Thursday, March 03, 2011

maybe i'm amazed

Late last week, there was talk of San Francisco seeing its first snowfall in decades. But rather than stick around for this meteorological miracle, I dragged myself through torrential rains and into economy class to head to Jon Brion's February show at Largo at the Coronet--a perfect distillation of my priorities. In case I needed any justification (and who doesn't?), the snow never materialized within city limits. Let's call it a win-win.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, February 25, 2011: I've missed more Jon Brion shows than I can ever hope to see in my lifetime, and I happily cede the floor to the show-goers who proceeded me, especially the regulars who took in Jon's weekly gigs--so take my reports with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, tonight's gig may have included the oddest pre-show caveat I've yet heard from Jon, as he explained that he suffered a fracture due to an unfortunate meeting between his foot and a metal table. He also warned us that the painkillers would kick in soon enough and prepped us for a potential foray into "third Velvet Underground album" territory.

Jon invoked Quasimodo and the hunchback of Notre Dame in his prologue, but watching him visibly limp and drag his foot across the stage, I flashed to thoughts of Screaming Lord Byron. I don't think I've ever felt so relieved to see Jon stop moving, sit down at the piano, and launch into the set proper. "You Don't Know What Love Is" involved the piano, celeste, and MicroKorg, with an extended piano bridge, while "Someone Else's Problem Now" exhibited subtle differences, such as the use of the EMS Synthi and a more sober arrangement than usual.

In fact, maybe it's my recent lack of shows or maybe it's the medication mentioned above, but many of Jon's standards took on a different timbre tonight, and I'm not talking about an extended solo or a secret cover version stuck into the middle of the arrangement. "She's At It Again," for example, bore a resemblance to Nirvana's "Lithium," and "Why Do You Do This to Yourself" veered away from its normally Spartan sound, instead blossoming with a fuller structure and a doleful inflection, without that hint of bemusement that often accompanies the tune. By the time Jon added the feedback and distortion, it was almost operatic in scope.

When Jon broke out "Happy With You," my immediate thought was whether he should be playing the drums at all, what with the disgusting foot secret injury, but before long it became clear the drugs were kicking in. Not that it was immediately evident--Jon's choice of bluesy notes for his first pass at the guitar loops was unusual but welcome, and he's been known to emote, such as by cradling his arms to his chest as he did tonight. We've seen him dramatically fling his jacket across the stage too. I think the disappearance of his limp was the first indication that the medicine was doing its job.

Also doing their job: the looping mechanism. Though I should be jaded to it by now, I couldn't help but feel a frisson while taking in the tableau of Jon banging away at the piano, with a guitar lying face down on the stage about 15 feet away from him, and yet the guitar riff came in perfectly on time as planned. I chalk it up to magic, and you can't talk me out of it.

I wish I had the vocabulary and knowledge to describe what happened to "That's Just What You Are." Don't worry--it was awesome, but there was a subtle shift tonight that refreshed the entire song. I heard a new rhythm to it, and a bunch of terms I don't actually understand flew through my brain. Was he playing the counterpoint? Minor chords? Was it in a different key? I have no idea, but it sounded great.

After a brief interlude with a Scott Joplin song and "Over Our Heads," Jon switched on the video projectors and presented Andres Segovia and Maria Callas (separately) for what turned out to be a nice match, at least by the time Jon isolated the portions he needed. Sonny Rollins's contribution was less complementary at first, but by the time "Strings That Tie to You" coalesced, all their parts made more sense. Still, my favorite part of the song was the solo piano meditation Jon slipped in toward the end. Again, words fail me, but it was a beautiful touch.

When Jon picked up the acoustic guitar and a harmonica (then tuned), I thought I knew what we were in for, but my hunches were wrong. I suspect the unsolicited audience requests swayed him because he went with "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" for a good stretch before switching seamlessly into "Knock Yourself Out." This combo will always remind me of the Intonation Festival. Though I managed to keep my shit together this time, the medley continues to charm and delight.

Jon finally asked for requests proper, and honestly, I couldn't have asked for a better choice. Then again, I shamelessly love Paul McCartney and the Wings, and I especially swoon when Largo's regulars cover their songs. Ever since I got my supergroup version of "Band on the Run," I've been afraid to push my luck and the artists' patience.

This time, I didn't have to do it, as a mystery woman piped up with a request I'd only dreamed of making. (Note: Lady, if you're reading this, I'd like to buy you a drink or five. Send me a note and we can work out the terms.) My hopes were high, and shortly after Jon started laying down the beat, I knew which road we were about to travel--we were on our way to "Maybe I'm Amazed." Granted, Jon couldn't quite hit all of Paul's high notes, but the best parts were intact. I even turned to Daniella in the middle of the song and declared it was better than Radiohead. Despite the euphoria, I shuddered to see Jon jumping up and down during his guitar solo. He was going to feel that later.

Jon kept up the momentum for the set closer, "I Believe She's Lying." I especially loved the manual Doppler shift he affected by swinging the acoustic guitar to and from the microphone. During the course of the song, he also introduced the vibes, more for the texture than for melody; thrashed away at the drums; and brought in footage of Percy Grainger, a Mexican band, and Maria Callas, though their respective places in the mix varied. The final visual from this song consisted of Jon laying down on the floor and wailing away on guitar. At least he spared his foot from further aggravation.

For the encore, Jon returned to the vibes for "Strawberry Fields," forcing you to wonder how the Beatles overlooked such a distinctive instrument, even as they threw every other available bit of studio trickery into that album.

--You Don't Know What Love Is
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--She's At It Again
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--Happy With You
--That's Just What You Are
--Scott Joplin song
--Over Our Heads
--Strings That Tie to You
--Don't Think Twice It's Alright/Knock Yourself Out
--Maybe I'm Amazed
--I Believe She's Lying

--Strawberry Fields

See also:
» the power of suggestion, the element of chance
» the first one said to the second one there

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