Monday, May 31, 2010

funny that way

The calendar says it's almost June, but I'm catching up on my May entries. For now, no month is complete without at least one Jon Brion show at Largo at the Coronet to round out the calendar.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, May 21, 2010: I gave up on trying to guess how any Jon Brion show will proceed a long time ago. Heck, some nights I can't even tell what song Jon is doing before he hits the chorus, which probably says more than I want to admit about my powers of prediction. Instead, I show up, jot down notes, and try to decipher them when it comes time to update the blog.

This lackadaisical approach was somewhat vindicated when Jon came onstage and tried to explain the headspace that results from being cooped up in the studio and at work on four different projects, as he did tonight. The not so subtle message: Our guesses regarding the night's direction were as good as his.

At first, this led to what Jon called "middle C" on the piano, which eventually coalesced into "I Fall in Love Too Easily" on the Chamberlin, the EMS Synthi, the MicroKorg, and even a callback to the piano. From there, Jon experimented with his originals. "Over Our Heads" opened with the trademark pitter-patter of electronic blips, but the sampled vocals veered from the ethereal cloud of voices and more closely resembled a Benedictine chant. Throw in some old-time scratchy record sounds and a bit of distortion, and you got a murkier stew than normal for this track.

"Piece of You," as I'm sure I've mentioned before, is a standout among Jon's newer tracks, and the extraspecial element in this evening's rendition was once again the guitar. Those fantastic chords brought to mind Jon's legendary solo on the Wallflowers' "One Headlight" so many years ago and gave you a glimpse into what he must've brought to the table during his days as a session musician.

Anyone who sees their share of rock shows can attest that looping is hardly a novel phenomenon, and Jon himself often refers to the debt contemporary musicians owe to Les Paul for pioneering this technique so many decades ago. But for whatever reason, this fact hit home more emphatically in the last few months, and it was just a couple of weeks ago when I saw a young singer/songwriter using loopers to power his stark solo act that I realized how far other musicians have come, at least in the decade-plus I've been attending Jon's shows. Back then, I was too awestruck by the overall effect to bother contemplating the hardware behind it. Now, though, I understand why Jon had to move on to the video screens. It's called raising the bar.

With the help of Leonard Bernstein and Leon Theremin, as well as a glimpse of Marc Bolan, Jon built up a grand entrance for what would turn out to be "More Than This." Both the orchestra and the theremin melted into the melody beautifully, so much so that Jon crafted them into a lengthy bridge. He added a touch of guitar as well, just enough to draw out a self-referential grin, and capped the song with a subtle change that made you wonder how you never heard that tone before.

The requests portion of the evening began soon thereafter—with a portion of the Bonanza theme, if memory serves me right. But it was a rock-style treatment of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," a kissing cousin to the version of "As Time Goes By" we heard last month, that really kicked off the action. Over a thundering piano transition, Jon ripped into a portion of "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding"; I think he inserted an extended reference to Devo into the proceedings as well.

The rest of the night's requests enjoyed a less definitive treatment, as Jon dispatched them at machine-gun pace, reeling off a few bars here, a couple of chords there. "Space Oddity" rolled out in double-paced ragtime, "White Wedding" wafted in on celeste and Chamberlin, and when the audience spontaneously clapped along to the Scott Joplin number (I can never tell if it's "Maple Leaf Rag" or that other famous title), Jon urged, "Faster!" on us. We obliged to the best of our abilities.

Jon closed out the initial portion of the show with "Walking Through Walls," then quickly reappeared for the encore. Sebastian Steinberg took the stage first, and at Jon's urging, Dan McCarroll left his seat in the audience and joined their ranks on drums. The trio warmed up with a folksy, bluegrass-tinged version of "Someone to Watch Over Me."

Their ranks swelled with the addition of Sara and Sean Watkins, along with Fiona Apple. The two women assumed vocal duties for their first selection. With their second song, they welcomed Benmont Tench, who served as one of the two anchors to "Object of My Affection." The song's other pillar? Jon on vibes, where he unleashed a sweeping solo. The two veterans, at opposite ends of the stage, shared nary a glance, but together, they took the song to another level.

For the final song in this set, Jon flanked himself with Benmont, Dan, and Sebastian to give "Waterloo Sunset" the full band treatment. You never want to take Benmont's solos for granted, and his additions to the song were as refined and as welcome as ever, but Dan was the one to watch. If he was the squeakiest wheel, you wouldn't have known it. Rather, Dan imbued the song with a surprisingly jazzy swing that I don't recall sensing before.

Over in the Little Room, the proceedings resumed in the style we'd seen during the tail end of 2009, when Jon lingered in the back of the room and let his friends run the show. Sean and Sara Watkins broke the ice with their trademark mix of originals, genre- and epoch-spanning covers, and new songs. The addition of Fiona Apple, Jerry Roe, Sebastian Steinberg, and Benmont Tench honed their focus somewhat, and they remained on the standards tip after they finally convinced Jon to join them, only with the addition of a couple of his favorite covers.

"I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" became a playful duet between Jon and Benmont, but a different tone prevailed when Jon and Fiona came together for the final track. Jon provided the acoustic guitar backing, while simultaneously trading hushed verses with Fiona. Judging from the silence in the room, my guess is that the last breath of the song coincided with the first breath from the audience.

Set 1
--I Fall in Love Too Easily
--new song
--Over Our Heads
--Piece of You
--She's At It Again
--More Than This
--Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head/(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding
--Space Oddity/White Rabbit/White Wedding/Rocky Raccoon/You Really Got Me/Scott Joplin
--Walking Through Walls

with Sebastian Steinberg

with Dan McCarroll and Sebastian Steinberg
--Someone to Watch Over Me

with Fiona Apple, Dan McCarroll, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sara and Sean Watkins
--The Glory of Love

with Fiona Apple, Dan McCarroll, Sebastian Steinberg, Benmont Tench, and Sara and Sean Watkins
--Object of My Affection

with Dan McCarroll, Sebastian Steinberg, and Benmont Tench,
--Waterloo Sunset

Set 2
Sean and Sara Watkins
--On the Other Side of Jordan
--new song [Sara]

Sebastian Steinberg, Benmont Tench, and Sean and Sara Watkins
--Sam Phillips song
--new song [Sara]

Fiona Apple, Jerry Roe, Sebastian Steinberg, Benmont Tench, and Sean and Sara Watkins
--Where I Ought to Be
--Come Love

Jon Brion, Jerry Roe, Sebastian Steinberg, Benmont Tench, and Sean and Sara Watkins
--Harry Nilsson song
--Don't Come Home A-Drinking (With Loving on Your Mind)
--I Don't Hurt Anymore
--Early in the Morning
--I Don't Want to Spoil the Party
--Think It Over

Fiona Apple and Jon Brion
--(I Got a Man, Crazy for Me) He's Funny That Way

See also:
» the Book of Brion 2 has landed
» public service announcement
» the song went forever
» it's the end of the things you know

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

we adopt a brand-new language

In all my years of reading UK music magazines, the question of British bands breaking America came up regularly, despite the indifference of all but the most rabid Anglophiles over here. If the question still arises, music writers across the Atlantic might be heartened to know the United Kingdom seems to be enjoying another good run, if Frightened Rabbit's show at the Fillmore is any indication.

Frightened Rabbit, the Fillmore, May 19, 2010Frightened Rabbit, the Fillmore, May 19, 2010: You wouldn't necessarily know it from the initial dribble of fans into the Fillmore, but Frightened Rabbit's debut at this hallowed hall was a bona fide success. Tickets were still available when doors opened, but according to one of the security guys, the gig was nearly sold out. Now we know why the band could stop in at the Rickshaw Stop--and why posters were handed out after the show.

When you see any number of consecutive shows by a band or performer, you inevitably compare the differences between each night and sometimes ask whether it's worth it to attend the shows. This is no shocker coming from me, but in Frightened Rabbit's case, I can answer without hesitation: Yes, it's worth it.

Of course, it helps that two different premises anchored the shows; at the Rickshaw Stop, we got the acoustic side, whereas the band plugged in for the Fillmore. Technically, the only difference I noticed was Scott Hutchinson's use of electric guitar, as opposed to the acoustic model he sported the night before. From what I could tell, everyone else in the band used the exact same equipment as they had for the earlier gig. Dig a little deeper, though, and it turned out they had put together a different setlist for the night. This wasn't some cookie-cutter excursion.

Frightened Rabbit, the Fillmore, 05-19-2010

But oh, what a difference one guitar makes! Because with it came volume and, in turn, intensity. Hey, I like delicate, lovelorn ballads as much as the next person, but a girl can't live on sensitive sonnets alone. Luckily for me, Frightened Rabbit can do both.

The harmonies I mentioned in my previous post remained intact, but now they were accompanied by roaring riffs, as well as another element I couldn't have predicted: a vociferous crowd. You'd think that the audience would be more of a factor at the smaller gig, but as it turned out, the enthusiasm was more apparent here and came closer to the levels I heard at the Independent last year. Maybe the bigger room better suits the intensity of their songs; maybe it's strength in numbers. Whatever the case, I sensed a unity that wasn't readily apparent the night before.

Frightened Rabbit, the Fillmore, 05-19-2010

As a result, we witnessed what felt like a more proper gig, with slightly less horsing around and an emphatic focus on the music. However, it's hard to extinguish the band's self-deprecating and playful nature, so we still got some banter. Among other quips, Scott urged us to grope each other during "The Twist," informed us that "Swim Until You Can't See Land" was inspired by a movie with one of the Olsen twins (not New York Minute), and heard plenty of awestruck remarks about the Fillmore itself. Scott also declared the night's version of "Poke" the best he's ever played. From this side of the barrier, I couldn't agree more.

My night was in every way complete by the time the band hit their traditional closer "Keep Yourself Warm," but they had to gild the lily and make me want to take them home for scones and tea all over again. I'll admit that this tiny detail might've bypassed me altogether if Julie hadn't brought it to my attention, but as he had done the night before, Scott quoted from another song for the tune's coda. We couldn't quite peg the previous night's reference, but this one I knew well. Over the ending, he repeated the line "I am trying to break your heart." Granted, no one has a trademark on that combination of words, but in this context, I think it points to only one source--coincidentally, my favorite band in the world. Believe me, the waterworks commenced!

The bottom line: If you wanted a killer setlist, the Rickshaw Stop was the place to be. If you're looking for a big, full set, the Fillmore was your spot. Personally, I see no reason to choose between the two.

See also:
» let's get old fashioned
» before i change my mind

Monday, May 24, 2010

let's get old fashioned

I have no intentions of giving up rock tourism, but if it ever comes to pass, at least I know my hometown ranks up there in terms of cool gigs and uncommon engagements, such as Frightened Rabbit's acoustic show at the Rickshaw Stop.

Frightened Rabbit, Rickshaw Stop, 05-18-2010Frightened Rabbit, Rickshaw Stop, May 18, 2010: I like to think I've disabused myself of many rock 'n' roll myths, but I reserve the right to cling to certain beliefs. Chief among them is the idea that the best musicians place playing live on par with breathing and need to gig at least as much as--or maybe more than--we need to see them.

Oh sure, I know live shows are more often than not where bands make money. Also, you couldn't pay me to listen to some of rock's so-called road warriors. But dammit if it doesn't warm my heart when musicians carve out another live date when they could be lollygagging around town--and bonus points for those musicians who promise to go through more than the de rigueur promotional motions.

Which brings us to Frightened Rabbit and the group's somewhat slapdash acoustic gig at Rickshaw Stop, a day ahead of their first ever gig at the Fillmore. Lead singer Scott Hutchinson reminded us as much in his early remarks, requesting that we take it easy on them, as they still considered it their day off. He hardly needed to; if they were firing on anything less than all cylinders, the mind boggles on what they'd pull off at full throttle. Rather, the band hit songs old and new, chatted amiably, attempted an unexpected cover--and made it clear they could become the next world-changing band if they keep crafting such majestic, momentous songs.

Frightened Rabbit, Rickshaw Stop, 05-18-2010

You can say this gig boasted two atypical angles: the acoustic setup and the intimate surroundings. I normally eat up any show that can claim either credential, so you can imagine what the combination does to me--and you'd be right. Frightened Rabbit would have to fuck up big time to ruin this concert, but of course that didn't happen in the least.

Frightened Rabbit pulls few (if any stops) in its music; in any arrangement, their songs deliver a full load of petty tiffs, ugly grudges, and shameful urges. But compared to their plugged-in equivalents, which can sweep you up in their bombast and ferocity, their works when rendered acoustically leave you no choice but to hear the words, contemplate the events that inspired them, and possibly admit to nursing some of the same thoughts. Not that it was anything approaching gloom and doom--even in this supposedly laid-back environment, they were relentless, and their undeniable ardor came through.

The show was filled with highlight after highlight, but several moments stood out among the multiple crescendos. Early in the show, when the band broke out in layered harmonies for "Good Arms vs. Bad Arms," it hit me that I could be witnessing the future biggest group in the world. It's only a matter of time before these songs are accompanied by thousands of voices singing along.

Frightened Rabbit, Rickshaw Stop, 05-18-2010

As if we weren't already insanely grateful to the show's promoters for bringing Frightened Rabbit to the Rickshaw Stop, their cred jumped another notch when Scott opened the encore by granting their request: the National's "Fake Empire," leading into "Poke." Granted, the intention may have been more commendable than the execution, but the gesture did not go unnoticed. Also, given the circumstances, no one could fault Scott for using a lyric sheet with this one-off.

Frightened Rabbit, Rickshaw Stop, 05-18-2010From there, Scott ushered in the "request-o-matic" section and gamely carried out the audience suggestions he could hear. The guy in front of me got in a great one with "Head Rolls Off." Additionally, extra credit goes to his friend, who noted that the band played "Be Less Rude" at their show at the Independent last year--not, in fact, for the first time in three years as Scott claimed.

In the midst of their typically passionate performance, the band showed a lighter side, bantering easily and glibly about the club's rules (specifically the $300 penalty for shitting in the dressing room), urging us to help ourselves to the bucket of Voodoo Doughnuts transported directly from the Portland landmark, and gulping down the Hamm's beer provided. I've never subscribed to the theory that you have to be miserable to make miserable (in the best way possible) music, and I'd challenge anyone to take in a show of this quality and disagree.

Update: Check out the video of the show!

Full setlist.

See also:
» we adopt a brand-new language
» before i change my mind

Monday, May 17, 2010

we were made for this

After a slow start, May should shape up to be a decent concert month. Unsurprisingly, it was a Nels Cline show--and the promise of two new (to me) incarnations of his musical muse--that got me out of the house.

Stinkbug/Fig, 21 Grand Gallery, May 13, 2010: Even when I think I know what to expect of a Nels Cline gig, you can rest assured my head is decidedly in the dark. The Nels Cline Singers certainly have a discography and a catalog to work with, but they can just as easily slip in a surprise cover or some heretofore unknown bit of improv. Nels' shows with Jon Brion are the very definition of a guessing game, and forget about his one-off projects--in which case I'm in so far over my head, the USS Nimitz couldn't save me. Thus, it came as a pleasant surprise to hear both Fig and Stinkbug serving up songs that, though not exactly mainstream, came closer to rock/pop compositions than I'm used to hearing from Nels and his collaborators.

First up was Fig, comprising Nels and Yuka Honda, formerly of Cibo Matto. I'm in no way an authority on Cibo Matto; my main exposure to them is isolated to a couple of high-rotation videos on MTV's 120 Minutes. Despite this ignorance on my part, it wasn't hard to guess at what each of them brought to the songs. Nels, of course, supplied the expert fretwork, which ranged from the fine and ethereal to the frenetic and discordant.

tenori-onYuka, meanwhile, came through on the synthesizer and, most dramatically, with the percussion. On many of the songs, she supplied a deep, satisfying rhythm that was nearly irresistible. Even better, I think a lot of the noises came through a device that looked like the bastard child of a Simon Says, a Lite Brite, and a disco ball. And you know what else? It matched her awesome silver lame shoes! [EDIT: The instrument in question is called a Tenori-On (pictured right).]

OK, that last observation was pretty shallow, so let me get to the real details. In all, Fig performed six songs, two with Nels on vocals (not the first time I've heard him take the lead) and two with Yuka on the mic. I don't think either artist would verify that they were fully hatched songs, but they sounded pretty complete to me. Within the set, "Berries" (I think that's the name?) might be the closest to, say, a Nels Cline Singers composition, particularly in its use of looped guitar parts and transitions from the dissonant to the melodic. On top of it, Nels sang, while Yuka furnished the foundational beat. Nels took his other turn as lead singer on the opening "Every Moment," a diaphanous intro if there ever was one.

"Tokyo Night Janitor" may have been my favorite of the Yuka-fronted tracks, even if we didn't get to hear the story that inspired it. Over Yuka's spoken-word delivery, Nels added acoustic notes, but the serenity didn't last for long. Soon enough, they summoned the chaos (and the KAOSS), all leading to a one-chord denouement that may not have been entirely planned.

Their final selection was what Nels called a "not so little" number by the name of "Don't Move." It started as a conversation between Nels' thingamagoop and the bird calls living inside Yuka's synthesizer, but as promised, it grew to much bigger proportions. By the end, it had morphed into a true epic with multiple backing tracks and real rock feel.

Stinkbug, in contrast, played only two numbers, but the first was a sprawling 30-minute movement, and the second clocked in at a relatively short 15 minutes. First, I have to note that it's always a surprise to see Nels as part of a group in which he has the fewest effects pedals and doodads of anyone onstage--which was exactly the case here.

Stinkbug, 21 Grand Gallery, 05-13-2010

Also surprising was the accessibility of Stinkbug's music; I mean, I'd be hard-pressed to peg Stinkbug to a particular genre, but there was a low menace and an electric buzz to their sound that wouldn't be out of place on, say, alternative rock radio (whatever that means these days). Then again, seeing as this was the first Stinkbug show in seven or eight years, maybe it's a case of the rest of the world catching up with the band.

See also:
» congeniality
» manifestation of desire
» spider wisdom
» just keep counting the stars