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.
On 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.
Jon 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.
--Piece of You
--That's Just What You Are
--The Way It Went
--So I Fell in Love With You
--Strings That Tie to You
with Sebastian Steinberg
--Enjoy the Silence
--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
--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
Tyler Chester, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins
--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
Jon Brion, Tyler Chester, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins
--She Thinks I Still Care [vox = Sebastian]
Jon Brion, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins
--Last Word in Lonesome Is Me
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