Friday, July 30, 2010

they asked me how i knew

I mentioned my current cheapskate status in the last post, but my hypocrisy will be revealed as I file my monthly Jon Brion report for his show at Largo at the Coronet. I went against my better judgement and made the trip to Los Angeles, but hey, if it means eating ramen for the next month, so be it.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, July 23, 2010: I'll say one thing about these monthly Jon Brion shows: No one is taking them for granted these days, judging by the vociferous audience reaction for both the June gig and now July's date. Tonight, that enthusiasm manifested early on, when a good swath of the audience started clapping in time--as if we were at a rock concert or something--in the run-up to Flanny's intro. Granted, I'm not sure it brought Flanny or Jon to the stage more quickly, but that spirit carried all through the show.

Or in the words of Dennis Duffy: "It's like my cousin Teddy's dog. Sometimes he just doesn't want to lick my feet. So what I do is, I hide my feet from him for a couple of days. And then when he sees them, he goes bananas. So you see in this example, Liz is the dog, and I am my feet. Do you see what I'm saying?"

Dennis Duffy

Jon started out on the piano with a naggingly familiar song, but I blanked on it, even after he started singing--so thanks, Google! From there, he dove into his originals, both unreleased and otherwise for a decent stretch. In that block, "Ruin My Day" stood out for its fake-out beginning, with a few tentative notes sneaking together to form the song we know and love. The harmonica-and-celeste-laden "Knock Yourself Out" harkened back to versions we've heard before, but with a nursery rhyme-like quality I hadn't detected previously.

Jon turned on the video screens for "Strings That Tie to You," bringing together Andres Segovia and Maria Callas, though their contributions were fairly subtle. From the guitar footage, Jon isolated a few notes to loop and add to the mix, while Maria's aria once again served as something like a guitar solo, punching up the emotion and bringing a different texture to the tune.

From there, Jon asked for requests; I managed to get in the first one, taking us all the way back to the golden age of American indie rock for "Nothing Between Us" in a ragtimey tone. However, I admit that the second pick, "Love My Way," trumped my tune. Granted, I'm liable to say that about anything coming out of England in the '80s, but Jon's understated solo electric guitar treatment was simply dreamy.

That vigorous show-goers I mentioned at the outset? From the moment Jon asked for requests, at least one particularly group seated close to us had been shouting again and again for "Her Ghost." I'd like to be snarkier, but I have to give them credit for requesting one of Jon's own, for their persistence, and for their sincere thanks when Jon finally made their dreams come true. Besides, it's been a while since Jon dusted off the ditty, and it was a welcome return, especially in that "Almost Blue"-like mold he tried on.

Jon explained his next choice as a request he's never tried before, though I do recall a truncated attempt from a couple of years back. This time, he carried off "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" with nary a hitch, though he required a short interval to hammer out the details. Once prepped, Jon ran it through what might be called the White Album-style treatment, a template he also works with for "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "You Don't Know What Love Is," among others. His voice sounded lovely, a far cry from the Bryan Ferry rendition I usually hear in my brain, and bringing Jon's inspiration back to its Beatles roots, he rounded out this performance with a Slow Hand-worthy guitar solo.

Looking once again to his own songs, Jon brought out a hollow-body Gretsch for a delightfully jangly "It Looks Like You," then did a 180, easing out the Magnolia theme. Finally, for the last song of the main set, he went with a request for "Heroes," called out earlier in the evening. I've gushed about this song at great length all over this blog, so I'll go easy on the blabbing this time. Nonetheless, it remains as fantastic and as exhilarating as ever.

For the encore, Jon brought in his "conductor friend"--that is, footage of Leopold Stokowski (rendered in Warner Bros. form below; thanks for the tip, Gonzi!). Jon had cued up Leo earlier, but his contributions to "Heroes" was negligible, as far as I could tell. The orchestral strings came in more appreciably for "Please Stay Away From Me."

Bugs Bunny as Leopold Stokowski

And then--it was over. No friends dropped in, and the second set in the Little Room didn't materialize, though we hung out for a little while just in case. I, of course, will always opt for maximum music, but it's hard to feel bad after such a buoyant, animated gig. As the saying goes: Always leave them wanting more. Consider us wanting.

--Our Love Is Here to Stay
--Piece of You
--Ruin My Day
--She's At It Again
--Knock Yourself Out
--Strings That Tie to You
--Nothing Between Us
--Love My Way
--Her Ghost
--Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
--It Looks Like You
--Magnolia theme

--Please Stay Away From Me

See also:
» amidst all the to and fro
» use your mentality
» we could steal time, just for one day

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

form a line to the throne

The blog lives! This summer has turned out to be one of semi-austerity; coupled with my low concert drive these days--well, let's say I don't get out much. Of course, there's always an exception, and the New Pornographers' first show in Oakland--at the Fox Theater, no less--does that to me.

The New Pornographers, Fox Theater, 07-18-10The New Pornographers, Fox Theater, July 18, 2010: You have to admit that when the New Pornographers entered the scene, their "supergroup" label was a bit of a misnomer. Honestly, aside from a handful of zine-reading acolytes, how many people could even name the parent bands from which they derived?

These days, they more than live up to that title, with their own groups and thriving careers, most notably Carl Newman, Dan Bejar, and Neko Case. As rock 'n' roll cliches go, this outside success is supposed to breed jealousy and rivalry, but for whatever reason, the New Pornographers have seemed to thrive with these extra commitments. I suppose the band's commercial viability doesn't hurt either, but I take Dan, Neko, and Carl's continued presence to be a good omen of the New Pornographers' future.

Another good sign (literally): the eponymous bulb-encrusted notice at the back of the stage. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the same one we saw three years ago, but I hope they keep it or a reasonable facsimile around--for the glamor factor, if nothing else.

The New Pornographers, Fox Theater, 07-18-10

I see certain musicians--sometimes again and again--simply because I like them, but for the purposes of this blog, I try to take a more scholarly (boring) approach, pointing out changes and developments since the last concert. Of course, there's the new album Together to promote, and based on cursory listens, I notice a more aggressive sound ("Your Hands Together") on this record than on its predecessor. That's as deep as I get, though; the New Pornographers (Carl, particularly) throw out so many words and in such labyrinthine patterns that I tend to gloss over the lyrics until the chorus bores its way into my brain. That pattern holds with early singles such as "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk" and "Crash Years," which can easily join the New Pornographers' roster of greatest hits--or whatever constitutes such a collection in indie rock circles.

Speaking of lyrics, we got a telling confession from the band when Carl, Neko, and Kathryn all admitted they never get the words to "Twin Cinema" right. The song is rife with references to San Francisco, and it led to a segment when the band pandered to local interests. Carl and Kathryn unconvincingly worked in references to the A's and Jose Canseco, respectively, but I still give them an A for effort.

Carl and Neko are, of course, indispensable to the show, and Neko, as always, garnered the majority of squeals and confessions of love. As for Carl, if you're at a New Pornographers show and don't realize that he's written most of the words and notes, then I don't know why you even bothered showing up. However, Dan Bejar's increased role constituted the biggest difference between this gig and previous New Pornographers concerts.

The New Pornographers, Fox Theater, 07-18-10

It wasn't the first time I've seen Dan with the band, but on this occasion, he appeared more at ease with his responsibilities to the group. Dan still spent much of the show off-stage, but he took his place in the spotlight for a good third of the gig, even when he wasn't required to sing. Though he always had a drink in hand, he didn't look anywhere near as drunk as before; still, it was enough to inspire one of the guys behind me to remark that Dan had the best job in the world (my thoughts exactly).

Dan didn't grant drummer Kurt Dahle's request to pop and lock for the audience, but he more than delivered everything else we wanted, including carrying off many of the tunes New Pornographers fans have come to know and love, such as "Myriad Harbour" and "Execution Day." The segments with Dan were truly my favorite portions of the show, if only for the visual of a five-musician lineup at the edge of the stage singing harmonies and playing their instruments. Of course, there was more to it, but it wasn't a bad start, nor did it make for a bad conclusion when they closed the show with "Testament to Youth in Verse."

The New Pornographers, Fox Theater, 07-18-10

Two bands opened for the New Pornographers. First was Imaad Wasif, whom I last saw opening for Neko last year. I hear Imaad's former bassist has moved onto a new gig, but the band had changed in other ways too, with the addition of a violinist for a fuller sound.

The second bad was the Dodos, hailing from San Francisco. They sounded fantastic, mixing folksy acoustic guitar and charming melodies with Burundi-worthy percussion (actually, a set of drums and a separate rack of vibes). Neko joined them for one song, further cementing the headliner's approval.

The New Pornographers, Fox Theater, 07-18-10

See also:
» who led you to this hiding place
» the force of their non-sequiturs
» use it tonight
» listening for too long to one song
» salvation holdout central

Friday, July 02, 2010

amidst all the to and fro

I'm pretty useless at predicting, well, anything, so I sure as hell can't foresee how many people might turn up at any given Jon Brion show. However, I'm happy to play the ex post facto reporter who notes that Jon's June gig (singular, after the Saturday date disappeared from the online calendar) at Largo at the Coronet posted good numbers. Sorry, stat nerds--that's as close to "Mad Money" as I get. Then again, you should know that irrational exuberance has guided my concert choices for a long time now.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, June 25, 2010: Following Flanny's intro and shout-out to some visitors from the 50th state, Jon picked up a guitar and ran with the reference, performing the most famous Hawaiian song of all time--no, not "Tiny Bubbles." Rather, it was "Aloha Oe," the name of which escaped me until the usual round of fervent Googling and YouTubing that follows every Jon Brion show. Trust me--you know it when you hear it, even with the touch of Les Paul and the gorgeous slide techniques that Jon threw in.

From blissful to brooding, the next song on the docket was "'Round Midnight," with a generous helping of fuzzbox, then another about-face beckoned: Jon's own "Piece of You" with the full looped treatment. I tend to zero in on the power pop guitar chords in this song, but the piano, so warm and soulful, made the difference tonight. It's a winner, no matter how you slice it.

Jon stayed on the piano for more originals, including a classic take on "Here We Go." Not so long ago, I never thought I'd describe the song thusly, but after the take-no-prisoners renditions he's unleashed over the past several months, I can't assume we'll hear one or the other. I detected some variances in the bridge and the phrasing, but I can safely say it was very much in the style we've come to know and love over the years.

At this point, Jon casually mentioned that he felt like playing tunes he hadn't done in a while, and he delivered on his word, with songs I either haven't heard in a while or not in the styles he chose. Thus, the 12-string came out for "Love of My Life So Far," while "So I Fell in Love With You" got one of its relatively rare airings. My records show he's done "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" on vibes before, but let it be known that no lyrics sheets were required this time.

The video portion kicked off with clips of a ballerina dancing "The Nutcracker," soon paired with a Cajun fiddler named Dennis McGee and later, a woman playing the theremin. The final result was "You Don't Know What Love Is," but that's only part of the story. It's not always apparent what each performer brings to the tune, though the fiddle came close to the guitar solos Jon often teases out for this song. However, the most striking portion of this video treatment was the dialogue between the fiddler and the dancer that Jon crafted from the footage. With Mr. McGee singing about a "pretty little girl" and a note to "thank her for the dance," you could easily create your own story of these two separate narratives. At least, that's what I did.

Now Jon asked for requests, and right out of the gate, one especially well-rehearsed audience member managed to make himself heard first and most prominently. From his lips to our ears--that's how we ended up with "I Kissed a Girl" in the style of Tom Waits. I have no qualms in giving him credit for a great suggestion because Jon tore it up.

It was clear from the outset that the audience was either full of newbies and/or drunk; you can always tell by the way they giggle at Jon humming "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window" or when he first engages the Chamberlin. But as I've said before, I hardly mind the rookies, especially when they truly want to be a part of the show (as opposed to being the show, which is a topic for another time).

The requests that followed were incomprehensible, simply because of volume--both in terms of quantity and amplification. I could barely hear them from my seat; it's anyone's guess what sounds eventually reached Jon onstage. But in a wise move, Jon cut through the din and simply asked for a song; the style had already been decided (I think). Though Jon conceded the final section was "almost too easy," he went for it: "Just What I Needed" in the style of Les Paul. Degree of difficulty aside, it was a great fit, and more than a few of us in the audience tried to sing along, per the custom at Largo.

Jon returned for an encore, and once again, the requests were simply too numerous to pick out. I didn't actually hear it from the audience, but Jon settled on a title. He supplied the piano, we contributed our voices, and it all came together in the best version of "God Only Knows" I've ever heard at Largo, complete with four-, maybe five-part harmonies. My only slight criticism is that we were a bit slow in starting, and I think the Canal Room show (see the video below) remains the champion as far as this song is concerned. Still, we came through with flying colors.

Jon closed out the set with "Tomorrow Never Knows" before heading to the Little Room, where the second set kicked off in the stunningly intimate style that's marked many of Jon's shows in recent months. He ran through a number of standards and favorite covers, from the Buzzcocks to Cole Porter, as well as the classic writers I can never identify. Speaking of, don't take my word on "He's Funny That Way." I can't vouch for it, but that's how it sounded to me.

The Cole Porter segment turned into a small tutorial and testimonial about the writer himself and how he cleverly crafted songs for non-singers, such as Fred Astaire. This, my friends, is the true definition of continuing education. Sign me up for more!

This may sounds like a no-brainer, but I really like to hear Jon play his own songs, especially when he casts them in a new light--and just about everything you hear in the Little Room is a reinvention. I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've heard "No Excuse to Cry" on anything other than solo guitar, much less the piano. Without its Western twang, it still sounded gorgeous and rich. "Same Thing" on acoustic guitar was another ear-turner, as was "Girl I Knew" without the loops.

Picking up on the sing-along surge from earlier in the evening, Jon enlisted us for "Tainted Love," and once more, we kicked ass, if I do say so myself. This theme carried over with the arrival of Sean Nelson, whom I last saw at Largo a couple of years ago, a while before the Little Room opened up for business. We joined in with Sean's nod to the '80s (never a bad thing, in my book) for his first two choices. Then a slight detour ensued.

In the front right corner of the room, an audience member--a greenhorn, by all indications--interjected with a bet that Jon and Sean couldn't carry out eight bars of "Under Pressure." Sean quickly demurred, admitting that he knew no part of the song that didn't include the words "under," "pressure," "give," or "love." In fact, he confessed a deeper knowledge of "Ice Ice Baby" than the song that inspired it.

Jon, meanwhile, was busy working out the details of this wager with the gambler. Jon talked shop about bars and beats and notes, as well as the rewards ($20 for the musicians if they nail it) and consequences ($1 for the bettor if he prevails). There was a discussion of David Bowie's incomprehensible addition to the song. Finally, there was the performance itself.

A while ago, I recall reading an article about Jon and his response to a dare from Paul Thomas Anderson (maybe) to work out "Flight of the Bumblebee" in some manner I can't recall but was undoubtedly jaw-dropping and improbable. I'm guessing that the wagerer is not familiar with this story; then again, I don't think testing Jon's musical knowledge was the point of this ego exercise.

If you've seen Jon in concert, you can probably guess how that first challenge turned out, and you can probably take a stab at the denouement from tonight. Jon did, in fact, churn out more than eight bars, though not in consecutive segments; at the least, it was definitely more than anyone should be expected to know of the song. At the end, Jon told the patron to keep his money and, to cap off the exploit, flipped the guy the bird. We applauded wildly. By the way, I'd normally give the guy the benefit of the doubt, but there was more than a hint of smugness in his voice. It was hard to get behind him, despite the legendary results.

The momentum swung back to Jon and Sean, who chose a couple of relatively obscure Bowie tracks for their closers. They threatened/promised even deeper album cuts, but it was time to call it a night. Here's hoping we'll get to delve into Bowie's Berlin period next time they come together.

Before I wrap up this blog, I want to mention that I skipped a show in the Bay Area to hit up Largo tonight. The gig in question: Pavement, on its reunion tour. The title of this blog, as you may or may not know, comes from my favorite Pavement song. I can't really tell you why I can't partake of this reunion tour; the explanations sounds pretty ridiculous, even by my standards of what constitutes fandom. I'll say, though, I have no regrets. Largo is almost always the right place to be.

Set 1
--Aloha Oe
--Round Midnight
--Piece of You
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Punch-Drunk Theme/Here We Go
--Love of My Life So Far
--Shine On, You Crazy Diamond
--So I Fell in Love with You
--You Don't Know What Love Is
--I Kissed a Girl
--Just What I Needed

--God Only Knows
--Tomorrow Never Knows

Set 2
--He's Funny That Way
--Me Myself and I
--You Say You Don't Love Me
--Everytime We Say Goodbye
--Night and Day demo
--Excuse to Cry
--Knock Yourself Out
--Same Thing
--Girl I Knew
--Tainted Love

with Sean Nelson
--Always Something There to Remind Me
--Under Pressure
--Fantastic Voyage
--Oh You Pretty Things

See also:
» lost inside adorable illusion
» they were blowing like a hurricane
» bang bang shoot shoot