Tuesday, September 07, 2010

all the ladies and gentlemen

What's the only thing that can make me skip town and miss a musical meeting between two of my favorite artists? An even more intimate show with that other favorite musician, of course. Thus, I bid adieu to Los Angeles (by way of Ontario) and said hello to Chicago for our sixth annual show with Jeff Tweedy at the Hotel S'n'S.

Jeff Tweedy, Hotel S'n'S, August 28, 2010: Ordinarily, it'd be hard to get excited over a six-year milestone unless you're, say, a U.S. senator up for reelection. Five years is much easier to wrap your head around--there's even a convenient Bowie anthem (just don't pay too much attention to the lyrics). But six years? You're kinda on your own.

However, the number was less important to us than other circumstances of this gathering. Rumor has it that this will be the last year that Jeff and Susan Tweedy will offer a concert as part of the Letters to Santa auction. You can hardly blame the Tweedys--these engagements require a massive amount of coordination among all parties, which is one of the reasons we couldn't convene until a good eight months after the auction itself. Also, we've been known to wring a lot of songs out of Jeff; it's no exaggeration to say we get every penny's worth from him. If this development turns out to be true, of course we'll be sad to miss out on the show, but we'll be even sadder without our annual reunion to look forward to.

This intel hung over us somewhat throughout the day, but it couldn't put a damper on our celebration, and it definitely didn't stop us from enjoying each other's company. In fact, this may have been the most relaxed I've felt at any of our shows in all this time. The food-to-people ratio remained ridiculous but manageable, the greetings were sweaty and heartfelt, and the furious last-minute scrapbooking yielded what I hope were charmingly ragged results. We even had a keg!

That's not to say all this happens automatically. Even under more casual concert conditions, we've been known to plot and prepare a bit (or more) behind the scenes when we know it'll help bring about the desired outcome. In the case of these shows with Jeff, he gets a prospective list of requests ahead of time so that he isn't caught unaware; we often supply lyrics as well, though on-site Googling and printing aren't unheard of. This year, we also had a recording rig in place, though I think we've all made peace with the idea that an audio memento of the night may or may not surface. (Some years, of course, we've had no choice in the matter.)

Hotel SnS, 08-28-2010

We had another provision in place for this outing: The newbies would get first crack at the requests so that their turns wouldn't be lost in the mix. They chipped in with some good ones, including an Elizabeth Cotten cover, and one of our newer compatriots even got to play with Jeff on "Impossible Germany."

I want to mention that our goal is never to stump Jeff; rather, we just want to hear the melding of some of those classic lyrics and melodies with his distinctive voice and phrasings. He was more than up for the challenge this year, interpreting songs by the aforementioned Elizabeth Cotten (it's worth repeating), as well as Harry McClintock and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and he returned to more familiar territory with Bob Dylan and Richard and Mimi Farina.

uilleann pipesOf all these wonderful covers, I need to single out two in particular: Neil Young's "Look Out for My Love," which became an impromptu duet with our indispensable Canadian ambassador, and the Pogues' "Dirty Old Town," a wish finally fulfilled after several attempts, albeit without the accompaniment of any pipes, uilleann or otherwise. As we discussed later, maybe the spirit of the last show finally motivated him to dispatch the Pogues tune--but far be it from us to look this gift horse in the mouth. The bottom line: Score!

Of course, Jeff's songs figured most prominently in this set, both from side projects and across the entire history of Wilco. Paul came prepared for "Childlike and Evergreen," but the 7-inch single remained safely tucked away, as Jeff performed it without the audio aid. Both Martin and Jeff had fun with "Kamera," and Johnny's request netted us the relatively rare "Country Disappeared." I feel obligated to lodge a small complaint that Jeff couldn't remember how to play my request (though he wrote it?!?), but here's hoping that a future show--preferably one that I'm attending--will benefit from the reminder.

Hotel SnS, 08-28-2010

I honestly don't mind if this does turn out to be the last show we get to do with Jeff, but the final songs on the setlist helped us achieve the sense of closure. We couldn't leave without our customary capper, the "Candyfloss" singalong and dance party, but its immediate predecessor summed up everything we've ever felt and wanted to say during this six-year span of shows--and, in some cases, our even lengthier friendships. From the moment we first heard Wilco covering this Big Star tune during the band's spring "evening with" sojourn, I knew it had to be a part of our final gig. The song, of course, is "Thank You Friends," which is pretty much all you need to say at this point (not that it's stopped me from rambling on for far too long).

Every year has been a gift, and I continue to be amazed that we could sustain the shows for this long. No doubt I'll see many of these gorgeous faces in future adventures, but it won't be the same until we can gather under one roof again. It's worth repeating: Thank you, friends!

Thank you, friends!

The full history
» i wish that i knew what I know now
» people say i'm crazy doing what i'm doing
» the message
» that year
» springtime comes
» turn our prayers to outrageous dares
» every day is dreamlike
» it's been a while

Saturday, September 04, 2010

anything goes

I made some noise over the last couple of months about not being able to attend Jon Brion's August show, but things worked out, as they're wont to do when you jump through hoops of fire to get the result you crave. I can safely say I made the correct decision, but decide for yourself after reading the report.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, August 27, 2010: Last month, Jon Brion put on a fine, if relatively brief show, so you may understand why I wanted to come back. As any overly committed fan tell you, hope springs eternal that the next visit will yield a gig of more typical proportions. The thing is, I would've felt the same way if Jon had turned in a marathon session. There's just no satisfying some of us, I suppose.

Mamoun's Falafel RestaurantOn this visit, the latter scenario eventually prevailed, but the indicators weren't necessarily there at the beginning of the night. Flanny explained in his intro that Jon had just returned to the United States after biking around Europe for a month (sources not verified), and Jon too referred to his recent sojourn overseas. In case we needed a better clue, Jon's choice of T-shirt gave a small indication that he'd been out of town.

Also during his intro, Flanny made a comment to the soundbooth about the reverb on the mic making him sound like the J. Geils Band, and I couldn't resist the urge to yell out, "Centerfold!" at him. I didn't expect, however, that Jon would grab onto the cheesy hit as an intro for the musical portion of the evening, alternating between bits of piano improv and quotes from the song's chorus for his opening exercise. This tongue-in-cheek preamble eventually led to a more abstract and poignant form, far removed from that initial refrain.

As is customary at Jon's shows, he kicked off a string of originals from several points in his career. "Same Mistakes" was straightforward and sincere; "Piece of You" showed off a bit of emoting; and "That's Just What You Are" came through with a more psychedelic feel, featuring bendy guitar notes. Meanwhile, "The Way It Went" returned to the lineup, this time with a falsetto ending, and a downtempo undertone, in notable contrast to its exultant chorus, anchored "Same Thing."

Now came the time for Jon to ask for requests, and he allowed the crowd to simply shout at him for several minutes. Sitting in the audience, you can feel overwhelmed by the noise, but judging by the cacophonous recording Jon played back to us of our entreaties, we have it easy. Regardless, Jon picked out the most "evil" request he'd heard and ran with it: a fuzzed-out, almost My Bloody Valentine-esque "Kokomo." For those keeping track at home, this marked the second time I simultaneously gasped and giggled at his selections tonight.

It was back to the drums and his own catalog for "So I Fell in Love With You," in which he supplied the audience with a gorgeous visual of the Gretsch resting against the kick drum, while the guitar solo blasted out through the loopers. Jon's hands were hardly idle, though; he was at the piano for that portion of the show and even had a little time to mime some hand-over-heart movements to follow the narrative.

After this barn burner, Jon called on his army of backing musicians, their collaborations made possible by the wonders of modern audiovisual technology. The first was Andres Segovia, and Jon isolated the footage of the guitarist to a few notes of exquisitely executed fingerpicking. He matched up Andres with a clip of the Mills Brothers singing "I Ain't Got Nobody," which Jon later set in reverse. (Full disclosure: I had no knowledge of the Mills Brothers before I sat down to write this post, but the Internet is indeed good for something.)

With some tinkering, Jon worked the two contributions into a sound bed for "Strings That Tie to You." It wasn't the most elegant version of the song I've heard, but it probably provided a lesson to all the gear heads in the room on how Jon constructs the song's foundation.

Papa Jo JonesJon next introduced Papa Jo Jones on the second screen to join Andres. Besides being, hands down, the coolest-looking drummer I've ever seen, Papa Jo added a touch of high hat and kick drum, while Jon piled in with the MicroKorg and the piano. Brad Mehldau figured in this confluence as well, all leading to my third a-ha moment of the evening: a jazzy view of "Tainted Love." I can safely say that our corner of the room attempted a singalong that may have reached Jon's ears, but overall, this was not an audience-driven performance of the song. Still, it was great to hear, especially Brad's surprisingly haunting coda to the tune.

Jon's shows this summer have hardly been solitary efforts, but the usual suspects have been scarce around Largo, probably due to their own touring and recording commitments, I figure. It wasn't too surprising, then, to see some of the old gang returning to the old stomping grounds in the weeks leading up to the fall season. First up was Sebastian Steinberg and his stand-up bass.

Sebastian and Jon attempted "Enjoy the Silence," based on an audience request, but Jon quickly called off the expedition, claiming it had "a million chord changes." It also appeared that no one knew the lyrics--so much for that suggestion. "Anything Goes" fared much better; if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine yourself gathered around the wireless, listening to the tune and awaiting FDR's fireside chat.

Less era-authentic, the two channeled "Purple Haze" as an Eastern European folk song. Jon's fantastic reading of the line "Excuse me while I kiss the sky" drew several roars from the crowd and moved Sebastian to remind us that we were watching, in his words, "Jon Brion on jet lag." If Jon was operating on anything less than all cylinders, it was impossible to detect. They may have continued in this Bohemian spirit for "Stairway to Heaven," or it could've been pure improv between the two. I can never tell when we get into Zeppelin territory, so don't take my word for it.

Next up was Fiona Apple for couple of her usual standards, and her very presence brought me back to the early days of Largo at the Coronet. Remember when there was no Little Room? And instead, the musicians would convene around the omnidirectional mic, spreading out across the stage in a way that hadn't been possible with the old Fairfax address? I know some old-schoolers pooh-pooh those early shows at the Coronet, but I have few complaints about the inaugural gigs.

Anyway, Jon was left to himself to close out the set, and his first selection was, well, the theme to Two and a Half Men. He revealed that it was the only thing on while he and Bret were recently in London to work on a record (I don't know what record, and I never bother asking anymore), and the song had worked its way into his brain.

With that title dispatched, Jon asked for requests again. After some deliberation, he moved to the vibes for the Peanuts Christmas theme, which soon morphed into "Heroes." Jon had at first registered resistance to the Bowie tune, noting that he'd covered it recently (just last month, as a matter of fact), but on the vibes, it felt like a completely different song. I, for one, love the 30-minute build-up and catharsis of the fully looped treatment, but the piece lost none of its allure with its bones laid bare in this incredibly intimate interpretation.

Jon returned for an encore, which kicked off with a bar or two of "Take 5," but soon catapulted in another direction altogether. Jon asked for requests and titles ricocheted around the walls--until someone asked for "Africa" by Toto. A few more voices supported this campaign, and all of sudden, we had a democratic groundswell. Jon perked up too and announced it was "loud rock cover band time."

This is where the reporting gets tough, partly because I'm inherently weak in this genre, partly because Jon kept up a blistering pace through this cycle, and partly because I was too busy enjoying the spectacle to take notes. I'm not sure we actually heard "Africa" during this session, but Jon did give us "Hold the Line," another notable Toto track.

From there, he threw a million famous licks at us, each of which inspired shouts of joy from various sections of the audience. I caught Cream, the Kinks, the Beatles, and Bowie ("Suffragette City," no less!), but that's just a fraction of what Jon churned out.

When the guitar proved insufficient, Jon looped in drums and more, and Sebastian joined the fun too on electric bass. They kicked out "Misty Mountain Hop," a song I know almost exclusively based on performances at Largo, but in the middle, Jon mixed it up again with nods to T. Rex and Foreigner, to name just two of the sources. As if that weren't enough, he went off on a particularly esoteric jag that made me wonder if he was warming up for his show with Nels Cline the following night. But they brought it back to "Misty Mountain Hop" for the real conclusion to the set.

I don't think anyone would've begrudged Jon for wrapping up the show at this point, especially in light of his jet lag--but there was still more show to come in the Little Room. For this second set, Sean Watkins handled the opening duties, with the help of Sebastian Steinberg on bass and Tyler Chester on piano. Erin McLaughlin also joined in for a song before Fiona and Jon made their way to the front of the room.

Jon chipped in with guitar and harmonies, but even with Sean ostensibly at the helm of this casual operation, Jon piped up with his own contributions. For example, amid their discussion of murder ballads and writing about what you know, Jon threw in a couplet for a prospective song about the housing bubble. We also witnessed a rare sight: Jon on stand-up bass while Sebastian handled lead vocals and guitar for a George Jones song.

By the end of the set, Jon and Sean were equally in charge, trading off vocal duties as ideas occurred to them. Jon's option, "Juanita," might've been an instrumental if it weren't for the audience member in the crowd who knew most of the words. Instead, it became more of a duet--and a lovely one, at that. (I believe the mystery singer was a guest of at least one of the musicians; he may not have been a plant, but he was hardly an amateur either.)

The final song of the night, at least for us peons who aren't invited upstairs, was "Waterloo Sunset," graced with a slightly slurred, Dylan-esque tone. That might've been the jet lag taking hold--but then how do you explain the gorgeous solo pouring out of the Jon's acoustic guitar?

Note: I couldn't attend the Jon Brion/Nels Cline gig the following night, for a reason that will be revealed in a couple of days, depending on how quickly my brain can regenerate after this epic account. My streak is broken, but I'll do everything in my power to attend their next show.

Set 1
--Centerfold/piano improv
--Same Mistakes
--Piece of You
--That's Just What You Are
--The Way It Went
--Same Thing
--So I Fell in Love With You
--Strings That Tie to You
--Tainted Love

with Sebastian Steinberg
--Enjoy the Silence
--Anything Goes
--Purple Haze
--Stairway to Heaven

with Fiona Apple and Sebastian Steinberg
--(I Got a Man, Crazy for Me) He's Funny That Way
--You Belong to Me

--Two and a Half Men theme
--Christmastime Is Here/Heroes

--Take 5
--Hold the Line/Cream/Kings/Beatles/Bowie, et al./Misty Mountain Hop/Telegram Sam/Hot Legs/Hot Blooded/All Right Now, et al./Misty Mountain Hop

Set 2
Tyler Chester, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins
--Never Call
--Wild Side
--You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go

Tyler Chester, Erin McLaughlin, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins

Tyler Chester, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins

Fiona Apple, Jon Brion, Tyler Chester, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins
--Banks of the Ohio
--Jon's song about the housing bubble
--In the Pines
--Lovesick Blues

Jon Brion, Tyler Chester, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins
--She Thinks I Still Care [vox = Sebastian]

Jon Brion, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins
--Pink Triangle
--Last Word in Lonesome Is Me
--Waterloo Sunset

See also:
» they asked me how i knew
» a change might be a thing to try
» manifestation of desire

Thursday, September 02, 2010

from the past a rumor comes

I've cooled on reunion tours in the last few years, but I reserve the right to change my mind, especially when it comes to a band whose music I've loved for more than two decades. That band is Crowded House, and after missing their last two tours of the United States, I mended the errors of my ways by hitting their gig at the Warfield.

MTV moon landingCrowded House, the Warfield, August 23, 2010: Regular readers of this blog may or may not recall the days of when MTV played actual music videos, but the legends are true: There was such a time! As a burgeoning music nerd, I crammed in as many hours in front of the TV set as I could, though that might not be saying much since my family didn't have cable. Trust me--I watched plenty of videos. Funny thing, though, I don't care for many of those bands anymore, but I'm still very fond of Crowded House.

You have to take the following paragraph with a huge grain of salt because I don't trust my memory on this front. As I recall, however, when Crowded House finally broke through in the United States circa 1986-1987, their earnest, unpretentious sound signified a huge departure from many of the groups I usually liked at the time. Of course there were predecessors in the jangly, folksy vein, but none of them hit heavy rotation on MTV, which made all the difference in the world. I was hooked, and the fascination has carried through for, well, decades.

Clearly, this history is not mine alone; take a look around a typical Crowded House show, and you'll likely see a majority of faces of a certain age, myself included. Listen in, though, and you may decide this is no mere nostalgia tour. For a band with only two official hits in the United States, Crowded House can sure get a lot of people singing along to their songs, even their deep album cuts.

You sort of expect it with the likes of "Fall at Your Feet" or "Four Seasons in One Day," both of which Neil intentionally handed over to the audience. However, I heard plenty of voices around me for the moodier and less obvious numbers such as "Nails in Your Feet" and "Kare Kare." Personally, I was happy to hear so many songs from Together Alone, which occupies a special place in my memories; the band's looser musical direction on that disc doesn't hurt either.

Nick Holds up the LyricsI have to give my friend a lot of credit for making this show such a memorable one. Crowded House has long encouraged audience requests, and they took up the challenge early on in the gig with an attempt at Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." My friend was much more proactive with her request, providing a sizable scroll of paper with the lyrics to "Tombstone" written out in large, legible letters. Neil couldn't refuse, and the crowd got to hear a true rare gem.

I can't resist the urge to connect the dots between my most adored performers, and I'm pretty sure those years of listening to Crowded House paved, in part, the path to the musicians I love so much these days. In fact, it's not just conjecture; Neil Finn has collaborated with my two favorite artists, and I've been able to witness at least one of those partnerships on several occasions. Heck, we even sort of forced a crossover moment with the other songwriter in question last year. I may or may not be back for another Crowded House tour, but it's no exaggeration to say that they've been a part of my musical DNA for a long time now and to come.

See also:
» i've got it bad
» that year