Saturday, December 29, 2012

the things you do to keep yourself intact

Not gonna lie: The trend on this blog over the last few years isn't about to change. At this moment, I have a ticket to exactly one gig in 2013, with two more possibilities looming. However, as long as it's within my power, you can find me at Jon Brion's last show of the year at Largo at the Coronet, especially if the end of the world is forecast for the same date.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 21, 2012: You better watch out! You better not cry! You better not pout, I'm telling you why: Flanny Claus is coming to town!

Flanny's first act: Inviting a young man named Jake Gagnon (sp?) onstage for a couple of songs. A recent transplant, Jake has been busking outside of the club, as it was the only place he knew in Los Angeles. He showed few signs of nerves -- or hid them well -- as he borrowed a guitar that's passed through the hands of Emmylou Harris and Elliott Smith, as reported by Flanagan. The boss followed up by returning to a patron an ID he'd found in the courtyard and complimenting another audience member on the CD he'd been handed. Yes, Virginia, there is a Largo.

For his portion of the show, Jon opened with a somewhat maudlin tune on the piano, but once again, the season proved irresistible as he broke into "Jingle Bells," touched with a hint of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." I can't remember how he got to the disco version of "Jingle Bells," but the move was a lot more organic than you might imagine.

We'd hit upon the theme of the evening, as Jon returned to "Jingle Bells" for an Ellington-style treatment. The first guest of the night Sebastian Steinberg joined him on stand-up bass, as Jon added his own cooing and a sprinkling of celeste.

Jon moved the guitars and mulled over the possibilities before landing on something "slightly more evil." Re-enter "Jingle Bells," this time as possibly played in France in 1928 (read: Django Reinhardt). I wonder if the imminent release of the Quentin Tarantino movie was a subliminal influence? At Jon's urging, Sebastian added slam-style poetry declaring his hatred of the Grove at Christmas time. It was almost as if he was in the car with us all those times we drove up Fairfax to the old Largo! In any case, no argument here.

The siren call of "Jingle Bells" beckoned once more (the fifth movement, as Jon called it) in yet another permutation. I'll pause for a second and let you guess the style Jon next appended to the winter classic. Ragtime? Rockabilly? Reggae? Any other style starting with an "r"? Wrong on all counts! My notes say "John Cage" -- that is, modern and abstract, but considering my complete ignorance in the field, you might still have a better guess than me.

Breaking free of the bells, Jon went with "actual Ellington" with (I think) "But Beautiful," which I recognize solely from earlier Largo performances; even then, I can't vouch for that positive ID. Here again, "Jingle Bells" paid a visit, this time to the coda.

Jon and Sebastian finally hit a couple of original works -- both part of Sara Watkins' (with whom Sebastian not so coincidentally tours) repertoire -- including the always welcome "Trouble." More of that, please!

My notes make no mention of how Jon and Sebastian jumped to a discussion of a Fox News Christmas album, though I recall some mention of a war on Christmas. Nor can I possibly guess where Jon's next song came from, a perfectly formed tune addressing a number of current political themes and topped with a chorus moaning, "When those damn liberals make me take down my nativity scene." Off-the-cuff original? Personal parody? A Toby Keith masterwork? I'm at a loss -- send me any suggestions you may have.

Jon burrowed back into the guitars for another pair of originals, first "She's At It Again," then "Happy With You." The latter grew especially interesting on the final verse, when Jon brought down the tone so that it became an almost a cappella rendition, with the guitar and bass quietly backing his voice. He brought it back up to fill the room, but this time inserted notes of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" mixed what Jon called (George) Benson-style scatting, though he professed not quite knowing why he chose to do so.

Sebastian took the lead with the next selection, which we soon surmised was "Christmastime Is Here," aka the Charlie Brown Christmas theme. Jon and Sebastian took a little time to coordinate with one another, trying out a number of keys before deciding on the one that worked best. This segued into the other well-known "Peanuts" theme, for which Jon moved to the vibes -- and threw in the night's seventh salute (for those keeping track at home) to "Jingle Bells." Because why the hell not?

Sebastian returned to the mic for a more traditional tune, "She Thinks I Still Care," made famous by George Jones and occasionally heard at Largo. Jon's touches made it more high lonesome than country. Any objections? I thought not.

Jon finally opened the floor up to requests, but in the end, he did only one of them: "Life on Mars." As far as I can tell, he went with his own or his collaborators' choices for the rest of the night.

"The Way It Went" came and went, I think we got "Strangest Times" from I Heart Huckabees, and "Here We Go" grabbed hold for a perfect 3-odd minutes. And on "Knock Yourself Out," Jon made a 6-string guitar sound more like a 12-string, at least to these dumb ears.

I should mention that Jon has been chatting with the audience a fair amount throughout the night. Of course, he referenced the would-be apocalypse and pointed us toward similar prophecies that had marked all of human history. He also soliloquized on the old Christmas specials some of us may have grown up watching, particularly their problematic spacing of guest spots. We were spared this delayed satisfaction, as Jon brought out the ol' Largo gang to join him: Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench, Sean Watkins, and Sebastian (who'd taken leave for the last chunk of tunes).

By all indications, it'd been a while since the whole group had convened onstage, whether by design or due to touring conflicts. In any case, they hit upon a number of standards that are likely familiar to Largo regulars, but then again, standards are standards for a reason. They kicked off with "He's Funny That Way," led by Fiona and with Jon on backup vocals. However, Jon took over on the third verse, unable to hold back on this lovely song. Sean and Fiona veered through the murder ballad "Knoxville Girl," neither of them quite remembering the lyrics, but their amnesia was more amusing than annoying.

From cheetahmaster.tumblr.com
I tell you, though, never before have I been so delighted to hear "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." Not only has it been sort of a personal theme for, uh, several years now, but it also let me recall a recent 30 Rock montage (see right). Chainsaw hats for everyone!

Benmont knocked out "How Deep Is the Ocean," which elicited a discussion of the Gershwins -- Largo is, at minimum, a learning experience -- and Fiona finished out with "You Belong to Me" (the Patsy Cline version).

Jon retained Sebastian for the penultimate portion, in which he hit his own "Please Stay Away From Me" and "I Believe She's Lying." He also graced us with profuse and pretense-free thanks for our continued attendance and interest, mentioning what a honor it is to play music for a living, much less with friends, much less with an audience. I've done no justice to Jon's sentiments, in the same way I barely skim the surface of his shows with these reports, but I hope an iota of the pleasure comes through.

The buddies returned for the real final song, now joined by one of the newer Largo darlings, Blake Mills on a ukelele. They cryptically conferred with each other on the closer, but as soon as they started in, there was no question that any other song would make the cut. For the second (of many, I hope) year in a row, they tore into the "Roxanne"/"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" mashup. My only complaint is that the audience was less cooperative this time. Maybe they were just relieved to outlive the end of the world? It wouldn't have been the worst way to go out.

Opener
--Jake Gagnon

Setlist
--piano
--Jingle Bells/Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairly/Jingle Bells (disco)
--Jingle Bells ("Ellington") *
--Jingle Bells ("slightly more evil"; "France in 1928") *
--Jingle Bells No. 5 (John Cage?) *
--But Beautiful *
--Same Mistakes *
--Trouble *
--Fox News Christmas album? *
--She's At It Again *
--Happy With You/I Wish *
--Charlie Brown Christmas Theme *
--Peanuts Theme *
--She Thinks I Still Care [Sebastian] *
--Life on Mars
--The Way It Went
--Strangest Times (?)
--Here We Go
--Knock Yourself Out
--He's Funny That Way [Fiona and Jon] **
--Knoxville Girl [Fiona and Sean] **
--How Deep Is the Ocean [Benmont] **
--Don't Get Around Much Anymore [Fiona] **
--You Belong to Me [Fiona] **
--Please Stay Away From Me *

encore
--I Believe She's Lying
--Rudolph (You Don't Have to Put On the Red Light) ***

* = with Sebastian Steinberg
** = with Sebastian Steinberg, Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench, and Sean Watkins
*** = with Sebastian Steinberg, Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench, Sean Watkins, and Blake Mills

Ghosts of Christmas past:
» let your heart be light
» i'm offering this simple phrase
» it's been said many times, many ways
» with soul power
» it's the end of the things you know
» you could say one recovers
» a really good time

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

my starter won't start

Oh Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, I just can't quit you! At least not while I live in the Richmond District and you manage to book at least a few bands I want to see. Warren Hellman's legacy -- and our collective gratitude for his undertaking -- remains alive and thriving after his death. How lucky are we to enjoy his largesse year after year?

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 5 to 7, 2012: Much like in 2010, the Bay Area had something for everyone this weekend. A sampling of activities include Fleet Week, America's Cup races, the Giants games, a 49ers game, and mega concerts in Oakland. Whew! This may have helped keep the numbers down at Hardly Strictly; I noticed less of a crunch than in previous years. Alternately, maybe no one wants to see the same performers as me.

As for those artists, few jumped out at me as in years before, but there's something for nearly everyone, and I was able to whittle down my list to a number of essential performers. Top of the list was Justin Townes Earle; I love his latest record, and I couldn't possibly pass up this opportunity.

After a late, lazy morning (sorry Sara Watkins), I ambled down to the Towers of Gold Stage in the early afternoon. You gotta love the western border of Hardly Strictly around that hour. With no trouble at all, I was able to make my way close to the front for a great view. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera that day, so you'll have to take my word on my primo placement.

As Justin took the stage, it occurred to me that he bears a resemblance to Rufus Wainwright. They're both tall and lanky, with a bohemian air. They've prevailed over checkered histories, and of course, there's the whole music progeny thing. Maybe it's a country mouse/city mouse thing? Maybe I should save these thoughts for my anonymous Tumblr?
From easily fooled

Justin was accompanied by the same band that joined him at the Great American Music Hall earlier this year, and their chops came through as before. Back then, I didn't realize how big an asset Paul Niehaus was on guitar, though I could hear it in his contributions. Vince Ilagan and John Radford resumed their duties on stand-up bass and drums, respectively.

Obviously, festival sets are shorter than stand-alone gigs, but I think Justin got almost an hour of stage time, though he was slated for 50 minutes. Otherwise, he stuck with a similar format of frequent banter, a short solo set, and the full band treatment. If my memory is correct, we got similar but paraphrased versions of the stories behind "Maria" and "Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now." Hell, if I had gone through the same breakup and/or written as a great a song, I'd work that angle until they cut off my mic. They don't call that show "Storytellers" for nothing.

It's hard to imagine Justin at a loss for words when it comes to his songs, and we may have seen the best example of this during a potentially awkward moment. Though he easily shared stories about ex-girlfriends, he also introduced some uncertainty to the narratives, reminding us the subject was often a composite character. He couldn't do the same with "Am I That Lonely Tonight," which opens with the line, "I hear my father on the radio" -- especially with the man in question watching from the side of the stage. Apart from a subtle reference to the circumstances at the beginning of the song, Justin said no more on the topic. Then again, everything you need to know is in the lyrics.

With his extra (?) time, Justin was able to squeeze in the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait." That's a festival song if I've ever heard one.

My only real encounter with impenetrable mobs this weekend followed Justin's set, when I nursed the idea of checking out the Lumineers at the Rooster Stage. Denied! The path to the Rooster Stage from JFK Drive was truly a frothing sea of humanity. I should've known -- the always fortress-like stage plus the bustling food stands plus the runoff from the even larger Banjo Stage plus a band with an actual radio hit meant I didn't have a prayer in the world of seeing a centimeter of the stage. After failing to make any forward progress for a few minutes, I moved on.

Which brought me to the Porch Stage on the eastern side of the festival, well in advance of Robyn Hitchock's set. I've never actually seen the Porch Stage before, though it's the closest to my apartment. Little did I know how accessible and mellow it was! Even more so than Towers of Gold!

I accidentally continued my Earle family stalking with Allison Moorer's performance, where she was joined by husband Steve Earle for a couple of tracks. Justin could be seen wandering around too. Go figure!

But I was really there for Robyn Hitchcock, who didn't disappoint in a pink and purple shirt, as well as his trademark mop of white hair. Robyn's non sequiturs could easily power a fake or real Twitter account from here until our cosmic overlords reclaim this poor planet, so I won't try to cover them here -- except to note that he opened with a fantastic and affectionate comment about San Francisco "celebrating the 52nd year of the 1960s." To his credit, Robyn didn't seem to mind the Blue Angels flying overhead, dismissing them with a remark about (paraphrased) the impermanence of everything, so we should just enjoy what we have.

Robyn Hitchock and John Paul Jones, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, 10-06-12I think Robyn did a couple of tracks by himself before he brought up his special guest. I'm not even sure Robyn formally introduced him, but he was hardly a stranger to the crowd -- or to me, despite the well-meaning hippie's inquiries as to whether I recognized him. (He had also asked me between sets if I was familiar with Nick Drake, bless his heart.) The mystery man: John Paul Jones, frequent Largo guest, though I didn't bother explaining that to the new acquaintance. Oh right, he's kind of known for that other band too. My guess is that John Paul Jones took part in Sara Watkins' set -- which, as mentioned above, I had missed.

This may be the first time I've seen Robyn and John Paul Jones (does anyone refer to him with less than three names?) play together in any form, but I'm too lazy to look over my old posts to make sure. Needless to say, I fully realized the magnitude of this collaboration, as I have with every other John Paul Jones appearance I've witnessed.

John Paul Jones remained with Robyn for the rest of his set, taking on a bunch of Robyn's classics. I never in my life would've guessed I'd hear "Balloon Man" with a mandolin solo, but they carried it off beautifully. They also went in on "Tangled Up in Blue," Robyn's wife's favorite Dylan song.

The best moment of their set may have been "Saturday Groovers." To start, Robyn prefaced the tune with a tale of living next door to John Paul Jones, where they shared a single lightbulb; while one had illumination, the other was bathed in rain. This led to an explanation of the real-life groovers and their place in British cultural history -- hey, it sounded legit enough to me. The song itself was upbeat and fun, but the most endearing touch may have been John Paul Jones' impromptu harmonies at the end. They totally need to take this act on the road.

On Sunday, Son Volt kicked off the show. This might be the first time I've officially seen Son Volt live, though I've caught a couple of Jay Farrar appearances. Once again, it was a breeze to get to the front of the stage, where a steady sampling of Farrar faithful held court, including one fellow who air-drummed along to every track.

Son Volt, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, 10-07-12

The first half of Son Volt's set was, in a word, problematic. Technical difficulties silenced the lead guitar for a couple of songs, and overall, the pacing was slow. The set picked up, both in terms of pace and spirit, with a block of Trace tunes right around the middle. Not only were the fans singing and jumping around, the energy carried over into the remainder of their segment. I think Son Volt closed out with at least one song from Jay Farrar's Jack Kerouac project with Ben Gibbard. Sorry, finer details escape me.

I can say one more thing about Son Volt: If you're a fan of Jay's voice, you'll be pleased to hear that familiar lilt going strong. It's still a fantastic instrument all on its own.

The Rooster Stage was slightly more open for Nick Lowe, but I went to my usual perch on the side of the hill. Perhaps some day my feet will touch the ground of that natural amphitheater -- one can dream. Not that the hillside is virgin land either; the gathered fans looked not unlike a post-apocalyptic enclave of survivors, though maybe the Whole Foods bags and wine bottles gave it away.

Nick was his usual cool, regal self, playing a mix of old and new, but always at his own pace. His playlist included "Battlefield," once covered by Diana Ross, though he downplayed its prominence in her career. "House for Sale" was welcomed warmly also, and he landed on a couple of classics: "Cruel to Be Kind" and (by request) "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)." The man may be the epitome of timelessness.

With that, my Hardly Strictly Bluegrass experience drew to a close for 2012. There's no use in playing coy anymore -- see you next year.

See also:
» i wanna reach that glory land
» watch the waves and move the fader
» we both pretend we don't know why
» don't get around much anymore
» between two worlds

Monday, October 08, 2012

catch the moon like a bird in a cage

Seven Wilco shows became six shows, then settled into five, but the Hollywood Bowl was never in question. Though it wasn't the first time the band had played this hallowed site (that distinction would go to their opening slot for REM in 2003), it was their first headlining opportunity at the Bowl and their penultimate U.S. date for this year. Despite my usual doubts, it was a privilege to catch them at this iconic site.

Wilco, Hollywood Bowl, September 30, 2012: Back when we first grabbed tickets for this string of shows, I made some predictions on which would be good and which wouldn't. I think I hit about .500.

Wilco, Hollywood Bowl, 09-30-12Berkeley and Reno turned out to be awesome, contrary to my conjectures. I couldn't make Redding, but according to reports, it was a wash -- the opposite of my initial call. I was right in opting out of the Palm Desert date, and San Luis Obispo was every bit as fun as I knew it would be. As for the Hollywood Bowl, well, in the words of Cerie from 30 Rock: That's exactly how you look.

The upside first: We had very good seats in the pool circle, and the people around us weren't as awful as I thought they might be -- except for the couple behind us who argued until maybe "Art of Almost." But from the outset, the crowd was on their feet, and I saw plenty of fans around me who knew the words to the songs, their enthusiasm and appreciation shining through. Of course, it's Los Angeles, so a portion of the population will always be too cool for school, including the attendees who wandered in well into the set. In their defense, Carmageddon was under way, and hell, we made it to our seats about 5 minutes before showtime.

Anyway, the attention was mostly directed at the stage. Believe it or not, that's an achievement in this town, and I've seen much worse at shows, earlier Wilco dates included.

The setlist was surprising, which is both good and bad. Having already played three shows in the Los Angeles area earlier this year, perhaps the band felt some freedom in putting together the song order. We didn't get the typical Sunday-themed run of songs, but then again, they kind of did that back in January at the Wiltern, not to mention just the day before in San Luis Obispo.

On paper, the set looks pretty good, with an AM track, the "Sunken Treasure"/"Misunderstood" double-header, and two tunes I hadn't heard yet on this run ("War on War" and "Ashes of American Flags"). I won't ever complain about the recurrence of the acoustic "Spiders" either.

But in the end, it all came across as somewhat perfunctory. I feel like a jerk for saying it because a number of people who see Wilco a lot less often than I do told me they loved the show, and it was a good representation of the band's catalog and range. Also, I'm biased against most seated venues, so my final take is suspect.

However, it didn't feel like there was much of a connection between the band and the audience, as seen at the best shows on this run. To his credit, Jeff tried, with allusions to the Sing-Along Sound of Music held at the Bowl just the week before, as well as suggestions to the audience to join in with vocals if they could on the likes of "Jesus etc." and "California Stars." The resulting harmonies were weak, to the point where Paul and I kicked in with "Hummingbird," and both the couple in front of us and the guy to Paul's right craned their necks to check us out -- not necessarily in a bitchy way, but shouldn't they have been singing too?! Then again, it wasn't the first time "our voices lift so easily" to unexpected attention.

Wilco, Hollywood Bowl, 09-30-12I try not to feel entitled (and hope I don't come across that way), but by the encore, not only did I know what was coming, I felt like we deserved it. I'm talking about "Outtasite," of course. "Hoodoo Voodoo" is fun and all, especially with shirtless techie Josh on cowbell, but those Being There rockers send it all the way to 11 and get me jumping up and down, even when I'm wearing wedge heels.

I'll say this much about Wilco at the Hollywood Bowl: They sure know how to close. It's a good thing my last memory of them for a little while will be one of sheer joy and celebration.

See also:
» thank you for nothing at all
» the sun rises and sets
» september gurls
» if i had a mountain
» the lovely way the sunshine bends

Sunday, October 07, 2012

the sun rises and sets

It was another early morning proceeding a long drive following a late night (for all three of us, albeit separately), this time from Los Angeles to California's central coast. The occasion: Wilco's show at the Avila Beach Resort in San Luis Obispo. The outcome: A relaxed, rocking gig set against the beach.

Wilco, Avila Beach Resort, September 29, 2012: I love that Wilco plays unusual spots around California and elsewhere, major mileage aside, but there's always the question of what awaits us at the end of the interstate. It turned out my brother and his wife really like Avila Beach, and the resort Website depicted an inviting setup on the water. It could be paradise, if seaside getaways are your thing.

Wilco, Avila Beach Resort, 09-29-12The reality wasn't quite as idyllic, but it wasn't bad either. In fact, it may eventually turn out to be one of my favorite Wilco gigs. For starters, we were told that we had to wait for the golf match to conclude before we could park our car. Then we had to actually wait on the green before gates opened. Finally, we crossed a bridge and traversed the length of a football field (or so) before we reached the stage. Though breezy and sunny, the climate wasn't exactly as lovely as depicted in the photos either, but I, hailing from the land of Arctic-condition summer festivals, really shouldn't talk. It all added up to a show that felt like an incredibly relaxed festival -- not unlike the last day of last year's Solid Sound.

Here's a perfect encapsulation of the show's vibe: Nels had equipment trouble on the opening tracks. Apparently, his pedals and gizmos didn't react well to the sun and heat. I caught one exchange between Nels and his tech in which Nels called something "bullshit" (the extent of my lip-reading abilities). The tech swapped out Nels' head (commence Liz Lemon eye-roll sequence), and all was fixed. Several audience members requested a do-over, so Jeff had Nels recap his solos from an especially guitar-heavy roster. Nels delivered with his trademark exquisite touch, and Jeff followed with the one solo he knew, according to his claims -- a lovely, jarring jumble of notes.

Wilco, Avila Beach Resort, 09-29-12

In the Reno write-up, I mentioned Wilco's outline for shows in new towns, but the band broke out of the mold for its San Luis Obispo premiere. Maybe it had to do with the connection between Jeff's kind of hometown of St. Louis and San Luis Obispo. In any case, we got the artsy opener ("One Sunday Morning," "Art of Almost"); the acoustic "Spiders"; a number of AM tracks; the always welcome inclusion of Summerteeth songs, including the formerly reviled "Can't Stand It"; and the Being There closer. Where did they think they were -- Berkeley!?

As if the show weren't already amusing enough, a narrative emerged: a battle with the elements. Under any other circumstances, we'd dream of seeing a show under such postcard-perfect circumstances, but three hours in the sun proved to be a challenge (see aforementioned technical issues). I think it may have been harder on Wilco, as the rays seemed to zero in on the band right in the middle of their set. Needless to say, Jeff didn't remove his jean jacket, though he commented on the brightness on several occasions.

Wilco, Avila Beach Resort, 09-29-12The balmy conditions brought out at least one revelation -- how often Jeff references the sun in his lyrics. We're not talking a Neil Finn knees-and-kitchens situation, but it's close. Jeff took notice of it himself, and despite the band's physical discomfort, they still didn't play "Sunloathe," which would've been perfect for the day. But in an instance of good timing, "Dawned on Me" was the song playing when the sun finally ducked below the horizon.

Sun, surf, and songs alone already made this a unique Wilco gig, but all the unexpected factors pushed it up another notch. Watch out -- I may be talking about it for some time to come.

See also:
» september gurls
» you can tell that i'm not lying
» if i had a mountain
» the lovely way the sunshine bends

Saturday, October 06, 2012

september gurls

The wait between Largo shows -- much less Jon Brion gigs -- wasn't supposed to be this long either, but as I said before, stuff happens. Back in January, I had a similar decision to make. This time, I took the other path, and I'm confident it was absolutely the right choice.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, September 28, 2012: This gig, in fact, marked the first Jon Brion show I've seen this year. What is this -- 2004?! Hopefully, it won't be the last, but if it does turn out to be my sole Jon Brion concert in 2012, there are worse shows to catch.

Since the last time I saw Jon working his magic (Christmas Eve eve, to be exact), he's made several changes to his setup, most notably the all-acoustic arrangement. In place of the pounds and pounds of hardware and yards and yards of cabling was a simple tableau: On stage right stood the trusty Largo piano and a single celeste, while the middle ground hosted 10 acoustic guitars and a chair. That's right -- no Chamberlin or drum set or vibes, as had been the custom. In the interim, I've heard mixed reports on this arrangement, but it was time to find out for myself.

Jon started on guitar, picking out a tune I would've classified as a standard I couldn't name had he not actually sang it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have stood a chance to figure it out, but I was glad to finally recognize it as an old Billie Holliday tune that Jon switched up for better gender identification. He followed it up with "Someone Else's Problem Now," a perennial early-set ice breaker, and stayed with the guitars for "She's at It Again."

A shift to the piano brought up the "Punch-Drunk Melody," then a segue into "Here We Go," which brought back to me every reason I go to Largo. For one thing, I got my favorite chair, which means I had the pleasure of taking in the performance from the best seat in the house. The vocals, the piano work, the subtle rhythms -- even for a nonmusical person like myself -- were as close and as vibrant as could be. It just confirmed for me that the Largo experience is almost impossible to beat.

As for the song itself, Jon worked out a slightly deconstructed and extended coda -- a gorgeous reminder of a music as a living, shifting entity. Sigh.

He expanded on this blueprint with "Trouble," which kicked off with a big, pounding intro before settling into its more customary form. But of course, there were variations within the tune itself, such as an extended, somber bridge, as well as a slower, weighty pace later in the progression. By the final verse ("There's a conversation"), Jon's voice stood nearly alone until he brought the piano back up to meet it. Wowzers.

A 12-string emerged as the instrument of choice for a jangly "Love of My Life So Far." I wouldn't say Jon went bluegrass on it, but the fingerpicking got fancy, especially on the bridge.

He picked up the battered old metal hollow-body guitar for the next tune, which I initially thought would be "Knock Yourself Out." I was wrong, but I didn't know it for a while, as Jon sat back and strummed away, as if sitting on someone's porch or enjoying some downtime in the studio. The mystery song turned out to be even better, as it was "Surrender." There may have been a weak effort to sing along, but we came nowhere close to that rendition I once heard in Chicago.

"Same Mistakes" came next, then the floodgates opened as Jon asked for requests. I really had no guesses as to how Jon would handle requests without his mountain of electronics. As it turned out, the approach remained the same, even if the mechanics differed somewhat. If you've seen Jon on these jags of requests, you know he sort of cleanses the palate with a sweep of the keyboard or a charge of the guitar as he bounces between tracks.

With only acoustics on hand, he was a little more subtle in his transitions, often trying to find common ground before making his move. From what I can recall, this worked best in connecting "This Will Be Our Year" and "Ruby Tuesday," and especially so with "Rainbow Connection" and "Shipbuilding." Then again, that could be my excitement over hearing any Elvis Costello song interpreted by Jon.

Anyway, it was superfun, particularly when Jon subbed in his own lyrics for "Dancing Days" ("something about trolls"). At the same time, a number of requests were treated with absolute respect, including "I've Just Seen a Face" and "Moonage Daydream." "Positively 4th Street" would be on that list too, except that Jon purposely chose to abandon it short of the nine verses.

At this point, I have to interrupt with a Crotchety Old-Timer comment. I'm happy to say I ran into several old friends and familiar faces on this visit to Largo, but it was also apparent in the audience reaction that newer fans continue to arrive. The tell-tale moment this evening emerged with the Thin Lizzy track "The Boys Are Back in Town." Not only was the singalong a bit of a wash, the giggles that accompanied Jon's launching into the tune suggested to me most of the crowd had little inkling that he used to do the song on the ukelele. It was definitely fun to hear, but it also reminded me that the room could use some schooling on how to embrace the tune.

During the request barrage, the audience response had built into a roar, and even from my seat, I could barely make out individual words, much less titles being directed at the stage. Jon took the reins and broke us up into groups based on our location in the room, though even then, the aural mishmash continued. Somehow, the medleys eventually worked out and continued to give back.

"Into the Atlantic," according to Jon, was a request. Also according to Jon: It may be about the ocean, but Largo scholars may recall it's based on Jon's struggles with Meaningless and its release. At first, I thought it might be the first time I've heard it, but my meticulous (bwahahahahahaha) records indicate otherwise. However, it remains a rare track -- one I haven't heard in five years -- and I commend the person who called out for it.

"You Don't Know What Love Is" eased out on piano, and "Baby Elephant Walk" came up as a request, complete with Jon's singing the melody. Then we took an authentic left turn.

Jon turned again to the audience, but this time asked us to create a beat -- not on the "Bohemian Rhapsody" level, but otherwise, his instructions were open-ended. I think he got us started with a mild suggestion of clapping against our legs or clicking our fingers. He also encouraged us to mix it up and add more syncopation if the mood struck us. Before long, we settled into an easy, upbeat flow. From there, Jon brought in his contribution, resulting in "More Than This."

My love affair with this song has been well documented on this blog. But I can say with some confidence that this performance was the most unique take I've yet heard. Even more, it opened my eyes to how artists mold and remake their favorites.

When Jon first started using the video decks, "More Than This" came up often, with a clip of a Latino band forming the foundation of the song. In effect, we were that band tonight. I still don't know how Jon got that tropical rhythm from such a quintessentially '80s tune, but bless him for the connection. Here -- check out the video and send any theories my way.



Jon paused the musical activities for commentary, noting that a lot of Beatles requests had come up tonight and how the band often becomes a common language between musicians of various stripes, no matter their background or influences. He decided to put this theory to the test, and we were the guinea pigs.

He asked if there were any guitarists in the audience who could play Beatles songs on guitar. A young man named Jordan was chosen. He was clearly nervous onstage, but he managed to hold it together for a quick strum on the guitar that passed muster with Jon. A second guitarist (fun fact No. 1: he may or may not have been the slack fan pushed aside by meth lady in Reno earlier in the week) soon joined him (fun fact No. 2: they both brought their own guitar picks), and Jon subjected them to a "public audition," requesting they hit the bridge of "She Said, She Said." (Fun fact No. 3: That was my request!)

They were, in a word, great. Their voices sounded lovely together, and they clearly knew the song. Jon, meanwhile, added lead guitar and harmonies, but the two guests were the show. Between "Surrender" and the fledgling band, I couldn't help but think back to a freezing, unforgettable night in Chicago a few years back.

Jon next asked for drummers, and a couple more guys joined them to take over percussive instruments (tambourine and shaker, to be exact). In the Largo tradition, they took some time trying to decide on their next opus. Though Jon ostensibly left it up to the co-guitarists, he shot down the suggestion for "Let It Be." Thankfully, they settled on "Something," which saw Jon taking a more prominent role. Not only did he sing and play lead guitar, he shouted out chord changes and kicked in harmonies.

The group's final song together was "You Can't Do That," with Jon now fully in control, including commanding us to "sing, you fuckers!" I can account for at least three people who did our part; I hope we weren't alone.

Throughout the evening, Jon had been somewhat joking about his studio techniques and how he coaxes the desired performance out of musicians. In fact, the run up to "More Than This" included these purported tips. Before he closed out the first set, Jon shared one more studio story, a legend about Roy Thomas Baker. The exact quote is too good for me to mangle, but I guess it was sort of an acknowledgement of his vocal limitations that evening. I don't know -- he sounded pretty good to me.

Anyway, maybe his doubts about his voice moved him to encourage us to contribute what we could to the final two songs: a couple of Beach Boys classics, sort of a counterweight to the earlier Beatles barrage. We did what we could, though neither was the best rendition I've ever heard at Largo. I'm happy to report, though, that Jon was all there on both songs.

Jon then encouraged us to stick around for another show in the Little Room -- according to locals, for the first time this year. As if the night weren't already awesome enough?!

To be fair, Jon kept us waiting for a little while, supposedly as part of his plan to make sure we were as drunk as he was by the time the second set started. When he finally arrived, Jon greeted us with his KCRW voice, a joke that would extend through the rest of the show.

I'm hopeless when it comes to jazzy instrumentals, so I'll merely relay Jon opened with two such numbers, the second of which sounded a little more modern. (Again, I know not of what I speak.) "Excuse to Cry," the third tune, was the first one I recognized, performed on guitar.

Jon opened the floor to requests, and they turned out to be more above the board -- at first. "Meaningless" was fun and faithful, the Chicago tune was slightly tongue-in-cheek, and I welcome "September Gurls" anytime, anywhere, anyhow. Thanks to the genius who pulled off what I've long wanted to do.

Then we hit a road bump. A guy near the front of the room loudly requested "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway," which took Jon down a path that covered Genesis, prog rock in general, and awful Procol Harum lyrics. That's all I can really say, except that Jon's comments on "Homburg" were both spot on and hilarious.

The final song of the night was refreshing and classic, and really, you can never go wrong with Cole Porter. Jon turned in a full-body performance for "Anything Goes," stamping his feet and rocking on the piano bench as he led the song through several tempoes and transitions.

It's official: I've missed Largo something awful. But if all goes according to plan, it won't be another eight months before I'm back.

Setlist
--She's Funny That Way
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--She's at It Again
--Punch-Drunk Melody/Here We Go
--Trouble
--Love of My Life So Far
--Surrender
--Same Mistakes
--Dance Hall Days/Dancing Days/Happy Birthday/Positively 4th Street
--This Will Be Our Year/Ruby Tuesday/Hungry Like the Wolf/Across the Universe
--Rainbow Connection/Shipbuilding/Knock Yourself Out
--I've Just Seen a Face/Rocky Raccoon/There Is a Light That Never Goes Out/Moonage Daydream
--Pale Blue Eyes/The Boys Are Back in Town
--Into the Atlantic
--You Don't Know What Love Is
--Baby Elephant Walk
--More Than This
--She Said, She Said
--Something
--You Can't Do That

encore
--I Just Wasn't Made for These Times
--God Only Knows

Little Room
--jazzy interlude #1
--jazzy interlude #2
--Excuse to Cry
--Meaningless
--Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?
--September Gurls
--Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
--Shine on Brightly
--Homburg
--Anything Goes

See also:
» can't stand it
» a really good time
» i can come to my senses
» like a dream in the night
» there was no way of knowing
» don't give yourself away

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

if I had a mountain

A fairly early morning followed the Berkeley shows as we set out for Reno, our second stop on this Wilco run. We didn't make the best time, thanks to a detour through wine country that was absolutely worth the diversion. I wouldn't have changed a thing, on either side of the border.

Wilco, Grand Sierra Theatre, September 23, 2012: When I first told my cousin I was headed to this show, she asked if Wilco was playing a casino. I read between the lines -- we all know who plays casinos, right? Never mind that Wilco already graced at least one gambling den a few years back, and it turned out to be a totally unique gig on several counts. Also, we all know the music industry has changed over the last couple of decades. Today's casino gig isn't necessarily your parents' casino gig.

Wilco, Grand Sierra Theatre, 09-23-12

Of course, I can crow about it now because the Reno gig was a hoot overall, but I shared my cousin's apprehension at first. My concerns had more to do with the venue. Early photos revealed a setup more suited to, say, Steve and Eydie than to the bands I see in little clubs. Also, who goes to shows in Reno?

Even after we entered the room, questions lingered. Most of the dozen-odd people in front of us in line opted to grab a booth so that the elongated GA floor looked ever more expansive as a handful of us staked out our spots. The room eventually filled up, but to add to the strange sensation, Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkin's equipment was set unnervingly close to the edge of the stage. I think maybe two inches separated us from Tommy's kit. Thankfully, Wilco's gear sat several yards away, though not far enough to discourage interlopers under the influence (more on that later).

Jonathan Richman, Grand Sierra Theatre, 09-23-12

I'm not sure if I've gone over this before, so forgive me if I'm repeating myself (and playing the pedant card too hard), but Wilco tends to roll out a certain set whenever the band visits a new town. For these first visits, they usually favor the newest album, add in tracks from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, slot in the nightly staples (these days, "Impossible Germany"; on the West Coast, often "California Stars"), then mix it up with album cuts and whatever else strikes their fancy.

This formula held in Reno, with a bunch of YHF tunes, but surprisingly, Wilco opted for a couple of AM tracks as well: the underrated "Should've Been in Love" (a popular request on Wilcoworld, apparently) and the no-brainer "Casino Queen." The other unexpected flavor to the setlist was the reliance on Wilco's artsier tunes. As it was Sunday, the set opened with "One Sunday Morning," followed by "Poor Places" and "Art of Almost." In the second encore, we'd get "Via Chicago," which sent the fanboys directly to my left into paroxysm of joy (even if they or one of their friends claimed ignorance on "California Stars").

You could argue that loud/soft/chaos/control mix is the foundation of Wilco's works, but trust me, I've heard a lot more straightforward sets in bigger towns. Kudos to the band for pulling it off in a tertiary market!

Jeff had a couple of amusing exchanges with the audience. For one, he conducted an informal poll asking who'd attended Wilco's earlier appearance in Reno, in support of Sheryl Crow. By Jeff's rough count, about seven people could claim the distinction. On a related note, Jeff asked how many people were actually from Reno. The response was bigger, but not particularly overwhelming. Doing their part, the audience gave back with tons of enthusiasm and a chant of "eight more songs," a bizarrely specific number. I can't report if the math worked out, but I think they were in the same ballpark as the printed setlist. It all added up to a loose, rocking show -- the kind I dream of as I'm covering miles upon miles between venues.

By the end of the evening, Jeff said something to the affect that Nevadans are the best. As a Californian, I was OK with that. I already know where to find the greatest audience of all. Hell, I tip my hat to Reno too.

Two notes before I conclude this post: Toward the end of Jonathan Richman's set, a woman barged in next to us, taking advantage of the far too relaxed fellow who didn't guard his spot at the front of the stage. She stayed for the rest of Wilco's set, during which she occasionally interjected, "We love you, Jeff Tweedy!" It became pretty evident that she was tweaked out, but I was still surprised when she jumped onstage between the main set and the encore to try to grab the set list. The security crew was somewhat slow on the uptake, though they managed to bring her back to the pit. In the process, I lost a bet.

Finally, that left turn we took toward wine country led us to the Bouchon Bakery. If only every Sunday morning looked like this.

Bouchon breakfast See also:
» the lovely way the sunshine bends
» where the blacktop cracks

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

the lovely way the sunshine bends

The wait between shows wasn't supposed to be this long, but stuff happens. I mean, there was one gig in Portland back in July, but it didn't feel like blog material. Anyway, I can promise at least a few updates coming up, starting with -- for better or worse -- familiar names.

Wilco, Greek Theatre, September 21-22, 2012: As stated ad nauseum in this blog, there's only one reason I'll go to the Greek Theatre these days, but that didn't mean I necessarily looked forward to these shows. Fortunately, I'm happy to say I was completely wrong, as there's so much more to a concert than stage height and proximity to my apartment. In short, Wilco put on a great two-night stand, adding up to fantastic weekend all around.

Let's hit the tangibles first. As this was Wilco's only multishow appearance in any city on this touring run, the Berkeley audience got a varied setlist that included tracks heard less often, including "Laminated Cat," "Wishful Thinking," and "Company in My Back," to name a few. The track list alone would've made this set of gigs a highlight in any touring year, but there was so much more.

Early in the first night, "Sunken Treasure" jumped out at me. Of course, it's a staple of Wilco's set, but longtime observers may have noticed the band's ongoing tinkering with one of its more seminal tracks. I honestly think you could write a whole 33 1/3 book on this song alone. A number of years ago, I recall a loping, jazzy treatment; you could practically hear the song breathe as it progressed. This time, the band seemed to take the opposite tack, with a tauter, more menacing approach that reminded me strongly of the desperation I heard when I first listened to the song.

I've heard most Wilco songs more than any human being needs to, so I can't claim ignorance or lack of exposure to the band's catalog. For whatever reason, however, two more titles hit me in a way that are so obvious I shouldn't bother typing out my thoughts -- but I will!

The first was "Say You Miss Me," which I've always loved, but my ears finally registered the Rolling Stones influence. Maybe it was the electric guitar? Anyway, it drove home the wistfulness, as if I needed another reason to totally dig that song.

It happened once more toward the end of the second night with "Kicking Television." Yeah, the tune's roots hide in plain view, but dammit, even the desiccated husk of Iggy and Co. would have to smile at this volcanic rendition. You could feel that lowdown guitar/drum/bass rumble all the way to your core.

The other highlights of the show are a little harder to quantify; all I can really say is that the two-night span felt like a big celebration. Jeff was in a great mood, bringing his guitar tech out for a joke referencing his son Spencer's appearance at the Greek a few years back, cracking the obligatory marijuana jokes, and unbuttoning Josh's shirt when the tech at first resisted the move for his customary cameo on "Hoodoo Voodoo."

However, a better indication of the mutual appreciation flowing between the audience and the band had to be the sheer number of singalongs. Not surprising, we kicked in with "Shot in the Arm" and "Hummingbird," but even Jeff noted our stronger than usual contributions on the latter. I don't think any of us could've predicted that Jeff would hand over the entire first verse of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" to the fans -- who came through beautifully, if I say so myself. You might've foreseen the collective effort on "Misunderstood," but that doesn't take away from the simple fact that probably thousands of fans were united in roaring out verse after verse of their angst in rock form.

Jeff registered a couple of sassy comments about the uneven ticket sales over the two nights. Though the second night felt full enough, the first evening drew a sparser crowd. The head count felt respectable to me, especially considering the faithful had already turned out for the band's extended visit earlier this year. But in case you had any suspicions Jeff was joshing us, he gushed over the Bay Area fans, calling us the best audience anywhere and crediting us with inventing the rock crowd. He even noted our knowledge of "deep album cuts," a sure sign of dedication. It wasn't the first time he's shared these sentiments, but it never gets old to these local ears.

Cibo Matto opened for Wilco the first night, and Jonathan Richman took the mantle the second night. On both nights, the respective opener's fans made themselves known. Cibo Matto probably held the edge with Wilco fans, as every single Wilco band member joined Cibo Matto during their set, including Jeff lending vocals to "Sugar Water." Jonathan Richman reprised his opener role with Wilco, as he did in 2001. By the end of the evening, Jeff cited Jonathan as one of the dozen most important American musicians of all time, alongside the likes of Little Richard and Woody Guthrie (he didn't flesh out all 12).

Music aside, this tour also became an excuse to visit a few of California's finer bakeries, and we kicked off the carbo loading with one of the best in the country: Tartine. You don't need to know my complete lack of restraint at my first sighting ever of the fable Tartine croissants (the hazards of being a late, lazy riser who lives on the other side of town). All you need to know is that two croissants -- and the banana cream pie, I suppose -- are but a fraction of the final order.

Tartine croissants

See also:
» can't find the time to write my mind
» i've run out of metaphors
» tired of being exposed to the cold

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

we both pretend we don't know why

I'm not going to lie -- the concert schedule is pretty light for a couple of months unless I go out of my way to hit a gig that holds more than a passing interest (it could happen). But hey, who wants to spend the summer reading other people's concert stories? For now, here's what happened when Justin Townes Earle came to town.

Justin Townes Earle, Great American Music Hall, 06-29-12Justin Townes Earle, Great American Music Hall, June 29, 2012: Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink. How do you get turned on to music these days? Honestly, I haven't listened to radio regularly for at least 10 years, and the din from streaming sites, music blogs, free downloads, torrents, and so on has rendered me deaf to promotional opportunities. Typically, friends are better resources, but not if they're simply spouting trends willy-nilly or parroting the latest names to drop. I need considered suggestions from pals who've taken into account what they know of my personal preferences -- is that too much to ask?

Ultimately, live music has to be the hook, and in that regard, I still depend on two forms of media: podcasts and TV performances. Occasionally, they intersect with certain artists, which is how Justin Townes Earle's music finally landed on my ears. It's about time too.

Kidney NowObviously, Justin Townes Earle has been around for a while, touring with some of my favorite artists and playing Hardly Strictly Bluegrass more than once. I suspect I've never tuned into him partly because I never really sparked to his father (apart from his excellent work with Kidney Now), but in retrospect, it was almost inevitable, considering the Chicago connection, as well as that relatively underproduced singer-songwriter vibe I tend to prefer these days.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this show, but I was pleased to see Justin open with a solo set, namechecking both his grandfather (in the intro) and John Henry (in the song). Over the course of the evening, Justin would take two more solo turns: once in the middle of the evening and again right before the encore, though his band provided strong backing too. The rhythm section was as steady as can be, while the maestro on guitar elevated several already sterling compositions.

Justin Townes Earle, Great American Music Hall, 06-29-12

Throughout the evening, Justin readily mentioned and paid tribute to his influences, from Woody Guthrie to Lightning Hopkins to his mom and his dad. He made no secret of his strained history with his father, but in an evening filled with origin tales and wry explications, he had only the kindest words for his mother. In fact, he saved his biggest compliment of the night for her when he prefaced a cover song by explaining he first heard it at his mother's table. The tune: The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait."

I was easily in over my head at this gig, knowing mostly the new songs, but the voices around me told me there was a reason the show had sold out. They sang along to his older tunes and yelled out loving encouragement during the quieter moments -- just kidding, that was drunken heckling! It wasn't the most respectful audience I've seen at the Great American, but judging by Justin's tales, he was used to much rowdier in his career. I'd like to think we must've sounded pretty sweet to his ears.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

she couldn't dance but she wanted to

Back at home and if I'm going to get over this post-concert depression, the best way to do it is with another show. This time, it's the heavenly Fruit Bats at the Independent.

Fruit Bats, the Independent, 04-26-12Fruit Bats, the Independent, April 26, 2012: This is how incredibly out of it I am when it comes to the Fruit Bats. I was vaguely aware of Eric Johnson's stint with the Shins, but I had no idea the Decemberists recently covered "When U Love Somebody," though that totally explains why the entire crowd got into the song, including the guy who didn't appear to speak another word of English over the course of the night. If the price of admission were a pop quiz on the band, I never would've been allowed entrance, barring acceptance of a wobbly rendition of "Rainbow Sign."

Fruit Bats have been vastly underrepresented in this blog and, well, in my life, considering how much I love Mouthfuls and the first gig I saw of theirs at Bottom of the Hill approximately 100 years ago (or 2003 -- photo evidence presented below!) populated mainly by the musicians' friends, who requested both "Buffalo and Deer" and one of the best covers of "Purple Rain" I've ever heard. Since then, I've caught them only one other time, probably because they had a habit of playing here on the weekends I was out of town, in all likelihood pursuing my other musical interests. For obvious reasons, I'm not including the Eric Johnson sighting from a couple of years ago at a Wilco aftershow in Portland entirely peopled by indie rockers and food cart vendors. In short, I needed to hit this gig!

Fruit Bats, Bottom of the Hill, 11-11-03

I don't think any dedicated music fan can or cares to distill their favorite songs to one element or characteristic, but if I had to name a common feature among my most beloved bands/performers, it has to be the voice. Granted, my idea of a great voice probably wouldn't pass muster on any of the TV competition shows, and I doubt I can come up with a consistent definition for what constitutes golden vocals. Also, it never hurts if those dulcet tones are matched to lilting melodies, jangly guitars, a driving rhythm, and maybe airy piano. Ultimately, as a nonmusician, I like to sing along, so the voice is my hook.

Eric Johnson, as leader of the Fruit Bats, possesses my Platonic ideal of a pop voice -- like, if it were up to me, his croon would've gone out on Voyager to represent the apex of our culture to alien species (probably). I've compared him to Neil Finn in the past, but if Neil brings to mind Paul McCartney, Eric's pipes take me back a decade. I can hear him helming classic Buddy Holly tracks, though I'm pretty sure he can handle almost anything you throw his way.

Fruit Bats, the Independent, 04-26-12I've read enough YouTube and AV Club comments to know I'm not alone in this regard, and maybe the band got the memo too because the show opened with Eric on his own on electric guitar. I can't tell you what the song was because (1) I don't take notes during shows (except when that one fellow in Los Angeles is headlining), and (2) I don't own the new record. In fact, I've been pretty slack about keeping up with the Fruit Bats for the last few records, but that's about to change now that I've seen the error of my ways.

I still think of Fruit Bats as a folk group, probably due to the memories of that first, bare-bones show, despite the ample evidence of their full, lush arrangements. More generally, Fruit Bats often get lumped into the befuddling Americana genre; sure, they're known to play a banjo, but the production work on their early records wouldn't necessarily lead you down that path. I don't think the new songs are going to put much distance between them and this current pigeonhole (namechecking Michael Landon in your onstage banter doesn't help either), but on this outing, you couldn't ignore their rocking qualities. I'm intrinsically drawn to the bubbling grace notes, but the bluesy troughs and aggro excursions made a strong impression. Don't worry, though; on one track, the band crafted three-part harmonies right in front of our eyes -- not necessarily a rarity, but it's still a sight to behold and, er, be-hear. I'm pretty sure that song was, in fact, "Rainbow Sign."

Sub Pop label mate and local legend Kelley Stoltz was second on the bill. He's another guy whose gigs have a way of eluding me, though I saw him open for British Sea Power in 2005, and there's always the Echo and the Bunnymen tribute show with Spiral Stairs that originated in San Francisco long ago.

Anyway, back to Kelley: I always do a double take whenever his songs come up on shuffle -- the depth and richness of his tracks never fail to stand out from the crowd. As a support act, Kelley's portion was limited to 45 minutes, so he didn't get to some requests, notably "Wave Goodbye," which I would've loved to hear too.

The centerpiece of his show were the two tracks from his single, "Caroline" and "Marcy." As Kelley explained it, "Caroline" was sort of a tribute to all songs sharing that name, in whatever form, and it bore the signs of that lineage. Its retro feel was evident, but somehow, he makes it sound modern too. We also got a new track Kelley and the band had worked up just a couple of days before, a murky, psychedelic number, filling out a night of classic songwriting, catchy melodies, and artful arrangements.

I probably say this all the time, but I mean it: Gentlemen, please play again and let me correct the error of my ways.

See also:
» waiting for the rainbow sign
» from the books you don't read anyway

Saturday, April 28, 2012

people say i'm crazy doing what i'm doing

Look, I don't know how long we'll keep doing this either, but while we have the excuse, we'll continue to get together for our little show with Jeff Tweedy. This year, we had a change in venue, moving out to the Chicago suburbs at Casa K&A. Inevitably, roll call yielded new names too. Otherwise, you know where to find us: Turn left at Greenland Find the dinner table buckling under the weight of the potluck, then head downstairs.

Chicago 2012Jeff Tweedy, Casa K&A, April 21, 2012: I know I say this each time, and you don't have to believe me, but this show is different every year. For one thing, the poster order didn't go in, so we held a massive craft session in which we created our own artistic commemorations of the evening. For another, I attempted opera cake cupcakes this year, and I'm happy to report I didn't take a single crumb home with me.

On a more musically related, er, note, the setlist is easily the most malleable element of any of these gatherings, and I don't mean it in the way Wilco swaps out blocs of tracks from night to night on a tour. As Jeff noted at the Largo talk with Jeff Garlin back in January, we have a habit of requesting songs he can't play. This is not at all a malicious move or our own version of Punked; for better or for worse, we veterans have a habit of digging deep into album tracks, covers, and rarities. However, we're also prepared to amend our picks if they turn out to be unfeasible.

Chicago 2012I'm going to say it: The show started out a little rough, maybe because of the downbeat song selection, the unpredictable chemistry of the new cast in the smaller space, Jeff not remembering his own lyrics, that broken string on his guitar. But by the end of the evening, some three hours later, it had managed to come together with the kind of good feeling that reminds us why we do it every chance we get.

You can't blame me for harking back to those otherwise unheard gems, even if the rest of the setlist would light up any regular show. Come on -- "Radio King," "More Like the Moon," an acoustic "Impossible Germany," and our harmonies of "ELT" would comprise one of the greatest gigs ever on any other night. A couple of other selections -- "On and On and On" and "What Light" -- surprised me too for their power when belted out in a cozy room with no other amplification.

"You Are Not Alone" (Rob's pick) continues to mesmerize, maybe due to its relatively infrequent airings, but tonight, we also got a couple of Mavis-related yarns, including more confirmation of Jeff's work on her next record. We got some funny studio scoops, but more amazing was the demo he played featuring Spencer on drums and a friend on vocals. I can't wait to hear the final product.

For our purposes, they were all lovely, but it was hard to overlook known Beatles freak Jeff W.'s request for "Watching the Wheels," which was achingly wonderful in the solo acoustic treatment, especially matched to Jeff's trademark scratchy vocals. I tip my hat to Jeff for requesting it. I hope it doesn't sound too self-serving to highlight my pick for "I'm Beginning to See the Light," which occupies a spot on my list of songs Jeff can do at Largo and have, say, certain L.A. musical talents join in.

I'd also like to commend Paul for choosing "Give Back to the Key to My Heart." I can't believe it's taken this long for the suggestion to come up, but is it any surprise that the valet surfaced with the brilliant idea? I'm skipping over a ton of great tunes, but there's no way I can cover every single one in this blog (nor would you want me to).

Chicago 2012

The finale came about with some engineering from our audience and Jeff, who decided on the sequence of the last two songs. The penultimate track was a duet with our good friend Martin Rivas for Bill Withers' "Use Me," which Jeff learned on the spot. The last last track was our traditional closer of "Candyfloss," with as much of a dance party as we could manage as we stood elbow to elbow. I guess we're just old-fashioned that way.

The full history
» i wish that i knew what I know now
» the message
» all the ladies and gentlemen
» that year
» springtime comes
» turn our prayers to outrageous dares
» every day is dreamlike
» it's been a while

Thursday, March 29, 2012

the only dancer i believe in

As promised (?), I'm sticking to a more normal and perhaps even consistent concert schedule these days with my second show in a row -- not only in town, but also at the Fillmore and with an out-of-town visitor, no less. This time, it was the triple bill of, er, Of Montreal, Deerhoof, and Kishi Bashi.

Of Montreal, the Fillmore, March 22, 2012: I really shouldn't wait a week to write these things, but even if I had managed to commit my immediate reactions to this blog, it wouldn't have been the most enlightening account. Truth be told, I haven't been following Of Montreal very closely since their association with that dude in Los Angeles has cooled down. But the glimpses I've seen of the band were intriguing, and combined with the appealing openers, the legendary venue, and a willing houseguest, I figured I might as well go to the show.

My Of Montreal ignorance didn't prevent me from enjoying the spectacle of the show. The Fillmore is nowhere as big as the Fox, where I last saw the band, but they managed to fit everyone and their instruments, while still allowing room for the extracurricular aspects of their act. It also made me wonder how they squeezed in at the Slim's show the night before!

Of Montreal, The Fillmore, 03-22-12

This tour's accessories included several screens set in front of each band member's station, and a couple more at the back of the stage for video projections. Later, the band's roster of dancers/actors joined them for their choreographed moves and interactions. Early in the show, they released balloon-filled bags to the audience, though only after striking their poses as human billboards at the front of the stage for a good stretch. As the show progressed, these auxiliary players changed costumes, and toward the end of the evening, they enacted a small drama between two pig-faced villains and a pansexual being. (Man, I'm good at sucking the fun out of a concert.) Oh, they crowdsurfed too.

Of Montreal, The Fillmore, 03-22-12

As for the music, I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before that you can easily rattle off a list of the band's influences -- but it doesn't matter when they manage to make it their own to such a degree. In a way, they remind me a lot more of the British bands I've liked rather than their American counterparts; then again, maybe I've been listening to the wrong U.S. musicians. In any case, I loved the nod to New Order, as Kevin Barnes dropped a couple of lines from "Temptation" into a song.

I may have been too overwhelmed by the party atmosphere last time to notice the darker and more introspective aspect of their music, but I couldn't miss them tonight. There were a couple of slow burners, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was "No Conclusion," marked by the unforgettable opening line "Tonight I feel like I should just destroy myself." Throughout much of the evening, I was trying to pinpoint exactly how Kevin Barnes and crew cast its spell on their young acolytes. Of course, it's easy to fall for the fun times, but you also have to dig into their lyrics, where Kevin expresses in no plain English many of same feelings, with the same passion as his listeners. From our vantage upstairs at the Fillmore, the fans ate it up.

Of Montreal, The Fillmore, 03-22-12

Still, the introspection couldn't overshadow the buoyant encore in which they strung together a bunch of their most upbeat songs (I recognized "Gallery Piece"!). It's one of the oldest rules in show biz: Leave 'em wanting more. Of Montreal certainly did.

I first saw Deerhoof at the Sonic Youth-curated version of All Tomorrow's Parties at UCLA in 2002. Maybe I'll admit to more of my shortsightedness at this festival in future posts, but I can confess Deerhoof didn't make a good impression on me at that show. Since then, Deerhoof has been all over the place, and they've even nurtured a relationship with that band I love.

Deerhoof, The Fillmore, 03-22-12

Unbeknownst to me, they've been rocking it out too! The guy seated behind us compared Greg Saunier to a Muppet, based on his propulsive drumming moves. I fully endorse that comment, but their guitarwork was nothing to scoff at either. I've been a fool to miss them for all this time, especially considering their local base, and I won't make that mistake again. Also, their shout-outs to both the Fillmore and to Of Montreal were adorable.

The very first performer of the evening was Kishi Bashi, another local talent who also happened to show up again in Of Montreal. At first, he gave off a strong Andrew Bird vibe, with his use of the violin and loopers, as well as an operatic scope to his songs. But when he started beatboxing, you knew that you should've checked your expectations earlier.

See also:
» really quite out of sight
» first-time high
» everybody's gotta learn sometimes
» still carries a torch

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

let's not fool ourselves

I don't want to make any promises, but my concert schedule may look more normal this year -- that is, I'll go to shows in town, and there could be some variety in the acts. Let's not get carried away, though; I'm not about to line up for the latest blogosphere sensations, and a certain amount of overlap is to be expected, which kind of explains how I made my way to see the Punch Brothers at the Fillmore.

Punch Brothers, the Fillmore, March 8, 2012: As has been well documented in this blog, I clear my calendar for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass every year, but my preferences tend to tip more hardly than strictly. Not that it has to be one or the other, but the Punch Brothers embodied this combination more than almost any other group I've seen recently.

Punch Brothers, Fillmore, 03-08-12

This is hardly a new revelation, as I've seen the Punch Brothers and Chris Thile in several formations, including with Nickel Creek and as a solo artist, not to mention Gabe Wicher's visits to Largo. I honestly can't keep track of how many appearances and combinations I've caught at this point, though if I had to pick one notable engagement, it'd be the Little Room show from a few years ago. At each and every date, the artists ably showed off their appreciation and mastery of multiple genres and styles, a tradition that extended to the Fillmore.

Punch Brothers, Fillmore, 03-08-12I don't know the Punch Brothers' catalog well enough to report on actual song titles or the setlist, but even a casual listener could hear the difference between covers, the group's more traditional titles, and their version of pop music. Sure, they could kick out the likes of "Rye Whiskey," but they had no problem coaxing out the charming "Patchwork Girlfriend."

This breadth, combined with their snazzy threads and crowd-pleasing banter, called to mind an old-fashioned variety show. I couldn't help but think of similar setups I'd seen at Largo, except with fewer guests popping in. Also akin to those dates, they followed a familiar pattern of allowing each musician a solo turn.

Don't be mistaken, though -- the Punch Brothers have a frontman, and Chris Thile stepped up to that role with banter, responses to crowd interjections, and physical and vocal cues to his bandmates, as well as the majority of lead vocal duties. At the top of the evening, Chris introduced the opener Aoife O'Donovan with a heap of compliments, and the two took over for a song they'd co-written for the Goat Rodeo Session.

Punch Brothers, Fillmore, 03-08-12

I love seeing bands make their Fillmore debut; they're, well, adorable as they take in the venue's history and bask in the glow of playing in such a legendary club. The Punch Brothers were no different, as they paid their respects to the building's incomparable track record.

Even better, the crowd did its part, and more than one band member remarked on the crowd's enthusiasm. Apparently, we'd done a good job of buying tickets, as evidenced by the requisite Fillmore poster handed out at the end of the evening. But even before that proof was offered, you could hear it for yourself, as we spontaneously clapped along to various tunes and egged on the group. This was the aspect of the Punch Brothers' performance I may have missed in earlier shows: that boisterous, unadulterated appreciation I hadn't quite picked up at Largo or Hardly Strictly. This is the reason you go to gigs.

But in case you need more justification to see the Punch Brothers live, you may be interested in the centerpiece (arguably) and virtuoso peak of the gig: the Radiohead/Gillian Welch one-two punch. I'm not a Radiohead fan, but the Punch Brothers are, as they've made clear. Additionally, Gillian Welch tunes are a mainstay of the band's sets.

Anyway, around the last third of the show, I noticed an abstract-sounding instrumental that I figured had to be a cover. They then segued into a song I know much better: "Wayside/Back in Time," probably chosen for the line referencing San Francisco. My hunch was confirmed by Noam Pikelny in his follow-up remarks, where he also recommended we check out the original artists. *wink*

See also:
» there's so much here to see
» don't get around much anymore
» broadminded

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

if i can't change your mind

Last month, I managed to miss all of SF Sketchfest, due in large part to conflicting engagements. I would've felt doubly bummed if I let Noise Pop -- my other favorite local festival -- pass by. I almost did, actually, but a friend's diligence saved the day. The only U.S. date for Bob Mould's tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Copper Blue didn't hurt either.

Bob Mould, Bottom of the Hill, February 24, 2012: Last fall, I hit a milestone birthday (120, for those playing along at home), which may have made me more susceptible to these zero-year memories. For example, a few weeks earlier, a friend and I remarked that we first met 10 years ago in front of the El Rey, and that same number is approaching with a different group of pals. Similarly, Noise Pop hit its 20-year mark with this round of gigs, as does Copper Blue itself.

The truth is all these reunions and commemorations make me feel old -- er, older. Though I've enjoyed many of them immensely, I've mostly avoided them for the last few years. This is no slight on the music, the artists, or the audience. It's just a tic I've noticed in myself, but on occasion, that reflex can be turned off, such as when one of my musical heroes plays one of my favorite records of all time in its entirety.

Bob Mould, Bottom of the Hill, 02-24-12It's no exaggeration to say there was a good, long stretch when I listened to Copper Blue at least once a week or maybe even once a day. I still cue it up on a regular basis. It occupies an outsize portion of my gray matter, and I know exactly where certain musical cues occur (well, as much as a nonmusical person can know), how the edits come down, when the backing vocals slip in. I never tire of the instant segue from "A Good Idea" to "Changes" or the expert plunge into "Helpless." It might not be hyperbole to say Copper Blue was my Pet Sounds.

On a more analytical level, Copper Blue was the sound of Bob giving full rein to his pop instincts and carrying us along with him, as well as the perfect melding of his Husker Du lineage and his post-breakup introspection. Good day? Put on Copper Blue! Bad day? Put on Copper Blue! And turn it up while you're at it.

I'd been a fan for a while, but Copper Blue's commercial and critical success meant you could hear Sugar on the radio and see Bob and/or the band on TV. I wasn't a grunge fan, but I'm thankful the movement helped revive Bob's musical standing and reminded many of us why we listened in the first place. All this time on, it was particularly satisfying to see Bob take his place as the Foo Fighters' special guest on Conan last year.

But back to Bottom of the Hill: Bob was once again accompanied by Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster. I've commented on Jon Wurster's ubiquity before, but I'm now convinced Avogadro's number was devised to calculate the sheer total of bands and musicians Jon Wurster will play with over the course of his career. The guy is everywhere! Or at least everywhere worth showing up.

With these two touring veterans behind him, even if they weren't the original members of the band, Bob and crew had no problem tearing through this beloved record. I didn't see Sugar on the Copper Blue tour (commence tear-strewn flashbacks of college transport woes), but I caught subsequent outings, and the overwhelming verdict among friends: Man, they're loud! This point came into play at Bottom of the Hill; the fact that they were offering free earplugs to everyone upon entering should've been a giveaway.

If I had to dredge up a fake complaint about this show, it might be that the finer, more subtle notes from the record, such as the harmonies and acoustic touches, were drowned out by the pure rock attack taking place in front of our eyes. I don't think anyone minded, though. This was a night of celebration; if you wanted your introspective acoustic show, you were in the wrong place. Granted, "If I Can't Change Your Mind," Bob's famously would-be country anthem, lost its folksy lilt, but "The Slim" -- always devastating in any performance -- stood out even more dramatically amid the party.

I'm not sure if I've heard "Fortune Teller" or "Slick" in a live setting before. The former might be the one song from the record I never warmed to, but "Slick" featured a fantastic low-groove bass that put you right back in the spirit. Then, of course, the effervescent, swoon-inducing "Man on the Moon" closed out the record and the first part of the show. Bob said few words to us over the course of the 10 tracks, but he didn't need to. We all knew why we were gathered.

It wasn't quite over. When Bob and the band returned, he explained they'd spent the last month and a half working on a new record that was almost done, then played a couple of tunes off that forthcoming release. They both sounded great, but the second selection, noted as "Descent" on the setlist, was right up Bob's alley, an effortless, catchy mix of a strong melody and killer chords. I can't wait.

Bob remarked they'd close with a "party song," and I racked my mind trying to guess what part of his notoriously downbeat catalog could possibly qualify. "Favorite Thing"? A double-time version of "See a Little Light"? Nope! It was Cheap Trick's "Downed," with a strong showing by Jason on vocals. For the record, I didn't know that tidbit myself, as my Cheap Trick knowledge is several notches shy of inadequate, but a quick search on Twitter answered the question.

Reunions and anniversaries appear to be a mainstay of the touring circuit these days, and odds are I'll eventually hit more of them in the future. I reserve the right to be a hypocrite, especially if it means I can bask in the pleasures of a well-treasured record such as Copper Blue.

See also:
» listen, there's music in the air