Sunday, January 05, 2014

i've heard a rumor from ground control

Jon Brion's last show of the year at Largo at the Coronet was always a go. That it capped off a week of gigs by Jeff Tweedy was merely a bonus -- a fantastic, perfect bonus.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 20, 2013: Despite my dwindling concert numbers, certain staples will remain in place for as long as I'm able, and top of that list is Jon Brion's final gig for the calendar year. It's been a tradition for Evonne and myself for many years now, and this time, several friends joined us, some for their first time ever, on the back of the Jeff Tweedy dates. Gulp -- no pressure to dazzle or amaze or make good on my last decade-plus of ravings or anything.

Fortunately, after the week of machinations around Jeff's shows, getting ready for Jon's gig was no sweat, and all the usual creature comforts awaited us. Jon, too, appeared ready for business, with nearly the entire range of equipment, though unfortunately minus the vibraphones. Still, the maze of toys and implements hinted strongly at a full sensory experience to come.

Defying expectations, Flanny zoomed back from the night's Andrew Bird show also in town in time to deliver the intro to Jon's set. It was great to see him taking his rightful place on Largo's stage, especially after giving up the spot to Jeff Garlin earlier in the week. Anyway, with the proper Largo fanfare, Jon appeared in front of our eyes, dressed for the Southern California winter -- that is, in a hat and a scarf to protect against the, er, cold.

Jon's piano warm-up started off at a good clip, bringing to mind at times a chase scene, with maybe a touch of the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack too. A crescendo snuck in there as well, before easing out on a ragtime touch.

The first official song of the evening was "Ruin My Day," following a similar uptick to the intro -- then Jon went slightly off-book, immediately asking for requests. He granted a couple of joke suggestions, throwing out lines from "Billie Jean" and "Jump," and threatened to do "three seconds of every request." But his second legitimate song of the night arrived in the form of old favorite "Ashes to Ashes," which I've surely pointed out a jillion times is well loved in my earbuds. As you might expect, the vocoder got a good workout on this spacy, ethereal classic, but the mellotron made a surprising appearance toward the end.

Jon returned to his own songbook for "She's At It Again," starting out psychedelic, then landing with a heavy crunch. Toward the end, a technical glitch hit the stage, and as his assistants fiddled with the knobs and wires, Jon continued to improvise a piano trek he called "Threw the Breaker." He joked, "It sounds like Stravinsky when the power goes," and gave thanks for acoustic instruments. The assistants continued to work hard while Jon pulled off what sounded like "Strangest Times" from the I Heart Huckabees soundtrack.

Voila, the electronics were eventually sorted, and Jon once more asked for requests. In this round, he went with his own songs. Next up was "Same Mistakes," delivered on acoustic guitar underneath the overhead mic, followed by "Love of My Life So Far" on 12-string.

Jon powered on the video screens and rolled up the video of 1920s-era (I think?) Latin band, fishing out the rhythm he wanted from them. I got cocky at this point and mentally jumped on the idea we were about to hear "More Than This." Alas, I was proven wrong; it turned out to be "Strings That Tie to You," one of Jon's more experimental numbers. That is, though Jon tinkers with nearly all of his tunes, I've found "Strings That Tie to You" is more of a blank slate, and he's likely to try new arrangements and combinations of instruments on this number. Before the song played out, we also heard via video from Sonny Rollins and Maria Callas. Jon matched the sax solo to his own notes on the piano and MicroKorg, while the mix of Callas and the Latin band forged a dreamy, rhythmic loop.

The drums made their debut on a build of "Piece of You," a full rock anthem complete with piano, bass, and electric guitar. In fact, Jon's solo carried an air of Eric Clapton. (See everything I've ever written about knowing nothing about Clapton.)

"I Really Don't Want to Know" presented an about-face on acoustic guitar, as Jon coaxed out deep, resonating notes to complement this fairly straightforward tune.

Back to the requests, "Strawberry Fields Forever" was maybe five famous notes, as it tends to be when Jon entertains the notion. "As Time Goes By," however, was earnest and true, starting out in traditional fashion -- well, as traditional as can be on mellotron and piano. The ending grew more abstract, and by the time the song swept out on mellotron, it had been transformed into pure melodrama, as befits this famous movie theme.

The next audience request might have been delivered in my favorite tone ever at Largo. Nice and clear, an audience member simply implored, "I want you to want me," as if it were the most normal statement in the world. After the giggles subsided, Jon grabbed an electric guitar and treated us all. We even tried to chip in when we could, singing along over the crunch.

Inspired by the request, Jon next picked up an acoustic guitar and sat down beneath the overhead mic for the second half of the Cheap Trick rock block. He wrapped the beloved "Surrender" in a fingerpicking, bluegrass style, and we were more than happy to do our part and sing out. The icing on the cake? Jon took the melody on the chorus to complement our harmonies. Though subtle, his touch was lovely to hear.

In the tradition of previous Christmas shows, Jon brought out a couple of friends to join him: Sara and Sean Watkins. Per their style, they took over for their segment, with Jon accompanying them for a number of covers.

Two highlights are worth noting in this segment. During the second song, Jon's crew brought out a good-size wooden box, standing about waist high and similar in shape to a small bookshelf. They slowly and carefully opened it up. I thought it might be a piece from Jon's legendary collection of mini instruments -- specifically, a mini upright piano -- but I think it was in fact a harmonium. I can't swear by it, but it didn't sound like your average piano. This was Jon's instrument of choice for two of their three songs together.

The closing number was also worth a mention. Sara explained David Garza had turned her on to the song a la a cassette tape and urged her to learn it. Good call -- it was a gorgeous, emotional tune in their hands and only egged on my evolving interest in Fleetwood Mac.

Sara and Sean left the stage (as did the harmonium), and Jon was back on his own. He delivered a soliloquy about the buzz from his amps and related it back to Tesla, then inspiration hit him. He warned us about the build-up to follow and thanked us for coming out that evening. Even with those familiar words, never would I have guessed we'd witness the performance to follow.

Jon switched on the video screens and brought up footage of Ravi Shankar and a Cajun fiddler, looping them in a pattern whose logic escaped me. At one point, I thought maybe it was his way of showing us a pair of masters in their own fields, and the clip of an orchestra performing Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" didn't dissuade me from the idea.

EMS SynthiApart from a short stab at the EMS Synthi (pictured right), Jon didn't really play any instruments for a good, long stretch. Instead, he hovered over the machines and likened himself to a student cramming before a test. The videos floated in and out of sequence, and though Jon had succeeded in constructing a formidable wall of sound, their greater significance had yet to emerge.

Still in no hurry, Jon finally started picking out a tune on piano and MicroKorg: Big Star's "Holocaust," perhaps one of the bleakest songs ever issued by a major record label. Jon eventually added drums and bass to it, along with lead guitar experimentation, but this doesn't really convey the atmosphere he created. Even if you couldn't hear the lyrics, you couldn't deny the sound waves were threatening to overtake us. Now imagine Jon driving in this tsunami for 30 whole minutes. Though mesmerizing, it could easily overwhelm the average audience member, even if you knew to expect the unexpected at Jon's shows.

I'm not going to lie: I was thoroughly concerned for my newbie friends at this point. I don't need my favorite performers to fart sunshine and rainbows around the clock, but sometimes it's a little easier to introduce your buddies to an act via a more populist set. Also, this was not the typical pre-Christmas show we've been seeing for years. Again, I know Jon can be quite contrary about seasonal shows, but the complete absence of seasonal references was unusual for him.

Fortunately, we all made it, unlike a couple of people in the front row who chose to leave early. For at least one pal, Jon positively dazzled. (Yay!) In the end, I think it ranks up there as one of the raw and nakedly emotional performances we sometimes see from Jon. My theory is that it's related to Jon turning 50 this year -- but that's a wild guess. Was it easy to digest? Nope, not even close. But was it enlightening and original? Beyond a doubt. And like the previous week of shows, it couldn't have happened anywhere else in the world besides Largo.

--Ruin My Day
--Billie Jean
--Ashes to Ashes
--She's At It Again
--"Throw the Breaker"
--Strangest Times
--Same Mistakes
--Love of My Life So Far
--Strings That Tie to You
--Piece of You
--I Really Don't Want to Know
--Strawberry Fields Forever
--As Time Goes By
--I Want You to Want Me

with Sara and Sean Watkins
--Keep It Clean
--Making Believe
--Steal Your Heart Away


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
» the things you do to keep yourself intact

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

every night is a test

Look, I've been waiting to write this review forever -- like, maybe since the moment I started blogging -- and even I know there's no way to fully encapsulate all my excitement and giddiness going into these shows. Regardless, here's my attempt at a coherent account of the dates I only dared dream about. Behold, dear readers, Jeff Tweedy's four-night stand at Largo at the Coronet.

Jeff Tweedy at LargoJeff Tweedy, Largo at the Coronet, December 15, 16, 18, 19, 2013: Two glances at this blog, and my favorites should scream out at you. Bring any of these favorites together, and I'll be the one doing the screaming. I suppose it wasn't so shocking an announcement following the night of two Jeffs from last year, but you can't believe it until you see it. That's all I'm going to say about the anticipation around these gigs, except that I was as surprised as anyone that we came up with tickets for all four nights of Jeff's shows, thanks to a lot of diligence and a little help when we needed it.

Almost two weeks (as of this writing) on from the final night of the residency, and I can't begin to compile a comprehensive review, but I'll try to cover the memorable points, based on both my long-standing attendance at Largo and at Jeff's shows, starting with perhaps my biggest takeaway of this run: These were the most intimate solo gigs I've yet seen, and that includes some of the living room shows I've attended. What can you say? Chalk it up to the Largo ambiance and the spell it casts on attending artists.

Actually, make that two takeaways: Jeff has really been honing his Don Rickles routine.

Regarding the music selections, Jeff worked up an admirable streak of songs without repeats, and when the favorites came back on the fourth and final night, they remained few in number and mostly covered the singalong needs. Even as a longtime fan, I was impressed by Jeff's commitment to originality. Here's the shocker, though: Jeff could probably do a few more nights of shows and never repeat a track, if he so wanted.

Honestly, I was perfectly all right with the handful of second airings. Am I a sucker for B-sides and alternative arrangements? Yes, but I also love it when an entire room comes together to sing the backing vocals, harmonies, and sound effects on the more popular tunes.

But about those rarities: Damn, Jeff dug deep. Having just attended the Fillmore shows, the solo tour debuts didn't hit me between the eyes as before, but spread out over the course of four nights, what would've been bonus tracks on any other tour were an immense treat. "Anniversary" (known as "Nothing Up My Sleeve" on the YHF demos) was the shocker and delight, but any set of gigs that counts "Dash 7," "Blasting Fonda," and "Shaking Sugar" (to name just three) on the setlists has to go down in the books.

At both the Fillmore and Largo shows (and probably others), Jeff delivered a couple of spiels about Wilco's lack of hits, not to mention the sad state of the modern music industry -- specifically, how the business's shortfallings are preventing Beyonce from rightfully pulling Thriller numbers. True, by no measure can Wilco be said to have radio hits, but this is a band with album tracks that qualify as beloved songs and crowd favorites, and as fans, we welcome these titles that aren't always guaranteed to make the setlist. Speaking for myself, I'll point as usual to the Being There tracks ("Outta Mind," aka the Sesame Street version; "Red-Eyed & Blue" leading directly to the -- ahem! -- This Is 40 arrangement of "I Got You"). I'll also take a moment to appreciate the inclusion of "Lost Love," one of my most treasured tracks. And I finally heard the "At Least That's What You Said"/"Always in Love" medley!

One concern I had going into these shows had to do with Largo itself -- that is, the club's incredibly reverential atmosphere. It's a blessing overall, but with Jeff's shows, I'm used to a more boisterous environment, and in case this isn't already obvious, I like a solid singalong. On this -- and only this -- count, Largo underwhelmed. On the first night, we tried our best in the chorus of "Someday Soon," and on the second night, we took another stab at crowd participation with the "Red-Eyed & Blue"/"I Got You" rock block, which even moved Jeff to consider more songs we could add to -- and I don't mind saying my no-brainer request for "Summer Teeth" got the nod. However, the singalong didn't quite materialize in Largo's hallowed environs, not even on such staples as "Jesus, etc.," "Heavy Metal Drummer," "California Stars," or "Passenger Side." I'm not exactly a champion of these tunes, but I appreciate their group participation qualities, and I missed that unity at the show.

Need more proof? These may have been the only times in my experience no one crowed at the gimme lines in "Sunken Treasure" or "Misunderstood."

I'm not sure what happened as the week progressed, but on the second night, Largo's house manager added an unusual request to the customary (and welcome) orders to turn off your phones, cameras, and recording equipment: He asked us not to sing along. This was the first I'd heard of it, and I suspect it originated from a belligerent attendee lodging a complaint. What had felt like an already muted crowd took it down another notch, at least until the tail end of the final night when a fan inquired about the ban, which was the first Jeff had heard of it. Unfortunately, Jeff's song selection at that point didn't alleviate the issue, as the fans didn't seem to quite know the words to some of the tunes he wanted to play. Then again, we were a little too enthusiastic on "The Thanks I Get," so not everyone was deathly quiet.

If I had to cite a solitary track from this run as the standout, it'd have to be "Hate It Here." Even casual fan might think they've heard this song plenty, but due to the night's alchemy, Jeff tried it out as a laid-back spoken-word affair that surprised everyone, himself included. I have a hard time imagining the same version becoming a setlist mainstay -- so I'm glad I heard its debut.

The setlists tell you a lot about the shows, but there's much more to the story -- namely, the tomes and tomes of banter pouring out of Jeff every night. Granted, he was battling a cold or a flu, so perhaps the chatter was slightly less taxing on his vocals than attempting to sing. Er, you don't need to hear my impersonation of a medical professional, but take my word that Jeff was hi-larious.

Regarding the above Don Rickles comment, at the Fillmore shows, Jeff mocked the "whoo!" and "ow!" guys who inevitably pipe up at any show, usually in response to some track they think they recognize. There was also an extended discussion of the one-way San Francisco-Los Angeles rivalry and San Franciscans' neediness, but that's another topic. Anyway, that story resurfaced in Los Angeles, but I think Jeff got in a dig at Angelenos' stereotypically shallow reputation when he asked, "Have you ever finished reading a book ... ever?" This dialog, by the way, came about from Jeff's recent reading of Mike Tyson's memoirs and its effects on the singer's own psyche.

Also in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, he didn't come down very kindly on the clappers, especially their misplaced rhythm. In both locales, I believe he called the guilty parties "Germanic" due to their dependence on the 1 and the 3, and I'm pretty sure in Los Angeles, he got in an aside about giving white people a bad reputation (or something along those lines). As if that weren't enough, you'd have to see Jeff's physical comedy to believe it, as he pulled off a Deliverance-worthy enactment of a fan's unwelcome clapping, as well as the physical contortions, aka "bass butt," of overly serious musicians.

Greg Kihn, Dave Grohl, Peter O'Toole, and Dr. Luke, among others, came up in conversation too. As for Jeff's admiration/repudiation for David Lee Roth, I fully understand where he's coming from, and I'll point once again to my ultimate moment of recognition from 30 Rock: The One with the Cast from 'Night Court'

There's a good chance my words can't convey the full import of these atypical song selections and unexpected actions and their cumulative effect, so let me spell it out: For all the Jeff Tweedy shows I've seen, including our fantastic series of living room/basement/private gigs, I've never seen Jeff look so comfortable. If I had to guess at a reason for this openness, it's without a doubt due to Largo's no-cameras, no-recording policy, which is only one facet of its overall reputation as an artist's haven. I know I whined a little about the unrocklike quietude of the theater, but in the big picture, it was a small price to pay to see a musician at his most unguarded.

Perhaps no incident better exemplifies Jeff's utter ease and comfort as his story about converting to Judaism, specifically his interactions with the mohel. I won't attempt to retell the story, except to note it wouldn't have been half as effective without Jeff's role-playing as the mohel. It's almost as if we went to a rock show and a one-man play broke out.

Jeff Garlin opened for Jeff Tweedy all four nights, with short, off-the-cuff sets every evening. Some of the stories worked better than others, but I'll always be grateful to him for introducing his friend to one of my favorite places in the world and, thus, making a dream come true.

Ahead of the dates, I nursed bigger and much less reasonable fantasies about these shows involving guest collaborations and other fanfic musings, but in the end, they didn't need any dressing up. They delivered so much more than I expected, all on their own.

I can't wait to do it again.

See also:
» so flattered by fate
» let your helmet warm your skull
» i wish that i knew what I know now
» winter comes
» manifestation of desire
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg