from "In the Streets" brought to mind "Box Full of Letters." At times like that, it's tempting to think that maybe there is some method to this music madness.

See also:
» the park grows dark
» i play the ones from yesterday
» i've run out of metaphors
» are the roads you travel rough