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.

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.

--Jake Gagnon

--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 *

--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