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.

--She's Funny That Way
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--She's at It Again
--Punch-Drunk Melody/Here We Go
--Love of My Life So Far
--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
--You Can't Do That

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

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


Chelseagirl said...

As always THANK YOU for noting all of this!!!

As for the Little Room openers, uh, was one of them 'Round Midnight, beginning with an improv on it?

pneyu said...

Cool, thanks for the tip! I'm hopeless on the wordless numbers.