Saturday, December 31, 2011

a really good time

This was a close one. I mean, December 23? And I have to get back to Northern California in time for the family celebration, preferably on a reasonably priced flight? But it worked out, and in a way, it's fitting that Jon Brion's show is indeed the last gig of the year at Largo. It should be as such forever and ever (amen).

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 23, 2011: It started with a game changer in 2005, but the 2006 edition -- an all-around epic night -- sealed the deal. What the hell, I can't dismiss 2007 either. OK, I'm gloating now, but if it's late December, you can find me at Largo for Jon Brion's final show of the year.

As is the wont with Jon Brion, not two of these yuletide shows have been the same. Some years, he's almost ignored the seasonal aspects, but that wasn't the case this time out. Looking professorial in glasses, a hat, a bowtie, and a red sweater, he wished us a "merry fucking Christmas" and parceled out a Thelonius Monk-style "Jingle Bells." He followed it up with a short, multidenominational holiday medley, which segued seamlessly into his first original tune of the evening: "Ruin My Day," marked by stamping feet and one line ad-libbed for the season ("even on Christmas").

A ha moments (not to be confused with A-ha moments) aren't exclusive to Largo, but Jon's shows in particular lend themselves to those eye openers, thanks to their structure -- or lack thereof. I kind of knew what was coming before Jon said a word, but I was only half right. Yup, he was about to play a Roxy Music song, but it wasn't the one I expected ("To Turn You On"). Either way, the audience won, and my night was made early on, a sentiment cemented soon thereafter by Jon's selection of "Here We Go." It's been far too long since I've heard it at Largo, and certainly not with the opening snippet of "Rhapsody in Blue" -- which I now finally recognize!

Jon commented on the downbeat tone of the evening -- as if anyone who's heard his music should be surprised -- and switched to acoustic guitar for "Love of My Life So Far." He introduced a 12-string for "She's at It Again," turning in a bluesier take than I've heard before. I stand by my assertion it could be done with Ian Curtis-style vocals, but the similarities between Jon's tune and any part of the Joy Division catalog probably has more to do with song titles than with chord progressions.

The third guitar of the night was a smaller model, though still bigger than a ukelele, for "Knock Yourself Out." I think Jon stayed with this apparatus for "Why Do You Do This to Yourself," though he presented an almost a cappella rendition, with barely any accompaniment at all.

Jon returned to the holiday theme with what he said was one of his two Christmas songs. I don't know the title of this tune, but I'm pretty sure I've heard it before, and it may even exist on a bootleg somewhere. Stop me if you think you've heard this one before, but let me state it featured an effortless melody, a compelling hook, and an air of melancholy. In other words, it fit right in with all the favorite year-end classics.

At some point, Jon had asked for requests from the audience, which is usually when you find out what kind of crowd is in attendance. More often than not, you'll hear some silly suggestions -- guilty as charged -- but that's par for the course. Tonight's fans were not of that ilk, however, requesting Jon's works from the outset. Thanks to the attendant masses, we got both "Roll With You" and "Happy With You," if I recall correctly.

Jon brought up a couple of guests, but downplayed the fans' cheers and anticipation by saying it was as much a present for himself as it was for us. Out came Fiona Apple and Sebastian Steinberg for a mix of Christmas songs and Fiona's works. When Don Heffington stepped up, they hit on a couple of beloved standards. In one of the more entertaining slipups, Fiona forgot a line from "Frosty the Snowman" and endowed the beloved character with a briefcase instead of a broomstick. I probably would've missed it entirely if she hadn't brought it up after their performance.

Completing the coterie, Sean Watkins and Benmont Tench ambled along to their preferred spots. In fact, they carried off about half the first song without Jon onstage: one of two consecutive murder ballads. But the third song was the showstopper, hints of which I'd heard from more than one person earlier in the night. It was a mashup of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and the Police hit "Roxanne." I'll give you a second to think about it -- makes perfect sense, right? Now imagine Don Heffington handling the bridge, the rest of the assemblage harmonizing the protagonist's name, and Fiona flailing and yelling out the chorus. If you don't trust your imagination, check out this YouTube clip, but imagine the Largo regulars in place of the Rankin-Bass figures. (Now there's an idea!)

Jon closed out the set at first by himself on vibes, then with Fiona, for a couple of mainstays. We wouldn't see either of them for the rest of the night as the show moved to the Little Room, where the packed bar was treated to free shots of Jameson, in memory of longtime custodian Guillermo, recently passed away. In the meantime, the aforementioned crew were joined by Gabe Wicher for a loose round of tunes. Sean Watkins was the de facto leader, but Gabe, Benmont, and even Don took lead vocals, while Sebastian rolled out a series of zingers -- clearly, he'd been dipping into the whiskey.

In a way, we had our cake (Jameson?) and ate (slammed?) it too. We enjoyed a healthy dose of Christmas songs, but given the mix of tunes, genres, and personnel, it was still a banner night at Largo. See you in the new year.

--Jingle Bells
--The Christmas Song/I Have a Little Dreidel/more
--Ruin My Day
--A Really Good Time
--Here We Go
--Love of My Life So Far
--She's at It Again
--Knock Yourself Out
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--original Christmas song?
--Roll With You

with Fiona Apple and Sebastian Steinberg
--Frosty the Snowman
--To Your Love

with Fiona Apple, Don Heffington, and Sebastian Steinberg
--Tonight You Belong to Me
--After You've Gone

with Fiona Apple, Don Heffington, Sebastian Steinberg, Benmont Tench, and Sean Watkins
--Knoxville Girl
--In the Pines
--Rudolph (You Don't Have to Put on the Red Light)

--Cry Me a River

with Fiona Apple

Little Room (Don Heffington, Sebastian Steinberg, Benmont Tench, Sean Watkins, and Gabe Wicher)
--More Pretty Girls Than One
--Wild Side
--Big Mon (?)
--You Get Me High
--Not That I Care
--99 Years (And One Dark Day)

See also:
» let your heart be light
» i'm offering this simple phrase
» it's been said many times, many ways
» it's the end of the things you know

Thursday, November 24, 2011

don't look back

Here's to childhood friends, especially those who remain dear and beloved, such as my oldest pal, who extended the invite (and late birthday present) to Noel Gallagher's show at the Orpheum Theatre. I'd been dragging my feet on this gig, due to my venue snobbery, but in actuality, I'd been scoping out available seats just the week before. I had no problem deciding when the offer came through.

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, the Orpheum, November 19, 2011: For the last seven years, I've attempted to document all the gigs I've attended, but alas, 20-ish years of concerts will never be covered, at least in this form, and huge tracts of my music collection remain unremarked. In most cases, this is for the better, but as a fangirl, I wish I could crow about some of these past obsessions. Finally, I get to gush over Oasis or, more specifically, Noel Gallagher.

Noel Gallagher, the Orpheum, 11-19-11

Long story short: I loved Oasis, though on paper, they're nothing like the artists I typically follow. But dammit, they turned my world upside down for several years. I was swept up, I was obsessed, and my reaction was entirely visceral. Lyrics? Who cares! Plagiarism? Shrug. I don't really like rock music, but Oasis unapologetically rocked. And because they were conventionally popular, you could hear them randomly on the radio, see them on MTV, and most important, join in thunderous, all-encompassing sing-alongs, sometimes with people you knew.

Of course, Oasis has since broken up, supposedly for real. I'm not interested in declaring one half better than the other, and I couldn't isolate one element of the band as the standout. However, I always have a soft spot for whoever writes the words, which brings us to Noel Gallagher. He's hilarious, he's underrated as a singer -- and I empathize with him as the oldest sibling.

Like many U.K. acts, Noel brought an oversized set Stateside, with a huge lighted backdrop displaying images and the band name. They also brought a light show more suited for Wembley than for a more modest theater setting, but I welcomed the effort. As a further departure from the Oasis shows I saw many years ago, Noel actually talked, cracking jokes with specific audience members, as well as the crowd in general. The audience responded with football (not the U.S. kind) chants, impossible requests, and of course, declarations of love, mostly from dudes.

Unsurprisingly, Noel and the band hit most of the new record, including the epic "If I Had a Gun" and the surprisingly compelling "What a Life," even if I flashed back to 1996 for a few seconds. Noel also threw in an unreleased song from an album he said would be out in 18 months -- or maybe next year? Stay tuned.

Look, I admit it: I wanted to know which Oasis songs he'd pull out, and he didn't disappoint in the least. In fact, he paid back every committed fan's devotion, with a healthy sampling of album cuts, B-sides, and even a hit or two. It quickly became clear that Noel favored the tunes on which he did the vocals -- thus, no "Live Forever," for example. But if anyone has the right to sing "Wonderwall," he certainly does, and I'd have to dig deep into the archives to confirm whether I've heard Noel take on the acoustic "Supersonic" before. As a dorky fan, I also noticed that Noel dialed it down for the two aforementioned songs, while the typically acoustic "Talk Tonight" -- a treat under any circumstances! -- got the full electric band accompaniment. (I said I loved them!)

I could go on for a while with requests I don't expect Noel to ever perform ("Sunday Morning Call," pretty please?). Also, why no Be Here Now? I don't care what anyone says -- there are some great tunes on that record. Anyway, I'll also extend kudos for the inclusion of both "Whatever" B-sides, as well as tracks from the often ignored later-era Oasis.

If you've paid any attention to Oasis over the years, you can guess how they closed the show. "Don't Look Back in Anger" rang out across the aisles, accompanied by a room full of voices -- the way it should be heard.

Noel Gallagher, the Orpheum, 11-19-11

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

throwing sparks into a starless sky

The least interesting thing you can ask me is how many times I've seen a band or a musician. I stopped counting a long time ago, but I also know numbers don't tell the whole story. Though this blog makes my obsessions abundantly clear, there are certain bands I love that will never show up in these posts, while others are woefully underrepresented. It's always a kind of a homecoming to write about the latter group, even if it means I've been an idiot to ignore them for as long I have. Crooked Fingers' show at the Mercury Lounge once more proved me a fool, a lesson for which I'm grateful.

Crooked Fingers, Mercury Lounge, November 4, 2011: Good lord, has it been six years since I last saw Crooked Fingers? I've liked the band ever since I first saw them (actually, Eric Bachmann solo) opening for Wilco in 2002, and I've attended a decent number of their shows since then. Of course, the Archers of Loaf reunion took some time, but I have to admit I've fallen behind on the band's recent work. Thus, I'm far from the best authority to report on this show -- but I'm going to do it anyway.

Crooked Fingers, Mercury Lounge, 11-04-11

As a wayward fan, I appreciated the old stuff more and was happy to hear the inclusion of such songs as "Crowned in Chrome" and "New Drink for the Old Drunk." Eric shot down a request for "Sweet Maria" on account of all the cussing, but "Angelina" was a worthy substitution. An oldie furnished one of the loveliest moments of the night: a duet between Eric and singer/multi-instrumentalist Liz Durrett on "Sleep All Summer." She stepped up to the mic several other times during the show, lending her Beth Orton-like vocals to fresh and classic tracks, even if it led Eric to comment that they shouldn't let him sing while Liz is around.

Since I can't tell you which new titles they played, I'll instead comment on more obvious elements, such as the fact that this four-piece formation was, in a word, rocking. As soon as the bass kicked in, I immediately thought this may have been the fullest sound I've heard from the band, though I reserve the right to change my mind upon the event of my next Crooked Fingers gig. Right or wrong, I think of Crooked Fingers as a folk/songwriter outfit, but with the addition of two keyboards, they pulled off at least a couple of big, pop-sounding songs.

I'm absolutely positive I'll see Crooked Fingers again soon enough -- at least, before another six years have passed. But if this turns out to be their last concert appearance I catch, I won't be disappointed. For one thing, this intimate venue, a devoted crowd, and an amenable band made for a perfect combination. My favorite exchange of banter for the night started when a guy in the crowd yelled out that he loved the old stuff. A woman, apparently on her own accord, shot back that the new stuff is good too. Eric, meanwhile, heard it as something else altogether, jokingly taking the artist's view that none of it was good enough.

Crooked Fingers, Mercury Lounge, 11-04-11

Chatter aside, it came back to the tunes, which is my preference anyway. For the encore, Eric and Liz returned to the stage for "Your Control" unplugged, a musician trick I eat up every time. The full band then closed out with "Typhoon," a song as epic as its title suggests. Liz even broke a string while playing, if that gives you an idea of its intensity.

See also:
» you may be sweet talking, daddy

Sunday, October 09, 2011

that's the way the cornbread crumbles

This and the last four posts, capped off by my report on Gillian Welch at the Fillmore, may represent the most music I've seen in such a short span, and that includes previous festivals, rock tourism, and multigig evenings already covered in this blog. I'm not complaining, and I realize it's small potatoes in this age of music blogs. Still, I'd like to take a moment to reflect on this particularly fantastic stretch as I slump lazily on the couch again. I could live happily with such problems.

Gillian Welch, the Fillmore, October 2, 2011: I've been cursed with bad timing for Gillian Welch shows recently. After flying down to L.A. at the smallest notice for all those appearances at Largo, I passed on their recent gigs in the North Bay and at the Henry Miller Library. Back in July when the new record came out, I happened to be halfway across the country. I was resigned to a half-assed experience at Hardly Strictly, but they saved me from disappointment. It took them long enough to announce this gig, but I wasted no time in getting the tickets.

Before Gillian and David took the stage, someone in the audience hatched a plan and spread it around: We'd sing happy birthday to Gillian at the start of the show. I'm happy to say a good chunk of the crowd went through with it, even if no one bothered to coordinate the start and it sounded like each person was on his or her own time. The sentiment came through at least.

Happy birthday, Gillian!

The problem with blogging without notes, a week after the show, which itself was the endcap to several days stuffed with music, is that my memory fails me, and I can only offer impressions of the evening. I can tell you that unlike the last time I saw them at the Fillmore, Gillian and David used no monitors at all, further stripping their set and falling even deeper in line with their seeming ethos of sticking to the barest essentials. Conversely, a huge print of a tree draped the back of the stage, which I assumed was part of the new touring environment until Gillian thanked the Fillmore crew for transplanting the spirit of the festival indoors.

Gillian Welch by Steve Wrubel
Photo by Steve Wrubel
It wasn't all about Spartan solutions, though; someone in the audience complimented Gillian on her new boots, and of course I had to take a look. They were worth the shout-out: The stitching spelled out Gillian's name in gorgeous script handwriting. Since cameras weren't allowed at the Fillmore, I couldn't snap a pic, but thanks to the wonders of Flickr, I'll link to someone who captured the image. Thanks, Steve Wrubel! Don't sue me?

If I recall correctly, they opened with "Orphan Girl," but now that I think about it, I'm not so sure. Regardless, it's safe to say the set concentrated on songs from the new record. In fact, I think they hit every single title from The Harrow & the Harvest, but don't quote me on that. Among the new songs, "Hard Times" is my favorite, and it makes my heart hurt every time I hear it. I don't want to get into one of those rants about justice in the world, but dammit, if mainstream country knew what's good for it, they'd be all over that tune. Lately, I've been nursing fantasies about Loretta Lynn covering the song. Universe, please make it happen!

It was fun to hear "Down Across the Dixie Line" in its original dirge-like progression, not the hopped-up interpretation by the Punch Brothers the day before. I have a policy of not reading about an artist's gigs before I get a chance to see them, so "Six White Horses" took me by surprise on more than one count. I loved seeing Gillian and Dave gathered so closely around one mic, just because it's a lovely reminder of their unique collaboration, but they offered a couple of other talking points. Of course, one of them is Gillian's expert clogging, executed on a piece of graffitied plywood supplied by that ever gracious Fillmore staff. Tonight, we also saw David flub a cue on harmonica, which set everyone off in giggles. He's easily one of the most amazing guitarists you'll ever see, but at least we have proof he's human too.

At this point in their career and considering the devotion of their fans, Gillian and David can't possibly assemble a set that would satisfy every person in the room. They'll inevitably pass over someone's beloved song, but on this evening, that someone wasn't me. I heard some of my favorites, including "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll" and "Wayside/Back in Time" -- granted, the second one is a no-brainer in San Francisco. Best of all, they went with my absolute favorite track from their catalog: "Revelator." I want to say a lot more about this song regarding Gillian's voice, the lyrics, and the tune's general timber, but everything you need to know is right there in the recording. By the way, if you want to hear my harebrained treatise on this song and its relation to Mad Men, drop me a note. (Warning: Close, obsessive readings of the TV series are required.)

During the show, Gillian commented that they had arrived in San Francisco on Friday night (which explains why they didn't show up at Largo that same evening, as so many of us had hoped) and how the air was electric this time out, I suppose in a way they hadn't felt in their previous appearances at the festival. She didn't expand on this, but I got the impression she was referring to the friends and talents in town.

Fortunately for us, a few of these pals stuck around for the Fillmore set. Nate Walcott from Bright Eyes popped in and out for several songs, clocking an especially languid and luxurious contribution to "That's the Way the Whole Thing Ends." Buddy Miller worked up "That's How I Got to Memphis" with the duo, and Mike McKinley brought his trusty mandolin for a couple of tracks whose titles have slipped my mind.

We saw him in the balcony long before the show started, so it was no surprise when Robyn Hitchcock took his spot to Gillian's left. I racked my brain trying to recall if I've seen Robyn play with Gillian and David before, aside from Saturday's appearance, of course. I've listened to so many bootlegs and heard so many friends' accounts of their shows together and watched them play in so many personnel permutations that I couldn't remember if I'd actually been there for any of those occasions. According to this blog, I haven't, so I was glad to finally witness it for myself.

They reprised "Candyman," then followed up with "Look at Miss Ohio," with Robyn taking the second and third verses -- you know, the one with the line about the wedding dress. By the end, we all chimed in too. Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that David took lead vocals for one song, "Sweet Tooth," in addition to all his incredible guitar leads.

In total, the concert stretched to almost three hours, including the intermission. I never could've predicted that Gillian and David would give Broken Social Scene a run for the money in terms of sheer show duration, but I knew they'd add to an incredible weekend, and they all came through with flying colors. This is easily the best Hardly Strictly weekend I've ever enjoyed, and my brain is now filled with an ongoing medley of Elbow, Broken Social Scene, and Gillian Welch tracks. I hope I'm not being too greedy if I said I'd love for the bar to be raised even further next year.

See also:
» please take my advice
» when you gonna live your life right
» time's a revelator
» one day like this a year

Saturday, October 08, 2011

the good times are killing me

On its own, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival offers plenty of music, but there's a bonus: The tunes flows all over the city, with extra shows booked across town and the Bay Area. Broken Social Scene filled up the Fillmore for purportedly their final show, at least in North America and at least for a while. I don't want it to be true, but if they disappear for however long, I can safely say they left it all on the stage at the Fillmore.

Broken Social Scene, the Fillmore, 10-1-11Broken Social Scene, the Fillmore, October 1, 2011: I wasn't made for these times, in case you hadn't surmised from the week-long lag between the show and the publishing of this post. Knee-jerk responses, instant punditry, disdain by default -- I'm not comfortable with these habits. There's something about the slow burn of realization, when your sense memory mingles with personal revelations and hard-earned wisdom, and you wake up weeks, months, or even years later with a connection to the work that hadn't existed earlier. That's the story for Broken Social Scene, and now I flip to them on the iPod repeatedly.

Here's an unexpected twist: In 2011, I've seen more shows by Broken Social Scene than any other group, breaking the streak that band from Chicago has held for the last 108 (approximately) years. This is probably related to the aforementioned mania and my reduced concert attendance, but this is, after all, the band's farewell (for now) tour, and it's inevitable they'd hit their favorite towns before bowing out. Kevin Drew offered a little more insight into how they ended up in San Francisco -- and not Toronto -- for their swan song. He wisely heaped praise on our city, but also explained that their guest list at home would be unmanageable.

I can admit that the afternoon's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass slot was underwhelming, though it had less to do with the band and more with the circumstances. I would've hated to go out with that performance as my last memory of the group -- so it's a good thing I made it to the Fillmore. The show filled out all the holes in the festival set. Of course, Forgiveness Rock Record got plenty of love, but they also hit nearly every track off You Forgot It in People (minus two). Alas, "Lover's Spit" was sacrificed, but I got to hear "Shampoo Suicide" for the second time that day. They stuffed their already full agenda with such live staples as "Fire Eye'd Boy" and the customary closer "It's All Gonna Break." According to the friendly and knowledgeable fellow behind me, "Hotel" is a rare track, but they played it back in April -- maybe he just missed the wrong shows.

Broken Social Scene is known for its revolving roster, and tonight's lineup welcomed some old friends, including Amy and Evan from Stars, who got a solo spotlight in the middle of the show. In one of his many ramblings, Kevin hugged Amy tight and told us they'd known each other for 22 years. And in another tribute to longevity, he mentioned his parents, married for 44 years, were in the audience. We cheered them, only to be told he'd pointed us to the wrong balcony.

Broken Social Scene, the Fillmore, 10-1-11

The big story in terms of special guests is probably Isaac Brock, who joined in for three Modest Mouse songs. He joked about delivering a eulogy for a living entity and playing the "first annual" last Broken Social Scene show ever. In return, Kevin gushed about his high regard for Modest Mouse. When Isaac returned for the encore, he also tried out a new voice on us -- apparently, in the persona of a New York-based comic.

"The World at Large" has been a part of Broken Social Scene's rotation for a while now, but the penultimate title, "The Good Times Are Killing Me," proved newer and more problematic. I lost track of how many times they restarted the song before they found the right key, but it finally gelled, after Kevin's persistent protests. In fact, though I've seen Kevin step up as the front man many times now, I'm still fascinated by his displays of leadership. For example, during "World at Large," he almost conducted the horn section into their cues.

Broken Social Scene, the Fillmore, 10-1-11

Back to "Good Times" -- I thought this might be the end of the show, but instead, after the instruments were set down, Kevin led an a cappella chorus until the entire band returned for the final track. Brendan Canning looked exhausted at this point, but they soldiered on. And though we in the audience has been sweating it out for almost three hours, we heartily welcomed them back. Thankfully, Kevin had reminded us to stay hydrated and offered us a couple of stretch breaks during the gig itself.

Broken Social Scene, the Fillmore, 10-1-11

There are so many details I can't fit into this account or even remember at this point, just because every moment felt epic. I lost track of the encores -- or the afterparty, as Kevin called it -- and I can't tell you how many false endings we heard as the band seemed to debate whether to cinch up a song. Broken Social Scene has always teetered between virtuoso turns and imminent collapse, and the same can be said of this gig as a whole, but somehow it works. I've been to a handful of (purported) last gigs ever, and as with at least one of its counterparts, I can safely say we couldn't ask more of them.

See also:
» one day like this a year
» talking trash under your breath

Thursday, October 06, 2011

one day like this a year

Rocktober has arrived, and in San Francisco, that means Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is in session. This marks the 11th year of the festival, and by those standards, I'm a relative newcomer, but I can't imagine my year without this grand gathering. Also, it gives me a reason to never move out of the Richmond District.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, September 30 to October 23, 2011: Certainly, there's more than one way to navigate a free, sprawling music festival that's intended to mix genres, audiences, and generations, but I do it the only way I know how: by trying to impose some order on the vast list of activities and expanse of land. This year, it meant not really sleeping Friday night and hopping on a 7 am flight so that I could get home, pull myself together, and wander down to Golden Gate Park by noon.

From there, the day became a little easier, and I managed to flit between stages for a number of bands. For me, Robyn Hitchcock kicked off the festival at the Rooster Stage. Once again, I didn't make it to the field proper; the hillside was just fine, and this time, the sound was great -- or maybe it was the simple acoustic setup.

Robyn Hitchcock, Oct. 1, 2011

Robyn started out by himself with "Cynthia Mask", but he was first joined by Abigail Washburn, then by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The quartet carried off a fine selection of Robyn's back catalog, from his work with the Egyptians ("Queen Elvis," "Balloon Man") to the Venus 3 ("Ole Tarantula"). Robyn even worked up the San Francisco angle with a nod to Magnum Force in "(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs" and with the concluding Grateful Dead cover ("Candyman"). Little did I know it wouldn't be the last of Robyn over the weekend.

Following Robyn's set, I headed out to catch another British icon: Hugh Laurie. Look, I don't typically favor actor/musicians, but I'm not automatically opposed to them either, and no, I'm not trying to cover my ass in case certain thespians decide to hit the road. Heck, I actually like She & Him.

But about Hugh Laurie -- first of all, the crowd was huge for the Towers of Gold stage, usually one of the less populated areas of the park. I heard more than one person yelling out for Dr. House (I've never watched the show myself), and at least one woman admitted she had no idea he was British until that very moment. This is all superfluous, though. Hugh Laurie's performance was surprisingly good. A fellow next to me likened Hugh's first number to Cab Calloway, and his voice was quite expressive. His backing band was solid, and overall, they did a great job.

I ran out for a little bit but returned in time to hear snippets of the Kris Kristofferson/Merle Haggard set before finding an inadequate spot for Broken Social Scene. I haven't cooled on the band since their last date in San Francisco, but as this was my casual day and I had a ticket for their show at the Fillmore the same evening, I didn't want to squeeze my way up front. Instead, I found a spot in the midfield. My mistake -- the chatter and the traffic were distracting, though I guess you have to expect that of a free event.

Broken Social Scene, Oct. 1, 2011

Broken Social Scene put together a standard festival set, heavy with selections from the most recent record. However, they still managed to surprise me with the inclusion of several seminal You Forgot It in People tracks, including "Shampoo Suicide." I thought for sure I'd never get to hear this one live again and, more important for my blog, to publicly air my pretentious rock critic theory: Come on, people, it's totally a cross between Fleetwood Mac's "Gypsy" and Malcolm McLaren's "Madame Butterfly" -- and that's high praise!

After Broken Social Scene, I took a swing through the rest of the park. Along the way, I heard one song in Gillian Welch's set, but fortunately, it was my favorite track from the new record, "Hard Times." I eventually ended up back at the Rooster Stage overlook for a portion of the Punch Brothers, who also covered a song from the latest Gillian Welch album. In the past, I've heard them do "Wayside/Back in Time," but they've added "Down Along the Dixie Line" to their repertoire, sped up about five-fold. The Punch Brothers may have been the only bluegrass artists I saw during this entire bluegrass-leaning festival, and in case I had any doubts about the genre's popularity, the dancing crowds inside the rooster pen dispelled all such thoughts.

Elbow, Oct. 2, 2011That was Saturday, but Sunday was another story, with one goal: Elbow! With Julie's early foothold, we were able to make steady progress through Dr. John and Devotchka until we were at the front for the headliners, and thanks to the convenient PA setup, we heard Emmylou Harris join Buddy Miller for his set, as well as Bob Mould's show on the abutting stage. I love it when a plan comes together.

According to my records, Elbow hasn't toured here in three years. They do well enough in England, but they're not exactly superstars, and obviously, their profile is lower in the United States. And let's not even raise the question of how they were booked for an ostensibly bluegrass festival. I'm willing to leave that stone unturned, but I was suspicious of the crowd that gathered at the rail for Elbow's set. However, through the simple act of reaching out and communicating, it turns out they were committed fans, even if -- ahem! -- many of them had never caught the band live before. (Bonus: They were really nice people too.) Hey, I feel like I haven't really seen a band until their fifth appearance anyway, so we were practically on the same level.

Elbow had an hour to cast their spell, but the magic took hold within seconds. I've said it before: Guy Garvey is charm incarnate, and his very presence immediately puts you at ease. He works the crowd like a champ, pointing and waving at far corners of the field, making connections with far-flung audience members. I wouldn't presume that the San Francisco audience is the first to receive such attention, but it still feels sincere. As usual, we were eating out of their hand, as well as lending our voices, whistles, and handclaps of support. According to Guy, the feelings were mutual, as he heaped praise on our city and the festival itself toward the end of their slot.

Elbow crafts dense, complex, and sprawling songs, and I wondered how much actual music we'd get to hear between Guy's lilting banter. Clearly, there was no way to represent their entire discography in this limited set, and as it turned out they favored the last couple of records. I don't think we heard a single early track, which is a small loss, but "Lippy Kids" managed to push a bunch of emotional buttons in me. Also, I have to admit The Seldom Seen Kid deserves as much attention as you can spare. For my favorite artists such as Elbow, more is always better, but Hardly Strictly Bluegrass will tide me over until the next headlining tour.

Elbow, Oct. 2, 2011

See also:
» throw those curtains wide
» talking trash under your breath
» don't get around much anymore

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

last night i dreamt

These Jon Brion doubleheaders at Largo at the Coronet have eased my travel decisions in many ways, and I'll never skip one if I'm in town. Still, I can safely say the Friday shows continue to rule the roost. The house is brimming, the bar is bustling, the crowds are buzzing, and when you've been absent for four months as I have, they feel even more special.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, September 30, 2011: My free Friday in Los Angeles had already been shaping up swimmingly, clocking face time with friends and family -- then it got even better after I arrived at Largo. Pals were hugged, seats were stellar, conversation flowed, and as it happened, the music was great. Hopefully I can do it some justice in the report below.

Following Thursday's model, the opening act tonight was another comedian, Margaret Cho, in this case, a longtime friend of Largo. I won't try to recap her set, but she invoked Chris Isaak, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Yoko Ono, among others. I'll also mention she bore a large, freshly applied tattoo on her left leg, protected by a sheet of plastic wrap.

Jon and Margaret shared a huge hug during the hand-off, and already, Jon's mood was notably peppier than the night before. He kept a running count of the first four songs and joked about keeping to a schedule. Of those four tunes, I can positively identify two of them, but as always, I get lost easily when Jon doesn't sing. If you must know my wild guesses, shoot me an email, and I'll make up a couple of titles for you. But this decade-plus of shows has paid off in some ways, as I know which Scott Joplin song Jon favors. I have learned a thing or two after all these years!

The back and forth between Jon's original works and beloved standards continued with "Meaningless," followed by "It Could Happen to You." For the first build, Jon worked up a song I want to hear again and again, the world-owning "Piece of You." How much have I missed this song? I took no notes during the performance -- I just wanted to listen to the great hooks and melodies.

Jon settled back at the piano for the next track, starting with what was probably some of his film music, though I couldn't tell you the exact title. This led to "Strings That Tie to You" on mellotron and celeste, before adding the MicroKorg and piano.

Speaking of film, the video mixers entered the scene as Jon brought up clips of Leonard Bernstein, Sonny Rollins, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I'm not always clear on which contributions make it to the final mix, but the Chili Peppers' rhythm section featured most prominently on what turned out to be "That's Just What You Are."

When I first started listening to music, I assumed songs were monolithic creations, set in stone. Thankfully, I've been disabused of that notion, but sometimes I wonder how certain combinations could possibly coexist. Red Hot Chili Peppers plus Jon Brion plus Aimee Mann (the song's other writer) would ordinarily set off some red flags, but it actually worked. The original tune has its own prominent cadence; the Chili Peppers' signature funk sound, as manipulated by Jon, served to bolster that beat. Sonny Rollins popped in too, at well-chosen intervals.

Jon picked up an acoustic guitar for the next couple of tracks: first, the Smiths, trailed by his own song. Then he asked for requests. Alas, I didn't get one in this evening -- that is, I tried, but it didn't make the cut. (Come on, there's gotta be another "Boys of Summer" fan lurking in the readership!) As for Jon's final selection, I'm going on context clues because I can proudly say I've never listened to "Freebird." But after hearing the audience shout-out and Jon's fair warning at the outset of the performance (on vibes, by the way), then seeing him flip off the requester at the end of the tune, I put the pieces together.

The next choice was Jon's, as he built up "Walking Through Walls," but this wasn't any old performance -- it brought out Grant-Lee Phillips from the inky shadows! Matt Chamberlain was also called to the stage, but he didn't actually show up. I would've welcomed his appearance, but honestly, Jon and Grant bring all you need for a good time (though it never hurts if, say, Robyn Hitchcock hangs around too).

Grant's first two songs were both Bowie tracks, but only one ("Cracked Actor") was delivered in anything resembling a traditional approach. The other selection was channeled through Willie Nelson, which should be familiar to anyone who's seen Grant at Aimee Mann's Christmas shows. Grant called it Willie Stardust, aka the Thin White Red Headed Stranger, and you could barely believe your ears as he worked both characters at the same time.

The decisions were up to Grant at this point, and he chose well. I was glad to hear one Grant Lee Buffalo song in the set, and the Smiths and T. Rex were not unexpected. The big surprise for me was Grant's opting for the Decemberists. Of course, Sara Watkins has been touring with the band, so the Largo connection is there, but actually hearing a song at Largo? It was a first for me at least, even if I had to check my iPod to figure out where it placed in the Crane Wife song cycle (No. 3, for the record). As for Jon, I have no idea if he'd heard the song before this outing, but he picked up on the chords in no time at all to accompany Grant on piano.

Once more, Jon asked for requests, this time to end the set on his own. The Pixies quote was minuscule at best before Jon settled into "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes." The studio version is all about the mellotron, but Jon zeroed in on the guitar tonight and, overall, kept it spare and underplayed -- which probably conflicts with my next observation because I loved the almost gothic sound he created, with huge, eerie heights of guitar. Hail the shoegazers!

We scooted over to the Little Room, and despite the initial wave of interest, the place wasn't even half full by the time the second set started. Margaret Cho and Grant-Lee Phillips returned with lots of chatter and a couple of songs from Margaret's record. This wasn't the first time I've heard Margaret sing, but I was surprised by how good she sounded. The hilarious lyrics were a given, of course.

They brought up Benmont Tench for an Emmylou Harris favorite, then jumped genres with a major discussion about Bob Mould -- one of my heroes, as regular readers know. It turns out Margaret and Grant are two of the acts slated for a tribute to Bob, set to take place at Disney Hall in November. Other artists include Dave Grohl (Bob recently played with the Foo Fighters on Conan and guested on their new record), Best Coast, Ryan Adams, and Ben Gibbard, who brought up Bob at a show in San Francisco earlier this year. (I was there!) They punctuated their chatter with their version of an old Sugar song.

Jon did, in fact, show up for a final song with Margaret, which I first heard a while back. Though the element of surprise didn't figure tonight, the anticipation of hearing the lyrics "I'm Margaret fucking Cho" was just as sweet.

Set 1
--Margaret Cho opener

--How Much Is That Doggie in the Window
--Over Our Heads
--Maple Leaf Rag
--It Could Happen to You
--Piece of You
--Strings That Tie to You
--That's Just What You Are
--Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
--Love of My Life So Far
--Walking Through Walls

w/ Grant-Lee Phillips
--Cracked Actor
--Ziggy Stardust
--You Just Have to Be Crazy
--Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
--The Crane Wife 3
--Ballrooms of Mars

--Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes

Set 2
Margaret and Grant-Lee
--Eat Shit and Die
--Asian Adjacent
--Two More Bottles of Wine [with Benmont Tench]
--Favorite Thing
--Enemies [with Jon Brion]

See also:
» september gurls
» i'm happy, hope you're happy too
» if there's a star above
» scraping paper to documen
» your favorite thing
» no matter what the future brings

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

september gurls

Buried deep in these blog pages are my initial guidelines about rock tourism, most of which I threw out when whims and finances agreed. I'm not necessarily happy about revisiting these tenets, but I have to, including the notion of scheduling only one trip per month. Since I spent the summer flying around the United States, it took this long to return to Los Angeles for Jon Brion's shows at Largo at the Coronet. And let me tell you -- it's good to be back.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, September 29, 2011: In his opening set, Steve Agee asked if any Jewish people were in the audience, forsaking their Rosh Hashanah duties. The next day it hit me: Those Talmudic scholars and I aren't so far apart. We both study canonical texts, mining them for subtle variations and new interpretations. I claim no greater relevance to the outside world, but I have a newfound respect for this cloistered group.

Lord Byron meets BeethovenSteve Agee also shared a hilarious story about Kanye West and Del Taco, but of course, Jon Brion was the man of the evening. With his longer hair and dark velvet jacket, he looked like a cross between (no pun intended) Lord Byron and Schroeder's bust of Beethoven bust from the Peanuts comic strip. Any other similarities are strictly coincidental.

The opening piano preamble stretched out longer than I expected, morphing into "Ruin My Day" with the kind of minute departures I live for, such as a touch of celeste and breaths of hesitation between words and verses. It felt rawer than the finely polished version you'll hear on Meaningless, but there's plenty of room for all of them.

The only thing I can tell you about the next track is that it combined the EMS Synthi, the celeste, and the MicroKorg. Feel free to let that marinate in your brain for a bit. Less mysteriously, Jon went with "Please Stay Away From Me" for his following move, still on the piano.

He warmed up the guitars with a jangly take on "Who Loves the Sun," then "It Looks Like You." From there, he worked up a couple of song builds, starting with "Get Over Yourself," which has a great foundation, even if the melody doesn't grab me. The same can't be said for "Girl I Knew," probably destined to be a lost pop classic, considering Jon's rate of recorded output. Tonight's version devolved toward the end, with Jon de-tuning his guitar and adding lots of fuzz.

The video mixers were deployed, as Jon brought up footage of Brad Mehldau and Percy Grainger (if that isn't the name of a character in a future Harry Potter novel, I'll eat my sorting hat), then added his own piano strokes. As you can imagine, the three of them offered a study in contrasting styles, but together they set the instrumental bed for "Voices." Jon alternated between the two guests pianists, but in the end, he closed out the tune with Brad's spare, deliberate notes.

Jon asked for requests, and I was first out of the gate with "September Gurls" because I'm a sucker for timeliness. You don't have to look that hard to find recordings of Jon covering this song, but lately, he seems less enthusiastic about the uptake. In any case, he went with it, but only in the style of Thelonious Monk. If I had walked into the room at that moment, I'd be hard-pressed to identify the song, but knowing what I did, I could pick out the chords and melodies. I'll take them, too, thank you very much.

The requests continued with a Black Sabbath medley on the vibes, though my limited knowledge could pick out only "Iron Man." I'm pretty sure Jon tacked on at least one more song before retiring the sticks.

The request express rolled on, and once more I cop to a possible omission with the opening chords of the next song. All I know is that the percussive track was built entirely of implements within reach of the piano, including a tambourine, a shaker, his trusty hammer, the piano walls and pegs, and even Jon's own feet. Against this lush rhythmic background, he dropped in "Don't Let Me Down." At one point, he double-tracked his voice via the vocoder. As you can guess, we'd wandered far from the Beatles' original vision.

We'd meander even further, as Jon introduced almost Spanish-style fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar. This ultimately led to a whisper of Radiohead's "High and Dry," before returning to "Don't Let Me Down."

Jon's musical guests of the night turned out to be Gabe Wicher and Paul Kowert, on fiddle and bass, respectively, from the Punch Brothers. As is their style, they appeared to have no premeditated plans for the night, so there was some back and forth about what they could carry off. I think I heard Jon ask Gabe and Paul for any old-timey suggestions, but they didn't seem to have any set ideas themselves. The casual banter resulted in "Ain't Misbehavin'." I wish I could tell you I memorized every note of this song and will no longer misidentify this title when I guess at the setlist, but you know it's already gone from my brain.

Elvis Presley vs. Elvis CostelloA request came from the back of the room -- from Flanagan, as it turned out -- for Elvis, and another patron added his own caveat for "the good one," though the pundit didn't name names. Jon took it under consideration and explained the lull that followed was the result of the "cultural math" he was trying to do in his brain. It added up to an attempt at one line from "Mystery Train" -- which I know both Elvises can do -- before going with what he knows: "My Baby Left Me," but with a subtle detour into "Pump It Up," a tiny detail that further brightened my night.

Gabe Wicher led on their final collaboration of the night, "Someone to Watch Over Me." Not only is this in semi-regular rotation in Jon's show, it also qualifies as a standard, just as Jon originally requested from the guests. Along the more traditional lines, the tune clocked in at a reasonable duration and remained true to its originating era.

Jon went solo for the final song, his own "I Believe She's Lying," but before I try to set the scene, I need you to think back to the studio version of this song. It's the epitome of power pop, right? After all, Aimee Mann is the co-writer, and if nothing else, power pop is about those perfectly formed gems -- those three-minute musical miracles.

Contrast this image with the vast majority of Jon's live performances of this song. At times, chaos might be an understatement; on other occasions, it's more like an exorcism. The definitive example for me is Jon's set at the Intonation Festival back in 2006, when he kicked over the electric piano in the course of song. We weren't far off tonight, as he tossed back the piano seat and stabbed at the video mixers with the head of his guitar. Without the chair, he was left to play standing up, a la Jerry Lee Lewis. I guess this is my way of saying there may be more to this song than its beautiful construction and idealized form, but you may not realize it until you've seen it live.

--Steve Agee opener

--Ruin My Day
--Please Stay Away From Me
--Who Loves the Sun
--It Looks Like You
--Get Over Yourself
--Girl I Knew
--September Gurls
--Iron Man
--Don't Let Me Down/High and Dry

w/ Gabe Wicher and Paul Kowert
--Ain't Misbehavin'
--My Baby Left Me
--Someone to Watch Over Me

--I Believe She's Lying

See also:
» don't get around much anymore
» now I try to be amused
» the power of suggestion, the element of chance

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

before i sputter out

Just to get this out of the way, my concert calendar for August now appears depleted, but maybe next month will be a little livelier. In the meantime, I hit the Great American Music Hall for the eels.

eels, Great American Music Hall, 08-11-11Eels, Great American Music Hall, August 11, 2011: I've fallen into the formerly anathema habit of not buying concert tickets ahead of time and letting the chips fall where they may. This often means missing the gig entirely, or I turn to Craigslist for an extra. For the eels gig, several sellers contacted me, but I also got an imbalanced exchange with another would-be ticket holder. I'll excerpt his emails below.

I'm currently trying to recruit a girl to come along; but she doesn't know who EELS are and is recovering from surgery. So I'd say chances of you getting it are even higher than I am (hahhahahah - don't worry about the only one who thinks I'm funny). I live in [town name] so I'd have to meet you in the Tenderloin. The only thing I need you to do is look out for police officers and crackheads with weapons while I score my dope. (Unarmed crackheads are easy to handle). Just kidding of course......

Man....chick said a week and a half ago she'd love to go. Now I get a text on the DAY OF THE SHOW that she isn't coming 'but if you want to come to [town name] for a few drinks I'd be happy to have you.' I CAN GET ALCOHOL ON JESUS' BIRTHDAY WOMAN! What the fuck is that? Granted E tours way too much and I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the Bay Area before New Years......It is not an everyday occurrence. She probably drinks fruity smirnoff shit anyways. Damn I'm pissed. Kinda nice how my sarcasm stays in tact when I'm really mad though :) Up at [university name] used to pay 400 for a single football seat when the face value was something like 112. I don't want to rip you off though; just want you to see a band you enjoy and have enough money to survive the week (I'm frugal......Danish. Not Jewish. But frugal). Can you do $50 in unmarked Canadian bills?

Note: This does not include a surprise Gchat session littered with jokes (?) about chemical dependency and mandatory sentencing -- watch your privacy controls, kids! I ended up buying a ticket elsewhere in a completely professional transaction, and when I informed the fellow above, he replied that he'd "found a total cutie on who loves Eels." I'm pretty sure I dodged a major bullet on this one.

I can't tell you whether this guy was serious, but if it was performance art, it was fitting for an eels show, where a dose of theatrics has always been the norm. Tonight, early hints of these dramatic touches included an impressive bank of lights, three small trophies topping various amps and monitors, and a reinforced barrier at the front of the stage. Also, "Eelvis Presley" warmed up the crowd with a short selection of famous tracks from the King.

eels, Great American Music Hall, 08-11-11

It soon became apparent why the barrier was in place; it allowed room for three wooden blocks in the gap between the audience and the band. E, in turn, worked this short expanse as something like a catwalk, ambling out to the edge throughout the night. But let's face it -- this was hardly a teenybopper crowd. We greeted him enthusiastically, but no one launched themselves onstage.

It's a little odd to think that the eels have been around for 15 years now, with a full discography to prove it. I've managed to catch them on several tours in this time, and one thing I've grown to expect (in addition to the aforementioned flourishes) is the band's ongoing transformations of the of their back catalog.

Back in 2008, the two-man gang banged out stripped-down treatments, but with six supporting players, the latest version of the group went all out. The only description I feel comfortable reporting is "I Like Birds" went all cock rock. Also, during the new-style "Novocaine for the Soul," I kept wondering what kind of miracle occurred that such an unorthodox piece of pop could be considered a hit. Finally, I never would've guessed that the former standard bearers of the '90s Silverlake sound would burrow so heavily into roots rock, but that kind of discovery is exactly why some of us stick around. They rounded out the setlist with a cover of "Hot Fun in the Summertime," though only after confessing to thinking they were in San Felipe, Mexico, for New Year's Eve.

eels, Great American Music Hall, 08-11-11

E held court with Letterman-esque proclamations ("That was fun!") and minutely detailed band intros. I recognized a few of the faces, such as The Chet on guitar and Knuckles on drums. We were told Tiny Al on bass came from the same family that gave us Crazy Al and Big Al, which I suspected all along. The three other players looked less familiar, but they fit in nicely with their shades and sport coats. You can't say the eels don't set the scene.

The Submarines, Great American Music Hall, 08-11-11

The Submarines opened the show, and after a couple of hints, I remembered they were featured in an Apple commercial a little while ago. Speaking of LA fads, they hit the current sweet spot of boy/girls vocals in combination with a folksy, poppy sound. They charmed me, which is a rare feat these days.

See also:
» i like birds ... and eels
» where butterflies and blackbirds perch

Thursday, August 11, 2011

the sun was hot and the sun was bright

I've never been to Hawaii, though I live in the state that probably has the most direct line to the island paradise. Well, guess what finally got me there? If you said a Jeff Tweedy and/or Wilco show, then you have been paying attention (and, understandably, silently judging). Give yourself a gold star!

Jeff Tweedy, Hawaii Theatre, August 4, 2011: I have no problem admitting that my main impressions of Hawaii were formed by the Brady Bunch episodes where they grappled with Vincent Price and a cursed tiki idol. (Bonus: Don Ho shows up!) In an eerie coincidence, our group sustained a handful of injuries, including a surfing accident, just like Greg Brady. However, also like America's favorite family, a few members of my tour group had dinner with -- in a manner of speaking -- the would-be abductor. It's a clear case of life imitating art, right?

Jeff Tweedy at the Hawaii Theatre

In my mind, this trip was the companion piece to Wilco's Alaska sojourn from a few years ago for obvious reasons: late statehood, distance from the lower 48, and general exotics. You could draw a parallel in at least one other regard, as well; the crowd was incredibly enthusiastic. In fact, the fellow sitting three seats down from me appeared to be jumping out of his skin and felt compelled to relay his giddiness to me. As soon as Jeff took the stage, the guy pumped up his cred with a request for "New Madrid" (which was played, complete with one tiny lyrical slip-up).

This zeal showed in other ways, most audibly in the relentless clapping from all over the room. Unfortunately, the crowd's efforts mostly crashed and burned, either proving unsustainable or simply veering off-tempo, and not even Jeff's direct requests could stop them. Eventually, Jeff's words sunk in, though one lone holdout to our left couldn't hold himself back.

At this point, I probably sound like a Grumpy Gus, but that's not my intention at all. I actually enjoyed the outbursts, awkwardness, and banter. The struggle between Jeff and the audience never became distracting, and clearly, the crowd just wanted to show their appreciation for such a rare gig. We even enjoyed a lot of accidental comedy, including a perfectly timed clang of a smartphone just before Jeff sang "I'm assuming you got my message on your machine" from "Muzzle of Bees." In fact, the singer giggled through several points of the show, and I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've seen Jeff kiss a picture of himself (on the cover of the local free weekly) onstage.

If you've seen enough Wilco shows, you may know that they often play a rudimentary setlist when they first come to a new town. We expected the same of Jeff and his Hawaiian debut, but give him credit -- he broke out a number of songs that the average fan wouldn't recognize, such as "Not for the Season" and "So Much Wine." The respectful silence that accompanied these tracks spoke volumes, especially compared to the whoops and cries that welcomed the likes of "Via Chicago" and "Hummingbird." And in a directed nod to the state itself, Jeff prefaced "Someday Some Morning Sometime" with the statement that it always reminded him of Hawaii.

I'm not sure if the crowd at the Hawaii Theatre realized the unique formation that played for us when Pat Sansone (who opened the show with a solo set composed of Autumn Defense songs and covers) joined Jeff for the encore. Pat donned an acoustic guitar and supplied harmonies to a handful of tracks, including a couple of titles from the forthcoming Wilco album. I can't tell you how many times I'll be hearing these songs when the band is back on the road to promote the new record, but I'm pretty sure I won't get to take in the same treatment again.

I have to cite one more wholly singular memory of this show: the several leis draped across the monitor for the artists. Jeff remarked on their fragrance, and he wasn't kidding -- I caught a whiff of them toward the evening, and they were still going strong. Jeff at first resisted the accessories, but in the end, he finally relented, sharing them with Pat.

I feel compelled to report that we squeezed in plenty of other activities, including a trip to the North Shore, a fantastic gourmet dinner, and lots of shaved ice. Next time, we're doing Diamond Head!

See also:
» choo choo charlie had a plenty good band

Thursday, July 14, 2011

hold a private light on a michigan shore

The thumb--that's what I was told, though it turned out to be closer to the cuticle bed (see below). A fish boil, custard, primo seats, and a welcome confluence of friends were also promised, and that's how I ended up with a snug little sojourn to Wisconsin--specifically, Fish Creek--to see Jeff Tweedy at the Door County Auditorium.

Door County, WisconsinJeff Tweedy, Door County Auditorium, July 8, 2011: I'm the very picture of summer right now. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean sun-flecked tresses and a bikini body. Instead, I'm peeling on top, while my legs are dotted with mosquito bites, all for the love of music. I brought the former upon myself by forgoing sunblock at the Neko Case gig and contracted the latter at the Jeff Tweedy show in Fish Creek, Wisconsin (actually, in the run-up to the concert itself). If I can pick up a case of Lyme disease, say, at Outside Lands, my season will be complete. At least we didn't get electrocuted at Solid Sound?

Now that I'm home with a bottle of calamine lotion and have stopped swatting at myself, I can unequivocally say Fish Creek is irresistibly charming, in the style of remote resort destinations all over the country. For me, it brought to mind Cambria along California's central coast; you could also compare it to the Hamptons in New York, except with its own signature attractions, such as the fish boil mentioned previously.

Door County Auditorium

One of the small pleasures of rock tourism is hearing a song perfectly matched to the surroundings. The opening "Spiders," which I always love in its acoustic form, was an aha moment, but that may be more due to my ignorance of local geography. The natives and other nearby denizens were probably much more aware that we were minutes away from Lake Michigan, obliquely referenced in the tune.

It appears that most people want to know about the new songs, and according to our go-to setlist guy, four new titles were played. As reported by Jeff, "I Might" qualifies as an "international hit"; I suspect he's quoting a DJ from the Chicago airwaves. The thing about the new songs is that I'm sure the album versions sound completely different with the full band input. I noticed each tune had its own personality, though the critics will undoubtedly find a way to apply a blanket statement to the entire record. I'll spare you further analysis, except to say I'm totally in love with "Born Alone" already.

Another pleasure of a Jeff Tweedy solo show is seeing which of the rarer tracks he'll pull out or what song you thought you knew will be reinterpreted. I'll single out two tunes in the latter category, though for completely different reasons. "Pecan Pie" completely fell apart, as Jeff could barely remember the lyrics and repeatedly mixed up the sequence of lines. It didn't help that during the course of the day we had stumbled upon a mashup of "Ticket to Ride" and "Pecan Pie," so we were useless as well. (Seriously, try singing one song to the other melody--it kind of works.)

On a more serious note, "Bull Black Nova" was credited as a request from "Eddd," and it was a complete revelation. The song's insistent paranoia has been a highlight of full band shows, especially by the time they get to the ending howls. Pared down to one voice and one guitar, it took on a new dimension, especially in Jeff's choice to downplay and whisper the last line. Let me put it this way: If Wilco's version is the sweeping big-budget thriller about a psycho killer and his impulses, then Jeff's solo performance is the indie film that puts you right in the murderer's head. Think "Silence of the Lambs" versus "Dexter"? (Note: I've never watched "Dexter.") If I had a car, I'd still be checking my backseat every night to make sure it was empty.

We got tons of banter from Jeff too, which isn't always a given, but he held court at length on "American Idol," offering his impressions (in both senses of the word) of both Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez. Trust me--he's no Rich Little, but the bigger surprise was probably Jeff's wholesale fandom of the show. There was also a moment with the young boy seated front and center, who, when asked by Jeff if this was his first show, shot down the singer's hopes and dreams. As a direct result, a familiar face bore the brunt of Jeff's disappointment, but we know it was in good fun.

See also:
» you can tell that i'm not lying
» the message

Monday, July 11, 2011

that echo chorus lied to me

I've clocked an atrocious concert attendance record this year, and it doesn't look to improve a whole lot. But Julie's generous offer (again) and expert finagling helped get me to Neko Case's show at Stern Grove.

Neko Case, Stern Grove, July 3, 2011: Talk about a rarity--for the first time in a long time, you could see the Fourth of July fireworks in San Francisco. But before that waste of gunpowder and sky (lyrics courtesy of Aimee Mann), a related and equally isolated incident transpired: Stern Grove was luxuriously warm and sunny for Neko Case's show. What a country!

When we last left off, Neko Case played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, but in the interim, she's shown up with the New Pornographers as well. You'd be hard-pressed to claim that she doesn't pop in enough, but it's still nice to chalk up another gig, especially under gorgeous, open skies.

One observation about Neko: She's not necessarily the most prolific artist. This is no complaint; I prefer artists to work at their own pace and put out their work when they're ready, not when they're expected. Thus, her concerts don't change a whole lot between albums, and we saw a similar performance to her Hardly Strictly set, minus the Shangri-Las' cover. Once more, she was backed by her faithful band, including Jon Rauhouse and Kelly Hogan, concentrating on tracks from the last two albums. She snuck in a couple of old standards from her back catalog as well, including "Favorite" and "Knock Loud." The latter came with an emphatic warning; they didn't do the song a whole lot. With this caveat in mind, the audience welcomed the song more as a treat than a dare--I completely agree!

Speaking of treats, they tried out two new songs on the crowd, but I can't characterize either title. However, I look forward to their official release, whenever that may be.

In between, Neko and Kelly shared their usual carefree banter, and I have to admit, in this open air setting, some of their words were lost to the winds and street sounds. In fact, I'm afraid the acoustics could've been a little better, but the show was, after all, free. Nonetheless, it was impossible to miss Neko and Kelly's repeated shout-outs to in support of their long-standing love of dogs. I'm not sure if it's a San Francisco thing, but that's hardly the first time I've heard them laud some of the city's more pup-friendly attitudes.

The Dodos opened, and as was the case on the last tour with the New Pornographers, Neko joined them for a track, though I don't know the name. Their sound also suffered in these unusual environs, but the drums and guitar came across well. If I seem less than hyped about them, don't mind me--they have great melodies and I like the singer's voice, but I've contracted a huge case to musical ennui and can't seem to latch onto newer talent right now. If anything, Neko's seal of approval should be a strong recommendation to interested listeners.

See also:
» amateur
» form a line to the throne

Sunday, July 03, 2011

you can tell that i'm not lying

By unfortunate coincidence, another double-header came up on my side of the country this very same weekend, but my tickets had long been booked and arrangements made. I was headed to North Adams and Mass MOCA for Wilco and friends at the second annual Solid Sound Festival--the right decision through and through.

Solid SoundSolid Sound Festival, June 24-26, 2011: I've scoffed and recoiled at many images of filthy festival goers wallowing in the mud and rain, so the irony wasn't lost on me that, after Solid Sound, I qualified as one of them. Well, not exactly--you'll never find me soaking my cares away in an E. coli bath, no matter the greatness of the gig or the drug intake, but I voluntarily spent way more time in the driving rain and gathering silt over the weekend than ever before. Obviously, I survived, and we even dodged the thunderstorms, ignoring the staff warnings to take cover. Truth is, I'd probably do it again if I had a good reason.

We can debate what constitutes "good reason" at some other juncture, but here's how I saw it: (1) Wilco; (2) Wilco on the cusp of a new album; (3) a good mix of acts to fill out the bill, most notably Liam Finn and Pajama Club, featuring Neil and Sharon Finn, not to mention a sterling comedy lineup; and (4) a full roster of Wilco's side projects.

This expanded roster translated into more acute scheduling conflicts this year than last, so I ended up missing certain acts altogether or catching only snippets of other performers. For example, Liam Finn's full-band set was a no-go, as were many of the band's extracurricular endeavors.

Comedy took a huge hit too; I missed Eugene Mirman and Wyatt Cenac and caught only a portion of Morgan Murphy's and John Hodgman's sets. Fortunately, my visit to the comedy hall coincided with two fantastic bits from Morgan, including a sexting scenario I first heard on the Comedy Death Ray podcast and that had me crying from laughter on the bus ride from work. John Hodgman's set veered from the traditional standup routine, but then again, he's hardly the traditional entertainer. I wish we had done a better job on the ukelele-led sing-along that closed out his set, but we really tried, despite the jumble of unfamiliar words.

However, it's much more fun to talk about the bands who made the weekend. On Friday, the big draw apart from the headliner was Pajama Club, Neil Finn's new project with wife Sharon and a couple more players, among them an awesome girl drummer. Neil remained the frontman, but as with his projects since the initial dissolution of Crowded House, you could detect his ongoing effort to shake up his signature pop sound--then Neil hit one of his patented soaring bridges shortly into the group's first song, and we knew we were in good hands. A bonus: Glenn Kotche joined the band for their last song, "Little by Little" from the 7 Worlds Collide project.

Saturday's encampment at the front of the stage translated into a primo view of Syl Johnson and the Sweet Divines. Even from his short set, you could easily tell he was insane in the best way possible, and he was a fantastic antidote to the thunder and rain that preceded his performance. On the same day, I also checked out the Handsome Family and Thurston Moore (separately). The former brought to mind other folksy couples I've seen in concert, only with a better sense of humor. Thurston turned in a surprising set, delicate and acoustic, at least the part I heard while rambling around the grounds.

Syl Johnson & the Sweet Divines

The rain subsided on Sunday, and we finally relaxed, letting ourselves sleep in and wander to a greater extent than before. Fortunately, Liam Finn turned up in one of the galleries for a solo electric set, backed with a trusty looper and two of the tiniest, cutest amps you've ever seen. He also brought the enthusiasm and commitment in every performance of his I've ever witnessed. Based on an informal poll of friends, Liam attracted a number of new fans among the throngs--a win-win, as far as I'm concerned.

Pronto's set was beset by technical difficulties, to the band's frustration, but they stuck with it as best as they could. I could be mistaken, but it sounded like they concentrated on new songs; odds are, their mistakes would've been forgiven anyway. The Pillow Wand set was pretty much what you'd expect from a collaboration between Nels Cline and Thurston Moore, though judging by the streams of people leaving the set, not everyone got the memo. Levon Helm and His Rambling Band headlined Sunday night, and at one point during his set, as we stood in the sunshine somewhere toward the back of the field, it felt exactly like my city's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival--not a bad comparison at all.

Levon Helm and His Rambling Band

And then there was Wilco, the headliners, proprietors, curators, and all-around majordomos. As mentioned above, the schedule simply didn't allow for you to attend every known configuration of the band and its members, and the fact that they showed up unannounced to accompany select acts didn't help either. Most of us had to be satisfied with their two headlining slots, but they gave us plenty to be thankful for. Per Wilco style, they played two almost entirely unique sets, save for a couple of new songs that they were clearly excited to debut. "I Might" is the new single, which some of us first heard at the S'n'S in April. "Born Alone" was marked by a great rolling rhythm and an exceedingly Tweedy-esque couplet rhyming "born to die alone" with "loneliness postponed."

Wilco, night 2

In all, the band debuted five new songs and "I Love My Label," the Nick Lowe cover featured on the B-side of "I Might," as well as a nod to the band's new distribution model. I won't bother characterizing the new tunes; I don't trust my judgement, and I have no perspective on this band anymore. You'll have to wait until the album leaks and decide for yourself.

Among setlist surprises, the band presented "Hotel Arizona," even if Jeff sort of disavowed it before they even began. They also broke out "Shouldn't Be Ashamed," which I'm spotlighting because I love it when they take one of their more country-ish classics and inject a measure of Nels's newfangled riffs.

I've been to (more than) enough Wilco shows to know what constitutes a regular portion of the proceedings and what can be chalked up as a real surprise. The crowd sing-along to "Jesus, etc." is almost a given, and I would've been shocked if John Stirratt hadn't stepped up for "It's Just That Simple." Heck, we even expect Jeff to forget the words to any number of songs these days, especially after such a long layoff for the group. But when the audience lustily and impressively picked up "Radio Cure" without hesitation after a power surge cut off the mics and a portion of the electrical current onstage--that was completely spontaneous and entirely stirring.

Guest appearances and cross-pollination are de rigueur for festivals, and Solid Sound was no exception. On Saturday night, Liam Finn dropped in for "You Never Know," while Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion piped up for "California Stars." Wilco took their turn in the support slot with Levon Helm for "I Shall Be Released" and "The Weight" for a gorgeous and uplifting close to the weekend.

But the absolute musical highlight of the entire trip--and possibly in my whole life--was Neil Finn joining in for his "I Got You," which followed Wilco's song by the same name. I'd like to point out that we initially suggested this sequence a couple of years ago and, at the time, were brushed off by one of the songwriters. Granted, I'm sure the double-header has graced a mix tape or two back in the day, but hearing and seeing Neil and Jeff trade off vocals is a dream made real. Those three-odd minutes of screaming along to the song claimed much of my voice for the weekend, but I would've suffered more from trying to keep it in.

Wilco, night 1

Before I wrap up this post, I want to mention my nonmusical highlight of the weekend, which also occurred on the first day of the festival. It was sometime while Pajama Club were still setting up, while dry skies held. The treasure: the simple sight of a great group of friends, decked out in rain gear, gathered on a cheap tarp, and chatting amiably. To borrow a cliche I sometimes like to trot out, music may be the vehicle, but our ties to one another are the payoff.

See also:
» trees held us in on all four sides
» above you and beyond me too
» wise man
» the message
» that year

Saturday, June 04, 2011

when are you gonna come down

Howdy, I'm back! I had to skip Jon Brion's April engagement after indulging in the Robyn Hitchcock double header, but the May date worked out nicely. Advance notice: I can't make the June shows, so you'll have to get the lowdown elsewhere. In the meantime, here's what I saw at my most recent visit to Largo at the Coronet.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, May 27, 2011: I often forget how Los Angeles empties out over the holidays, but according to Largo's website, it was another sold-out night for Jon Brion. Obviously, some people made the wise decision and lingered locally.

Jon emerged onstage, showing off a spring-tinged palette, to introduce the opener. As he informed us, the performer had been with Largo since the very beginning. My mind raced with potential candidates, but the mystery was resolved soon enough when Karen Kilgariff took the mic. I first saw Karen Kilgariff many years ago as part of Girls Guitar Club at, yes, the old Largo. Coincidentally, you can hear her backing vocals on the first Rhett Miller solo album too. Do you notice a pattern here?

Is it my imagination or has comedy music enjoyed a renaissance recently? In any case, Karen's set was a compelling reminder that today's newer acts weren't the first to pair a guitar and a punchline. She did four songs in all, at least one of which was extremely timely. I hope we get to see her again.

Jon's official set began with a lengthy instrumental interlude, stretched out over at least 15 minutes, maybe more, and eventually encompassing the celeste, the Chamberlin, and the MicroKorg. One selection sounded strangely familiar; if I had to take a stab at it, I might guess "You Don't Know What Love Is," but don't hold me to it. If a better-versed attendee has any ideas, I'd love to hear them. And if my failure to recognize the song doesn't offend you, keep reading.

"Knock Yourself Out" was the first tune I could confidently identify, even with its minor tweaking. For one, Jon favored the piano instead of the acoustic guitar, and he invested it with a lovely preamble and some different turns of phrase. I realize the truly talented artists know all about reinvention, but it still boggles my mind that they can hear new ways of presenting well-worn material. It's almost as if they're covering their own songs, and I can't wait for the next iteration.

Jon followed up with his own "She's at It Again," then proceeded to what I think was "Sleepwalk" by Santo & Jonny. I corrected the error of my ways only a few years ago, when I learned it's not "Blue Moon," and I'm thankful for the lesson. It's a beaut and a perpetually welcome selection--er, if it was indeed that title.

Friends always ask me if Jon will ever put out a follow-up to Meaningless (apparently, his soundtracks don't count). First of all, I'm in no position to know. Second, I don't particularly care, but every now and then, I feel that twinge and long for an official studio version of a certain song; failing that, I'll also take a good bootleg copy. On both counts, "Piece of You" puts on the hurt in a big way. It never fails to impress at Jon's show, and I'm aching to get a hold of that tune and put it on repeat until its huge chorus and sweeping chords burrow into my brain.

Jon switched on the video players and first brought up footage of Leopold Stokowski, the iconic white-haired conductor of yore. Once again, Jon let the music do the talking, as he subjected the orchestral tones to distortion and all matters of musical manipulation. At times, I heard industrial notes; in other instances, the Chemical Brothers could've been on the decks, and psychedelic touches flitted through too. "Please Stay Away From Me," of all songs, eventually settled into this sound bed, where its crescendos and shifts were highlighted in a way I hadn't noticed in its typically Spartan treatment.

The request line opened up, and Jon let us put in our two cents. In the end, he drew the initial inspiration from our suggestions as he cued up a clip of Coltrane, which he paired with Jacques Brel and a separate snippet of a men's chorus and orchestra. Into the mix, he nestled a torchy take on a favorite cover at Largo, "Tainted Love"--even I had to giggle when I recognized the words. I should also mention that Jon's opening chords, especially when video is involved, are often red herrings to his ultimate intent, but as is often the case, the inclusion of Coltrane and Brel made much more sense as the tune evolved.

Jon found his way to the vibes for the next song, another request. With the vibes, some tunes take on more of a jokey quality, while others shine through. It was the latter for "Waterloo Sunset," practically a standard at Largo. I can't tell you how many times I've heard Jon perform this title, but in this barest and most delicate of arrangements, this rendition ranks up there with the best. At this point, I'd happily sign up for an all-vibes show, if Jon were ever of the mind-set.

"Same Thing" soon beckoned. If you've seen this song performed before, you know Jon employs a few tricks on piano to carry it off, most notably a hammer to bang out the rhythm and other keyboard manipulations I can't identify. Tonight on acoustic guitar, he employed no such props, instead opting for manual tricks, such as playing slightly off-mic or holding down the strings to achieve the tune's trademark stops. In the process, he also carried off an especially melodic round of fingerpicking.

"Happy With You" was a request as well, and Jon built it from the drums up. This might've been the first time he really shredded on guitar all night, and it served as another sharp reminder of what that second solo album could be--and that's the last time I'll bring up that sore subject.

Sebastian Steinberg joined Jon for a round of tunes, working through our requests. Sebastian, of course, came armed with a stand-up bass, while Jon switched between instruments. "Paper Moon" required the acoustic guitar, while "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" unwound over the piano, not the usual implement, but a fine choice regardless.

We soon entered what Jon called live karaoke mode as he and Sebastian supplied the instrumental backing to our vocals. Actually, Jon fed us lines too. I can't lie--I've heard better from the audience, though I admit my own weaknesses with the song selection. "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" turned out to be a lot more verbose than most of us expected, though we jumped on the chorus and the wordless passages with relish. "God Only Knows" started out weakly, but we warmed up beautifully, replicating the multipart harmonies by song's end. I'm going to call it a success, if only because it inspired Jon to tell a story about once buying a copy of the Beatles' white album for Brian Wilson at the Tower on Sunset.

Speaking of the white album, "Blackbird" came about as a request from a woman named Arianna in the front row who said she wanted to sing it with Jon. The stars aligned that night; not only did Jon hear Arianna's entreaty among all the titles hurled at him, he even shut down one audience member who thought it was another group sing-along. I don't blame the would-be vocalist--I've long wanted to hear Jon tackle "Blackbird," and I too would be hard-pressed to keep my mouth closed for the classic track. As it turned out, Jon merely (!) played guitar while the lady sang, sort of in the style of Joni Mitchell. I can't be snarky--it was supersweet and genuine on both sides.

I can't guess at how many requests Jon entertained through this segment, and you can see how few actually made the cut. For the closing segment, against a huge looped foundation, Jon reversed the tide and tackled a bunch of songs at once in the mega-medley style he occasionally breaks out. After a nod to Paul Simon, he concentrated his energies on a good chunk of Del Shannon's "Runaway."

I scrawled "deconstruction" next to "Baby's on Fire" and "Never My Love," but I don't know that means. However, I managed to scribble a note about Jon throwing down the guitar for "Never My Love" and playing the pedals instead, then proceeding to "Rocky Raccoon" with only the wall of sound as support.

It wasn't over, as Jon brought in Eric Clapton on video for "Stop Your Sobbing," then combined it with more clips of an orchestra, a woman on theremin, and an opera singer. For the true coda, Jon followed his own muse with "Carol's Theme," the lyrics echoing Jon's concluding statements at many of the shows I've seen. I hope he knows the feelings are mutual.

--Karen Kilgariff opener

--more instrumental music
--Knock Yourself Out
--She's at It Again
--Sleep Walk
--Piece of You
--Ruin My Day
--Please Stay Away From Me
--Tainted Love
--Waterloo Sunset
--Same Thing
--Happy With You

with Sebastian Steinberg
--Paper Moon
--Don't Think Twice It's Alright
--Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
--God Only Knows

--Graceland/Slip Sliding Away/Runaway/Baby's on Fire/Never My Love/Rocky Raccoon/Stop Your Sobbing
--Carol's Theme

See also:
» there's a band playing on the radio
» i'm happy, hope you're happy too
» come around