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.
--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
--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
Margaret and Grant-Lee
--Eat Shit and Die
--Two More Bottles of Wine [with Benmont Tench]
--Enemies [with Jon Brion]
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» if there's a star above
» scraping paper to documen
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