How has it been a year since my last Jon Brion show at Largo at the Coronet? I could point to the shrinking middle class and the nation's growing income disparity, but who wants to hear that? Eh, I'll blame sweet, sweet pennant-winning baseball instead. More important, how has it been 10 years of Jon Brion Christmas shows under my belt? That's all on me, and I'll take it.
Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 19, 2014: Have you ever had one of those days that's a tad off? Dinner at a favorite restaurant didn't quite hit the spot (we are spice wimps), then our Largo seat assignments were not the usual chairs. In fact, I hadn't sat so far back since an especially harried night early in the Coronet's revival. Eventually, we gave up our seats entirely and took the back row, which actually had a couple of advantages: The sound is great, and we saw Wesley Snipes in attendance. Also, I can't fault Largo staff, seeing as I hadn't been around for a full year, and they'd been perfect to an extreme degree during last December's massive undertaking. The only real casualty of the night were my notes, which were nowhere near as extensive as normal due to the lack of light. Sob!
Anyway, back to an earlier point: I suspected the numbers had been creeping up over the years, but couldn't confirm them until I got home. I first hit Jon Brion's Christmas show back in 2005, which means this was my 10th outing to Largo for the occasion. I guess you can say I'm in for the long haul. Not only that, my SoCal holiday plans have expanded over the years, including other shows when I can, as well as a favorite podcast taping. Despite the seating situation, I can wholeheartedly reiterate there is no place I'd rather be ahead of the holidays than Los Angeles.
In a night of surprises, you could add Jon's almost skeletal setup to that list. No wires, no drum kit, no vibes, no organs, no electric -- in their place, a handful of acoustic guitars, a few microphones, and a stool or two. My guess is that he and his techs didn't care to drag in the tangle of equipment, only to break it down a few days before the holidays. As we all know, Jon can make a milk carton sound good, so no worries there.
We'd have to wait a bit for Jon's set, as Tom Papa opened the show, following Flanny's intro. Jon took the stage shortly after.
Fortunately, some details don't change at Largo, as Jon opened with a piano number. I heard hints of "Every Time We Say Goodbye," but my word is worthless in that respect. Maybe you can guess at the jazzy feel, though?
Jon then went through several of his own tracks, starting with "Strangest Times" from the I Heart Huckabees soundtrack -- and a fitting theme for our night, if not the whole damn year. On this relative rarity, he went all piano and threw in some vocals for good measure. Remaining on the piano and the soundtrack work, "Strings That Tie to You" came next, then "Happy With You." Jon banged out the long outro on "Happy" on the keys and commented that he needed to relearn it, as he usually played it on bass, which you've probably seen and heard for yourself if you've attended a Jon Brion show in the last 10-odd years.
The guitars beckoned for the ensuing chunk of the gig, starting with "Love of My Life So Far." From our seats, we couldn't see all of Jon's equipment, so imagine our surprise when a fuzzy rhythm track rung out. At first, I thought the sound booth was pumping in the sound, but it slowly became obvious that the addition originated from Jon, as he planted his feet. My guess is that he had some sort of effects setup at his feet, not unlike his usual array, only without all the electric guitars. I'd like to see that again, preferably from a closer vantage point.
Jon opened the door to requests, his first choice one of his own ("Knock Yourself Out"), but the second was a beloved cover, with a requested singalong. "Space Oddity" was as beautiful as ever. I can't tell how much we as an audience contributed, but I think we made our presence known. The consummate collaborator, Jon pitched in with harmonies, and the sound engineers fiddled with delays and treatments to send the song to the stratosphere.
Jon closed out this guitar segment with "Same Thing." You know all the adjustments Jon makes for this song on the piano? He kind of did the same on the guitar, as much as those moves can translate between instruments.
If you know me, you know I keep a few trusty requests in my back pocket, depending on the mood of the show. As it happened, Jon returned to the piano and, on his own volition, went with one of my standbys, "Nothing Between Us" -- like "Same Thing," harkening back to the Grays days. Jon eased in a slightly different bridge and a long instrumental coda.
The next request was another all-time classic, "Jealous Guy." Jon needed a little help on the third verse, and I believe the requester came through. You gotta give it up for a fan who can back up their suggestions with lyrics (which would often disqualify me). We even tried to help out with the whistling bridge, again with varying degrees of success. Jon capped it off with the comment that it was one of the best songs ever. Agreed!
Jon's first guest of the night was David Garza, who'd been absent from Largo for a long time. This blog notes his last appearance as 2008, but don't take my word for it. David and Jon did a song on their own, as Gaby Moreno made her way to the stage, per David's request. Gaby then took the next two songs, her strong voice filling the room. They were both sung in Spanish, but thanks to her stage banter and a little research, I can report the second track was "Peces en el Rio."
Sara Watkins dropped in to help with backing vocals for the latter, then took over for a few titles. The first was "Be My Husband," from the Nina Simone songbook. Sara played her fiddle, of course, but by the end of the song, she had gone a cappella, which is always welcome with her lovely voice.
For her second track, she picked up one of Jon's guitars and attempted "Christmas in Prison," as she had the night before. However, she stumbled on the second or third line. Jon and David both offered improvised alternatives, but finally an audience member prodded her along, aided by his forbidden smartphone. From there, she finished the tune with no extra hints.
Sara volunteered a short preamble for the next song, noting that you were in trouble if your name was Cora or Corey in a folk song. Sure enough, Corey got it all the way to the grave. The treat in this traditional track: Jon playing brushes on the piano.
Jon was now left on his own, and he opted for what sounded like a new original song. The follow-up was a joke in response to his call for requests, when a guy sitting in the last row (in front of us) yelled out a nonsensical imitation of the melee of voices directed at the stage. Also responding to the peanut gallery, Jon finally picked up on his own "Ruin My Day," another request from fans in the last row. Jon closed out the main set back on guitar with "I Believe She's Lying," which featured a beautiful Western-sounding coda.
At the top of the show, Griffee had made no mention of a late set in the Little Room -- kind of a bummer, as Jon has been venturing over again in the last few months (according to my sources). However, Jon finished up the night with an all-Randy Newman encore. Perhaps he caught the final episode of The Colbert Report too? The third song, "Political Science," was sort of a no-brainer, given the truly depressing year. Once more, Jon asked us to sing along, and my well-trained companions did their part (me, not so much).
Finally, Jon tipped his hat to the season, coaxing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" out of the piano. I'm too lazy to go through the old setlists right now, but that may be the only staple of Jon's Christmas shows. (Oops, I take it back -- it isn't.) The song is so lovely in his hands and so welcome, especially in an otherwise irreverent show. I'll take it every December for as long as I can.
Tom Papa opener
-- Strangest Times
-- Strings That Tie to You
-- Happy With You
-- Love of My Life So Far
-- Knock Yourself Out
-- Space Oddity
-- Same Thing
-- Nothing Between Us
-- Jealous Guy
-- ? *
-- ? **
-- Peces en el Rio ***
-- Be My Husband ****
-- Christmas in Prison ****
-- Darling Corey ****
-- JB song
-- Tom Waits improv nonsense
-- Ruin My Day
-- I Believe She's Lying
-- Sail Away
-- Dayton, Ohio - 1903
-- Political Science
-- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
* = with David Garza
** = with David Garza and Gaby Moreno
*** = with David Garza, Gaby Moreno, and Sara Watkins
**** = with David Garza and Sara Watkins
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
» i've heard a rumor from ground control