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.
--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
--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
--Girl I Knew
with Sean Nelson
--Always Something There to Remind Me
--Oh You Pretty Things
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