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.
Steve 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.
A 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
--Don't Let Me Down/High and Dry
w/ Gabe Wicher and Paul Kowert
--My Baby Left Me
--Someone to Watch Over Me
--I Believe She's Lying
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