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.
Gravitas 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.
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.
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Knock Yourself Out
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--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
--Stop the World
with Blake Mills
--Things Have Gone to Pieces
--No Excuse to Cry
--She's At It Again
--Please Stay Away From Me
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