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