Wednesday, May 15, 2013

it takes one to know one

How often do you get to say you saw a bona fide genius at work? Don't take my word for it -- the MacArthur Foundation said so. That's hardly the reason I picked up tickets for the Chris Thile/Michael Daves show at the Great American Music Hall, but it was a nice point on an evening I was unlikely to see again.

Thile & Daves, Great American Music Hall, 05-09-13Chris Thile and Michael Daves, Great American Music Hall, May 9, 2013: I may have said this before, but this will likely be the least informative blog post/gig review you'll ever read -- right up there with my jazz notes. Quite simply, I know little about roots music, and I'm not about to dig into heavy research on its long, storied history. For much of my life, I lumped it in haphazardly with country music -- which to my mainstream ears, meant the big Nashville hits. I'm glad to have been proven wrong, but I'll leave the substantive writing to the experts. However, I'll report as best I can about the Chris Thile/Michael Daves collaboration and their first appearance together on the West Coast.

I went into this show as a casual fan -- albeit one who gets there early for a good spot at the front of the venue. But ask me about the discography and I got nothing. Well, I clicked around on YouTube when the date was first announced and was captivated by the duo's rendition of "Ookpik Waltz." That was enough for me.

My first impression: This may have been the barest stage I've ever seen, adorned with an one guitar and one guitar stand. There was also a single old-fashioned studio-style microphone. I've seen a similar setup at Largo (of course), but the formal name of the mic escapes me, though I'm sure I've heard it before. Please feel free to inform me if you know.

Chris, of course, took up his trademark mandolin, while Michael handled acoustic guitar. On the whole, they shared vocals equally, though I wasn't tallying verses sung. I've heard Chris sing many times before, which may be why I wasn't particularly mindful of his lyrical contributions. I paid more attention to Michael's segments, perhaps because of the novelty. Their voices worked together very well, but Michael had more of the old-fashioned, high lonesome twang. He struck me as more of the traditionalist backbone of the duo, but again, I barely have a leg to stand on in this genre.

Thile & Daves, Great American Music Hall, 05-09-13

Honestly, they were collaborators engaged in a give and take on every song. Clearly, they had impressive chops and knew how to usher along the proceedings with a vintage variety-show-style patter, but the music lived and breathed in their performance.

If you've seen Chris before, whether with the Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek, or solo, you know the frenzy he can whip up with the mandolin; he didn't slow down for this show. Michael met him along the way, and amid these traditional tunes, they reserved a segment for by-the-seat-of-your-pants improvisations. They even messed up once or twice! In fact, their body language revealed their deep engagement and investment in the performance, as they leaned heavily into their instruments, leaped off the ground from time to time, and even tried to get the audience to join in with a little tiptoe move.

Thile & Daves, Great American Music Hall, 05-09-13

Based on context clues, they hit most of the songs of their record. I say that because I don't own the record, but cross-referencing the album listing on Amazon and my memory of the intros, I can almost guarantee they hit the likes of "Cry, Cry Darling," "My Little Girl in Tennessee," and the aforementioned "Ookpik Waltz."

Perhaps more interesting, they reserved two segments of the show for requests from the audience. As soon as they opened up the floor to suggestions, a hail of voices hit them, and I'm still not sure how they picked out certain songs. Alas, this is where the lack of Alan Lomax in my life fails me because I didn't recognize a single tune they settled on. As I recall, they went with something called "Gold Rush," in honor of San Francisco. In the second half of the show, the final tally of titles ("Cherokee"? "Rawhide"?) struck me as more suited for a John Wayne film festival, but the warm welcome indicated they were highly anticipated tracks.

Chris and Michael returned for two encores, and I can't tell you the final song because I don't know it, but I figured out the penultimate track. As it happens, it's on the record too: "It Takes One to Know One." This became a big sing-along and could've been the perfect ending to the show. But I'm glad they stuck around for a little bit longer.

I apologize for the least substantive report you're likely to read about the Chris Thile/Michael Daves collaboration. If you take nothing else away from this write-up, know this: For fans of bluegrass, traditional music, or either of the artists, you won't come away disappointed. This isn't your parents' bluegrass, but it could be if they're so inclined.

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

Sunday, May 12, 2013

i was a new york doll

Boy, I've been seeing a lot of veterans lately, haven't I? But maybe I'm a veteran at this point too. If celebrating the occasion of Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday at the Fillmore puts me in the oldster category, so be it. I wasn't about to miss this show for anything.

Viva Hitchcock! A 60th Birthday Celebration for Robyn Hitchcock, the Fillmore, May 2, 2013: I confess my expectations of special guests and one-off events at concerts have grown unreasonably. I kind of want them to happen all the time, in no small part due to decade-plus of star-studded (?) spectacles in Southern California. I try to tamp down the anticipation, but it helps when all the cards on the table and the guest list is known, long before the show is scheduled. At that point, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy, as a cavalcade of guests feted Robyn Hitchcock, on the occasion of his 60th birthday (albeit six months on).

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthdayBefore a single musician played a note, Daniel Handler set the stage with an intro for the show. As it happened, he wouldn't be the only writer we'd see tonight; Neil Gaiman briefly joined him at the mic to introduce Amanda Palmer's portion of the show. Also, I could swear I saw Michael Chabon up in guest box, but then again, there were a lot of bespectacled, bookish-looking, middle-aged men all over the premises, so I could be wrong.

But back to Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket -- I believe he was the one who noted that most of the artists we'd see tonight were from the Pacific Northwest. By no coincidence, Colin Meloy was the main mover behind the scenes, so of course there'd be a regional bias. Lucky for us, that part of the world is pretty good for, well, almost everything these days. I'm just thankful they decided to do it at the Fillmore instead of another part of the world. Then again, why would you want to do this anywhere else, given the choice?

Among the first musicians to plug in were John Moen (Decemberists), Dave Depper, Andy Cabic (Vetiver) -- and Peter Buck (er, REM, though I think Daniel Handler reminded us that he's currently unemployed). As you might guess, Peter Buck got a lot of attention, but his contributions and presence were fairly subtle, if you can call gorgeous, rippling chords from those big, beautiful Gibsons and Rickenbackers "subtle." Overall, he stayed in the background, even as the crowd cheered on his every appearance.

Peter, Dave, and John would act as the house band for much of the night, backing each new ensemble for their portion of the show and their selections from Robyn's catalog -- in most cases, going into deep album cuts. Sean Nelson (ex-Harvey Danger) had joined this first assemblage, but he returned with his wife for the second segment of his show. Sean got in one of the better lines of the night, as he called out our likely common affliction: Anglophilia. Nailed it!

Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats was the first musician of the evening that I count among my favorites, and it was probably my familiarity with his music that it hit me: These artists were really personalizing Robyn's tunes.

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

This also brings up a confession: I'm not particularly up on Robyn's songs, despite having seen him in concert at least a couple of dozen times by now and even being a cognizant music fan when he hit the scene. Back then, his tunes weren't particularly pop-friendly to my teenage ears. I'm gonna say it -- he was probably a little too weird and not as photogenic as I preferred. Also, as I later discovered, he had that whole Dylan thing going on, which I still haven't really warmed to, truth be told. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen Robyn as a strictly solo act; more often than not, I've caught him as part of a Largo conclave, where it seems like everything but an artist's original tracks are on the menu.

Over to Eric: He covered "Trams of Old London," which I actually recognized! But just as identifiable was the jangly, acoustic spin he put on the tune. His typically rich vocals didn't hurt either. It's worth repeating: He has one of my favorite voices among musicians today. In Eric's hands, the songs sounded like Fruit Bats tunes.

The Young Fresh Fellows were on next, turning the volume all the way up to 11 and kicking up the tempo. You have to wonder if it's ever smart to name your act "Young," because these guys were not. Then again, what 20-something thinks they'll ever get old? Or that their band will persist long enough for the name to matter. And that aforementioned point about the Fruit Bats putting their stamp on Robyn's titles? It went double for the Young Fresh Fellows.

I'm a little more familiar with Rhett Miller's association with Robyn Hitchcock, so it came as little surprise that he'd share his fandom so giddily or that he'd go with "Cynthia Mask," which the Old 97s recorded a while back. But who knew he'd get "Balloon Man," perhaps Robyn's only certified U.S. (alternative?) radio hit? And yup, you guessed it -- Rhett put a little bit of Texas in the quintessentially British works.

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

This was the point when Neil Gaiman joined the performers, though he didn't say a word as Daniel Handler directed our attention to one of the upstairs boxes. A barbershop quintet, known as the Hitchcockblockers, had assembled for an a cappella rendition of "Uncorrected Personality Traits."

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

One of the Hitchcockblockers, Amanda Palmer, came downstairs for the next segment, accompanied by the birthday boy himself. In fact, this was the first time we'd seen him all night, but thankfully, it wouldn't be the last. I'm not entirely up on the Amanda Palmer saga, but I guess her fellow musicians haven't shut her out. Free speech? Solidarity? Your guess is as good as mine (that is: not good at all).

The instigator Colin Meloy came up next, after an awesome intro by Daniel Handler that I wish I could repeat verbatim because it was so good. All I can recall is that he mentioned Irish folk songs and Civil War reenactments. Like the rest of the crew, Colin took his allotted portion of three songs -- but dammit, if the titles alone couldn't have been ripped out of a Decemberists setlist. Colin sounded like Colin, but he may have shared the most direct connection to Robyn, with their taste in subject matter, wordplay, and folksiness. In case you had been wondering why Colin of all people had assembled this show, he put those question to rest with his performance.

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

I've skimmed over Daniel Handler's input because it's impossible to repeat his words without mangling them in my own illiteracy. But he created another highlight when he donned an accordion and sang "Gene Hackman" for us. Do I agree with the song's sentiment? No, but I highly approve of Mr. Lemony Snicket putting a sorrowful, Old World slant on it.

Finally, it was time for Robyn himself, partly solo, partly with the Venus 3, and partly in a mob, but first he shared the stage with Sean Nelson for a couple of tunes, including the always charming "I Feel Beautiful," even if I missed you-know-who's marxophone solo. According to Robyn, the Venus 3 was more like the Venus 4.5, but he may have been the only one counting. I'm way into this phase of Robyn's career and was happy to hear the tunes from the last couple of records. They brought back Colin for "Madonna of the Wasps," though he looked a little unsure of his role. I, for one, was happy to see him there.

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

The encore turned out to be a big party, as everyone returned for an a cappella "Furry Green Atom Bowl" and the musician's urging us to join in with handclaps. Many of the musicians themselves were working from lyrics sheets; I guess you can't really rehearse that kind of thing. The penultimate song, "Listen to the Higsons," moved Peter Buck and Colin Meloy to the drum sets, which is the kind of musical chairs I love.

Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday

The audience coaxed Robyn out for a final song, but it only worked once. Though we were still buzzing for more from the all-stars, Daniel Handler capped the evening as he began, with the final send-off. We managed to squeeze in one final round of "Happy Birthday" for the man himself. It was the least we could do.


See also:
» i'm happy, hope you're happy too
» she couldn't dance but she wanted to
» my starter won't start
» it took almost seven hours to sing
» i've written pages upon pages
» time is round and space is curved

Saturday, May 04, 2013

precious places, precious things

Apparently it was Secret Show Weekend in Los Angeles, with intimate gigs by Depeche Mode and the Rolling Stones taking place around town. As for me, it's never a secret where to find me in Los Angeles on the last Friday of the month. It must be time for Jon Brion at Largo at the Coronet, even if my usual seat has moved over a smidge.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, April 26, 2013: The most recent Largo makeover was immediately apparent at first glance. In contrast to last year's minimal setup, Jon and crew had brought back much of his equipment, albeit in a slightly different configuration. The video screens were back, as were their miles and miles of cables. In fact, he was almost entirely plugged again, with the return of the mellotron, electric guitars, and the vibes. The one missing element: a drum kit.

Jon entered stage right in a corduroy jacket perhaps more suited for a fox hunt than your typical concert, but then again, this is never a typical concert. He opened with a fairly straightforward piano exercise -- kind of like a fancy version of scales? We were squarely in soundtrack territory, which made sense that we soon landed in "Punch-Drunk Melody."

The harmonica joined the mix for "Someone Else's Problem Now," then we went back into film score land with the addition of celeste and Mellotron. I thought I heard hints of "Round Midnight" and/or "You Don't Know What Love Is," but neither lingered. Instead, I kind of felt like we should've been watching a chase sequence. When we emerged from this rabbit hole, he landed on an uptempo "Knock Yourself Out."

For the first time in more than a year, I got to hear Jon on electric guitar again, this time for "Why Do You Do This to Yourself." My notes say it had a pretty bridge and sounded more dramatic than usual, especially the echo effects. Perhaps it has to do with the return to the electric form? Or maybe different pedals are in play. Regardless, it felt like a grander performance for this typically bare-bones tune.

A Byrdsian tuning break morphed into kind of a grungy, heavy bass, which turned out to be appropriate because Jon went with his early-'90s composition "Same Thing." I've heard this song a million times and look forward to hearing it a million more, especially when Jon casually graces it with guitar licks that could fuel other musicians' entire careers.

Back to the piano he, er, went for "The Way It Went," then the AV club convened. Jon cued up a clip of a blues guitarist in a segment labeled "Ex. 18." After a few runs through the video, Jon exercised his backward looping to isolate and distort the segment he wanted -- no more than a few notes in all.

He did the same with the next video performer: Nina Simone, singing "Brown Baby." With her footage, he looped and reversed and slowed down and isolated. Jon added some Mellotron too. I have to admit, at this point, I wasn't sure how'd they all fit together, but I was confident it'd be worth the wait.

The answer emerged a little while later: "You Don't Know What Love Is," with chords from the video guitarist punctuating certain passages, while Nina's voice became a texture and a wall of sound. My notes say the blues meets Eno, but I wouldn't put it past Eno to have mined that field long ago, before it even occurred to us mere mortals.

Jon grabbed an acoustic guitar for the next portion of the show, first for "Meaningless," followed by "It Looks Like You." Paul noticed a "Pink Moon"-like intro; personally, I've never picked it out before, but that could be due to my surface familiarity with Nick Drake. Alternately, it could be Jon exercising his digits before settling into the song.

Per Jon's bidding, the requests commenced, and he answered with a comically exaggerated intro to "Ruin My Day" in response to a fan's comically exaggerated call. An inquiry for Spike Jones's greatest hits extended this silly, bubbly mood, and it lingered for quite a while. We got "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" on vibes (capping a couple of unexpected Smiths-heavy days for Paul and a Smiths-heavy month for me), "Incense and Peppermint" on piano, a pointedly specific direction for "This Will Be Our Year," and "Cat Scratch Fever" -- the last one perhaps in response to Jon's joke about gun control.

Percy GraingerGravitas returned with Randy Newman's "Sail Away" -- maybe the first time I've heard Jon perform it, though hardly the first time it's been requested. The serenity lingered with Jon's own "Stop the World," featuring the video contributions of Percy Grainger -- who could've been the progeny of Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, what with his red hair and his soundalike last name. As with the earlier clips of Nina Simone and the unnamed blues guitarist, Jon plucked what he needed from Grainger's piano skills, then molded it to his requirements. Jon then added a bass underpinning that warmed up and practically knitted a warm angora blanket from the tune.

Jon welcomed Blake Mills to the stage, and they took their places at what was to me a new add-on to the stage. Just to the right of the trusty old piano, Jon's crew had set up a boom mic and an everyday leather chair. If you've ever seen pictures of the Beatles recording at Abbey Road, you'll know what I mean. As an audience member seated directly in front of them, I can tell you it was a thrillingly intimate look. You could almost imagine you were right there in Ocean Way or Capitol or what have you with them.

Abbey Road

They pulled up another chair for Blake, the two men chose their guitars, and they went into a song by George Jones, in recognition of his passing that morning. I should note here that this goes against Jon's former practice of urging us to listen to the original recordings instead of listening to him and friends attempt inferior version of the classics -- but hey, he has the right to change his mind. And that's how we got "Things Have Gone to Pieces."

Jon and Blake played guitar roulette a bit before their next song. When Blake decided to switch out of the 12-string, Jon took it up instead. But partway through Jon's next track, "No Excuse to Cry," Blake slipped away again to grab a battered old metal resonator (says Paul). It turned out to be a great match, especially with his handy-dandy slide. The coda invoked Buddy Holly and mariachi bands to my ears, and much like its sister song "Why Do You Do This to Yourself," this tune felt grander and lusher than usual. Then again, it had double the guitars, and in this case, more proved to be better.

I believe the next song was Blake's own, apparently newly written. He even brought his own guitar and guitar chord! Blake gave Jon minimal direction and played a riff; to no one's surprise, Jon picked it up immediately. They were both off to the races on this bluesy, high-spirited tune.

My notes on their next selection, Jon's original "She's At It Again," don't say much, probably because I was too busy taking in what must've been a 20-minute (at minimum) stretch. With Blake's participation, the song quickly went in a heavy, Zeppelin-esque direction, but they pounded their way through Tattoo You-era Stones, White Stripes, Hendrix, and Sonic Youth -- and those are just the ones I can vaguely identify. (Reminder: I know nothing about Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, White Stripes, Jimi Hendrix, or Sonic Youth.) Let me put it this way: If you love guitar, this was the version of the tune you want to track down.

Jon returned for an encore and alighted on "Please Stay Away From Me" in the style of "Strawberry Fields" because of the presence of the Mellotron. And for good measure, he threw in a direct quote from the song too.

Per usual, Jon finished the show with heartfelt thanks to us for coming out to the show and being so nice. His words have never struck me as anything less than sincere, but on this loose, unpretentious night, the rawness and appreciation came through.

--Punch-Drunk Melody
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Knock Yourself Out
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--Same Thing
--The Way It Went
--You Don't Know What Love Is
--It Looks Like You
--Ruin My Day
--Spike Jones' greatest hits
--Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now
--Incense and Peppermint
--This Will Be Our Year
--Cat Scratch Fever
--Sail Away
--Stop the World

with Blake Mills
--Things Have Gone to Pieces
--No Excuse to Cry
--Blake's song
--She's At It Again

--Please Stay Away From Me

See also:
» september gurls
» the things you do to keep yourself intact