Here's what we encountered on the drive down to Los Angeles for Jon Brion's July Largo date: a roadblock caused by a jack-knifed big rig on Pacheco Pass; a small brushfire off to the side of the I-5 John "Chuck" Erreca rest area; an awkward would-be pickup scene between a sorority girl and a superbuff guy at the Kettleman City In-N-Out Burger, complete with semi-deprecating admission of borderline "Facebook message creeping" (I'll let you guess who did the "creeping"); and a series of gorgeous lightning strikes illuminating the Grapevine passage. Jack Kerouac, I am you!
Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, July 26, 2013: The stage setup seemed to hit capacity again, as the drum kit rejoined Jon's video screens, amps, maybe three dozen guitars, several microphones (and accompanying stands), and much more. Sadly, the vibes went MIA, but like the Death Star, the big room appeared fully armed and operational once again.
Sporting a healthy beard and a shaggy head of hair, Flanny first said hi to Jon's nephew in attendance, then introduced the performer himself. Jon quickly removed his hat, then sat down at the piano, as is his wont. He worked his way across the keys toward the Mellotron, then to the little Casio keyboard in what my notes say was a grand, elegiac exercise before presenting a song that I'm pretty sure is an original composition, bearing many of Jon's more traditional singer/songwriter trademarks. The chorus revolved around "You get hurt and you learn," and the bridge lifted in one of those charged swells that has a way of moving you to breathe deep of every note without even realizing it.
I make no bones about not recognizing some incredibly famous tunes, especially if they're not from a very specific time frame, but every now and again, I can pick out a song from a few notes. It also helps if I listened to that song on repeat several times a day when I was growing up. Such was the case with the next title, which perked up my ears from the early notes and turned my initial thoughts of, "Why, this sounds like..." to "Well, if it isn't?!" Anyway, it was "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" by the Smiths.
Toward the end, Jon sped it and layered it to the point where it started reminding me of another sparkling Smiths track, the instrumental "Oscillate Wildly." However, I can't say whether this was intentional on Jon's part or the product of my overactive imagination -- the music nerd's equivalent to fan fic. Jon punctuated the tune with a comment about how great they were, and I heartily agree. But because I'm an insufferable music nerd, I'll go on the record as saying how nice'd it be if Jon tried out other songs from their fantastic catalog -- preferably a nice, deep album cut. (See above re: insufferable.)
Regarding the tin ear to famous songs: The next selection opened up with a naggingly familiar melody I couldn't place before Jon segued into his own "Ruin My Day" -- which I know quite well. Fortunately, Jon revisited the intro toward the end and even named it: the Little Rascals theme. (See above re: tin ear.)
Jon moved to the acoustic guitars, picking up what he identified as a French '40s model, and in the midst of tuning, he engaged us in some goofy comments about Mars Attacks, among other topics, and informed us that this public soundcheck was made possible by the United International Cab Company. When he settled in, "Me Myself and I" poured out.
Jon built up the next track, his own "Piece of You." I love this song to begin with, and this rendition was simply awesome, with the guitar illuminating the song's already strong foundation. Tonight's performance of the track actually brought to mind Jon's early session work, especially his talent for complementing and teasing out the main melody. The ditty that immediately sprang to mind was the Wallflowers' "One Headlight." If you haven't listened to it recently, I suggest giving it a spin, if only to remind yourself of the subtle but incredibly effective guitar notes Jon lent to the tune.
The public soundcheck progressed to the electric accoutrements -- namely, an electric guitar and Jon's looping mechanisms. I can't say for sure if this was the first time I'd heard "Strings That Tie to You" on electric guitar, but it's a relative rarity in his shows. Jon replicated the process we've seen on piano, layering each element until it became an ethereal buzz anchored by heavy bass notes. Though I probably say this every time, the guitar treatment highlighted aspects of the song I hadn't noticed before, particularly stray notes or arcs that had previously escaped me.
Jon then asked for requests and picked "Tea for Two" as the first wish granted. I probably need to admit I didn't know this until he sang the words, but in a familiar pattern, the second tune was a gimme: his own "Her Ghost." The subtle variations in this performance included Jon's feet tapping out the rhythm, a pounding bridge, and big, dramatic vocals.
For his next act, Jon launched into one of those instant medleys he does so well. Most of the songs in this batch amounted to snippets, but not so the last title. During "Her Ghost," something in Jon's treatment brought to mind Burt Bacharach -- I mean, more than usual. I guess I wasn't alone because another woman made the request, and Jon obliged with a fairly faithful version of "This Guy's in Love With You," an old favorite around Largo.
The video screens churned into action, as Jon brought up footage of Sonny Rollins, Leopold Stokowski, and Maria Callas. Of the three, Leo enjoyed the most airtime, as Jon found a symphonic sequence to back "Pale Blue Eyes," performed on piano. Maria Callas too lent a tone that worked with the title. Sonny Rollins came in later, and I have to be honest -- I can't say what it did for the song, but his bursts of sax formed the coda for this tune.
For the next round of requests, Jon screened two clips: one of an orchestra performing Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and another of a Cajun fiddler. Then he quoted a couplet from the fiddler (something about "hard head/got into trouble") to precede "Trouble," by one J. Brion. This version was heavier and slower, and the orchestra became an eerie echo of the song's main tune. I jotted down something about Kate Bush -- the resemblance was probably at least 80 percent in my head, but maybe that'll get you in the ballpark of Jon's performance.
Jon briefly moved over to the drum set to lay down a beat, then returned to the piano for a short clip of "Purple Rain." I'll always want to hear that song, but in truth, Jon didn't linger long before setting his attentions on the real composition: "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes," effortlessly (so it seemed) matched to the orchestra and enlivened in bursts by the fiddle.
Jon soon worked into the mix a video of Eric Clapton, and it didn't take long to tease out a specific melodic line. The suggestion of a tune tickled my brain long before Jon formalized it, but it was almost inevitable that he'd land on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" -- which is exactly what happened. However, Jon shook up this natural progression by splicing and dicing the Clapton video until it became the backdrop for "Strange Fruit."
Nearing the close of the set, Jon asked specifically for a request for Danny (or was it Flanny?), who must've called for "Gotta Start Somewhere," the opening track from Jon's single album, if you don't include his soundtracks. I need to detour for a second and mention this is the single track from Meaningless I'd never heard live; in fact, I asked Jon about it when the old Largo closed, and he replied he done it once during his Spaceland residency circa 2002. (Detour to the detour: 2002?! WHAT THE WHAT?)
The thing is I love this song. Granted, I can say that for every track on the record, but it's not only one of my favorite openers, it's power pop at its finest, with great lyrics, fantastic pacing, delightful instrumentation, and much more. I even love the overdrumming (a la Blondie's "Dreaming"). There's a reason I chose it to kick off Book of Brion 2.
So Danny or Flanny or whoever claimed to be you, a world of gratitude goes out to you for finally bringing this song to my ears. Jon did it up spare and lo-fi on solo electric guitar -- more J. Mascis than Alex Chilton (to oversimplify), even approaching Calexico in parts. I loved hearing this, but as an aspirational music fan, I hope it won't be the last time Jon plays it live. And maybe he'll give it to the loop and/or band treatment next time? In the meantime, I've already listened to it about 45 times a day since the show.
For the penultimate song of the set, Jon jumped into "Knock Yourself Out," an especially vocal request from an audience member. He closed the segment with another request, this time for "Hungry Like the Wolf," but as he pointed out, he had to do it his way -- which meant a la Les Paul. I've referenced my Duranie past several times in this blog, so I won't belabor the point again, except to say it was a hoot to hear Jon hit all the hallmarks of a song that dominated my formative years. Each layered loop added to the delight, as I recognized keyboard chords here, vocal notes there, that part in the video where Simon and the model/actress maul each other. If Jon ever decides he needs vocals on the tune, I can probably feed him most of the lines. ;)
The encore was more subtle, as Jon closed out with "The Way It Went," followed by an Irving Berlin tune by way of Fats Waller. Sorry I can't tell you which song, but it's right there at the top: I'm simply hopeless with some titles.
--Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now
--Little Rascals theme/Ruin My Day/Little Rascals theme
--Me Myself and I
--Piece of You
--Strings That Tie to You
--Tea for Two
--Putting on the Ritz/Rhapsody in Blue/Magic Carpet Ride/Three Times a Lady/This Guy's in Love With You
--Pale Blue Eyes
--Purple Rain/Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime/While My Guitar Gently Weeps/Strange Fruit
--Gotta Start Somewhere
--Knock Yourself Out
--Hungry Like the Wolf
--The Way It Went
--Irving Berlin a la Fats Waller
» it's been said many times, many ways
» all is full of love
» the Book of Brion 2 has landed
» Star Hits: A close reading