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

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