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