Robyn Hitchcock, Grant-Lee Phillips, and Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, April 1, 2011: I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but many years ago, I had the great fortune to catch a set by these three musicians at the old Largo. (Bwahahahahaha! As if I haven't trotted out that memory at every possible opportunity.) In the intervening years, Robyn, Grant, and Jon have flitted in and out of various combinations to play together at Largo and elsewhere, but if my memory serves me well, this may be the first time in a long time this particular trio has convened for a paying audience, and it could be their only co-headlining show ever.
In any case, the stage seemed set for an extravaganza; it was well stocked with a range of microphones, a full drum kit, a chair, and a good sampling of Jon Brion's gear, including the vibes and his video projectors. It should come as little surprise that much of the same crew from Robyn's show in the Little Room the night before reassembled and took their places. As for the chair, Flanny had referenced each musician's recent bout with leg/foot/knee problems. Grant, it turned out, had been recuperating from an Achilles' tendon injury, so the single seat was reserved for him.
The opened with "Queen Elvis," each musician trickling in without haste. Jon was first out, settling down at the piano, and Bill, Robyn, Grant, and Sean followed, armed with their instruments, in roughly that order. Once more, Robyn requested a violin solo of Jon--yes, on piano--and he delivered. They then thanked us and left the stage.
I guess our applause drowned out our laughter; in any case, we convinced them to return, and once again, Jon emerged first. He broke out the video projectors for a performance of "Strings That Tie to You" featuring Andres Segovia and Sonny Rollins, as he had at his own show the week before. I'm sure you could pick out a wealth of differences between the two versions if you heard them side by side, but for me, the main development were heard in Sonny's contributions, which worked better tonight than just one week previously.
Jon left the stage to make room for Grant, who caught us up on the happenings in his life in hilarious fashion. I'll paraphrase, but he reported reading up on Achilles' tendon terror blogs, streaming peak oil documentaries on Netflix, and popping an occasional Ambien, all in preparation for some online shopping. I've now succeeded in killing two grand memories from a couple of great shows, but take my word that Grant's version was delightful and laugh-out-loud funny. (Also, be prepared for more jokes to get lost in translation in the paragraphs to follow.) Anyway, Grant performed a couple of songs from his solo repertoire before vacating for Robyn.
Robyn returned with both Bill Rieflin and Sean Nelson; Jon was soon recruited as well. Robyn's first order of business was to instruct Jon to make sitar noises, and the latter happily obliged. Robyn also requested a certain harmonic convergence of Bill, while Sean was moved to the high hat. This unusual instrumentation led to "I Often Dream of Trains," one of Robyn's classics. Robyn concluded his solo spotlight with "Simple Twist of Fate," which may or may not be a new staple of his sets. Though he betrayed a minor flub on this notoriously lengthy tune, he caught himself and proceeded to the end of the countless choruses.
Finally, the entire band reconvened onstage and joked about their reunion tour. But before we could get to the music, Robyn and Jon engaged in a rambling riff about alchemy involving Guinness and Coca Cola. I report this because the final words of this exchange were "precious metals," which Grant quickly turned into a a request to play a song from that genre. (I told you I was going to butcher every funny thing they said onstage.)
Jon jumped at this suggestion and kicked off "Smoke on the Water" on the vibes, and Robyn added what I think are completely off-the-cuff lyrics. That is, I'm pretty sure it's not a real song or at least it wasn't until that night. This soon progressed to Grant providing an acoustic guitar score to Robyn's dance moves, followed by Grant's best zinger in a night filled with lots of Grant's zingers, his new nickname for the behatted Jon Brion: Henry Fonda.
For several minutes, the room roared with laughter, but the giggles and guffaws eventually died down and the music resumed, this time with Grant's "Don't Look Down," which I believe was a request from
After a short meeting with Bill regarding arrangements and the like, Robyn led the band through Bowie's "Quicksand," followed by a detailed treatise on Canada and the northern border states. Bill even played electric guitar on this one ("Quicksand," that is--not the treatise)! Then the baton returned to Grant for "Strangest Thing," a request from the audience. The musical chairs continued apace, as Robyn manned the piano for this tune.
With some hesitation on Jon's part and a little prodding by the others, Jon chipped in a tune, "Same Mistakes." I suspect he was having a fine enough time in his role as a backing player, the territory he had staked out the night before at Robyn's show in the Little Room, and felt little need to grab the spotlight. However, this seeming trepidation didn't stop him from coaching the band members through the exact cadence he wanted, resulting in a much more pronounced waltz-time version of the track.
For the next song, Jon moved back to piano and Sean Nelson enjoyed a larger role than he had much of the evening for the song "Dismal City," as well he should've. As Robyn explained, the song was featured in Sean's recent film.
The reportage becomes incredibly suspect at this point because there's no way I can accurately describe what happened next. All I know is that Robyn asked the audience to yell out "bingo," and we did, but not to an overwhelming degree. The side I sat on (stage right) was assigned the "bingo" chant, while Robyn asked for a letter from the audience. A woman in the front row offered "A," and soon her section was assigned the accompanying chant, though I could almost swear she was the only one who partook. Finally, Robyn asked for a third sound, and the final section of the room shouted out "FF." We were commanded to yell out our portions in time, but it soon devolved into random noises, helmed happily by Robyn.
And somehow this led into a Doors/Who/Lennon rock block. Robyn kicked it off with Doors, and in the huge rock landscape scared up by the band, Jon and Sean snuck in a couple lines of "My Generation." Eventually, they dovetailed into Lennon's "Well Well Well" not once but twice. In between the two takes, Jon explained to Robyn how he had sung it in a certain key, then introduced him to the key that worked better with his voice. Between Jon's tutorials on "Well Well Well" and "Same Mistakes," I think we in the audience may have earned college credit in musicology!
Grant's "Heavenly" soothed the room, but Jon brought the temperature up a notch with an especially jangly "Knock Yourself Out." I heard a railroad rhythm to this arrangement, as well as hints of the Kingston Trio and Buddy Holly in its clipped pacing. The pendulum swung back to Robyn; he chose "I Feel Beautiful," though it may have also been an audience request. Robyn reminded Jon of his marxophone solo on the tune, and once again, Jon pulled it off, this time on electric guitar.
The musicians set off on a celestial-inspired two-fer, with Grant's cover of "Under the Milky Way," one of the most perfect pop singles of all time (IMHO) and Robyn's own "Full Moon in My Soul." If I remember correctly, the good folks at Largo even worked out a lovely blue lighting scheme for the stage, at the performers' request. Now that I've typed out that sentence, it occurs to me the color cues may have moved Robyn to his next choice, "Blue Suede Shoes," only done v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. Bless the band for playing along--and Jon for jumping right in with Tuvan throat singing at Robyn's behest.
In an 180-degree turn, "John Wesley Harding" was as traditional as they come, complete with what sounded like Robyn's attempt at Dylan's accent. But in the back-and-forth nature of the night, they followed up with--I believe--a spontaneous composition that began with a request to the audience for a key (F sharp minor), then erupted into a heavy, cock rock anthem complete with nonsensical lyrics. I jotted down "Heavy birds got heavy features" and "suffocates my trilby," but come to think of it, they could very well come from a classic Robyn song.
Robyn's question to Grant about his favorite part of Canada resulted in "Riders on the Moose," which sounded exactly as you might imagine. Warning: It wouldn't be the last the Doors reference of the night.
On the absurdist tip, they tore into "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," only to have Robyn interrupt it because (he said) it was so bad. Grant took up the slack and prescribed a sing-along for the audience. I'll never turn down the chance to hear "Walk Away Renee" at Largo, but truth be told, the verses didn't exactly roll off the tongue for everyone in the audience. We killed it on the chorus, though! Also, for some reason, I thought for sure we'd get "Tainted Love" at that moment, but I was clearly mistaken.
Robyn's own "Saturday Groovers" gave Sean another chance to pipe up loud and clear. It also placed Jon at the piano, where he took the reins for the last song of the main set. He cued up a video of a person shushing the camera and brought in Leon Theremin. Bill soon provided a beat for them to work with, and Robyn turned it all into "Back Door Man." Somehow, Robyn and Sean made their way to "Me and Julio," Jon called up Leonard Bernstein, and Robyn may have tied it all up with "You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bonds." (Please note that I've never heard that last song before, but that's what my scribbles say.)
Though they fooled us once already, we welcomed them back for an encore, and I swear I was ready to request the very same song--partly because I knew they could do it--if the opportunity arose. I didn't have to since they chose "Ashes to Ashes"--my ultimate teen angst anthem--on their own accord. Grant handled the lead vocals, with plenty of help from his fellow musicians. I also loved how Jon managed to coax out the song's trademark wobbly keyboard bits from his arsenal of consoles, but they could've banged it out on mouth harp and a set of house keys and I would've still left beaming.
--Queen Elvis °
--She's at It Again *
--Strings That Tie to You *
--Little Moon ^
--Susan Little ^
--I Often Dream of Trains °
--Simple Twist of Fate °
--Smoke on the Water/improv °
--Don't Look Down ^
--Strangest Thing ^
--Same Mistakes *
--Dismal City °
--My Wild Love/My Generation/Well Well Well °
--Well Well Well °
--Knock Yourself Out *
--I Feel Beautiful °
--Under the Milky Way ^
--Full Moon in My Soul °
--Blue Suede Shoes °
--John Wesley Harding °
--Riders on the Moose (?) °
--Maxwell's Silver Hammer °
--Walk Away Renee ^
--Saturday Groovers °
--Back Door Man °
--Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard °
--Ashes to Ashes ^
* = Jon lead vocals
^ = Grant lead vocals
° = Robyn lead vocals
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