Wednesday, September 20, 2023

i know it's today

Long time, no blog! In fact, I've been to some shows since the Lost Time, but they weren't worth chronicling until this one: the return of Jon Brion. Happy to be back!

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, September 14, 2023

By my estimation, Jon Brion's last show at Largo took place in February 2020. He's dropped in now and again for friends' shows, but three and a half years has passed since the world last saw him do what he does best. Some of us have felt every passing month of that wait. There was no hesitation on my part to get to LA for this gig.

I can tell you exactly when I last saw Jon Brion because none other than Mick Fleetwood, Neil Finn, and Liam Finn joined him that night. Lest you've forgotten, I don't really care who Jon welcomes to the stage -- I go to these shows to see Jon. Everyone else is a lovely bonus, but not my motivating factor. Besides, if you know me, you know that I do everything I can to attend the Christmas show.

Lately, I mostly come to Largo to see Jeff Tweedy, and music remains my biggest motivation to make the trip. But even the prep for this show felt a little different, and I probably had an extra spring to my step as we walked up Beverly. The lobby and bar were buzzing as we saw familiar faces, and the theater was packed. As usual, I had no expectations going in, though I had a couple of requests should Jon call for suggestions.

Jon's instrumentation is always notable, and I can report that he had the vibes, a dozen-plus guitars, a small Casio keyboard, and maybe a Chamberlin, along with several panels of pedals and switches at the foot of Largo's signature upright piano. That is, he didn't have drums, video screens, or the EMS Synthi.

Jon emerged without any fanfare, carrying a pint of Guinness and a notebook. He looked a tad grayer, but don't we all? His first tune was the jingle for Skyrizi, confirming that he too has been watching TV. From there, he went into a piano song that I can't identify, except it had a slight pop feel, as opposed to a jazz or an abstract track, which he's been known to do. The next song was more familiar, as I recognized the back-and-forth piano work.

I'll admit that I didn't know the next song. My notes say he used the pedals for a spacy, layered pump organ-like sound, and he brought in the Chamberlin for a slow, developing song. This could be anything, right? But Paul identified it as "God Bless the Child," and I'm not going to argue with him.

The next song started with spacy sounds, and Jon spent some time testing the piano and the off-tune keys, but I mostly knew where he was going. When you hit enough Jon shows, you get a clue or two about where he might be heading, and I figured he would go in one of two directions. Tonight, that meant "Stop the World," but hint: Sometimes you end up with "Strings That Tie to You." Of course, Jon mixes up his songs with every performance. Tonight, a pretty, pronounced rhythm jumped out to me.

Jon requested more slap from the sound booth for his next classic "Ruin My Day." He stretched out the pace on some vocals, and this was the first warm blanket of the evening.

The next song might not be a song at all, and I won't venture a guess. At one point, he played a snippet of The Outer Limits theme. My notes say he layered the instruments to create a moody, dramatic soundscape that, to my ears, suggested a journey. Maybe it's soundtrack work? Maybe it's his real-time experimentation? Probably only Jon knows!

I recognized the next song immediately, but it was still fun to hear Jon's long intro and leisurely pace before he launched into "Knock Yourself Out." He sounded so effortless, as he played with the pacing, slowing down the tempo to wrap up the tune.

Remaining at the piano, he worked the pedals and the layering for one of his signature songs: the theme to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which, by the way, you can hear as the background music in the BMW Super Bowl commercial from a couple of years ago). The loops reinforced the emotional arcs of the song, and in other parts, the dissonance between the piano effects brought to mind the chaos of the movie.

For the last piano track in this opening segment, Jon punched out a fast, extended intro, and I thought I picked up the rhythm of the song. My guess was correct, as he went into "Meaningless," from the only solo album he has yet to release.

Jon finally made his way to the guitars, first picking up the faithful black-and-white Gretsch. After an extended tuning, he hit his own "At It Again," an unreleased track that he plays often. This probably isn't the most original thought, but tonight, I heard the XTC influence in this song.

Jon made an off-hand comment under his breath before he started the next song, but even if he hadn't, I might've eventually figured out that he and his first guest Sebastian Steinberg were doing "'Round Midnight." I confirmed with Paul and Evonne after they finished, but I'm still pretty proud of myself for picking up the clues.

Next, we got this exchange:
Jon: Name something.
Sebastian: Tom.
Jon: Or start something.

With that cue, Sebastian started riffing on his stand-up bass, and the two of them eventually crafted "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." They had fun with a couple of Jon's favorite crowd-pleasers befor David Garza joined them.

Jon took to the vibes as David started with his own "Drone," followed by the blues classic "Got My Mojo Working." We did our part, shouting out the chorus, as Jon played the vibes like a drum set, hitting the stems and all but the vibes bed.

John C. Reilly emerged from backstage to take the mic for a couple of standards that he presumably also performs in his own show as Mr. Romantic. This isn't the first time I've seen John C. Reilly in performance at Largo, but in case this is a new concept to you, I can assure you that he has a wonderful voice. Say what you want about actors who want to be singers, but keep in mind that some are trained to cross those lines. Anyway, thespian that he is, John gilded the lily, as he stepped to the edge of the stage and towered over us in the first row to belt out "Mona Lisa."

To close out the main set, Jon was left by himself, and he returned the piano. As soon as he turned out the calypso beat, I was 99.9% sure where he was going, but you never really know. Regardless, the thrill was the same when "More Than This" broke out. I'll never say no to this song. He might've played one more song, but I can't identify or confirm that tune.

Jon and Sebastian returned for the encore and asked us for requests. Ultimately, they said they couldn't understand any of us and polled us on a couple of choices for a singalong. Jon reported that he heard more support for "God Only Knows," but the votes for "Life on Mars" were more vehement. He decided to split the difference, but warned that most people don't really know the words to either. I admit that Jon usually leads the songs, so the audience as a whole fills in the parts we know and love best. Nonetheless, he let us proceed, starting with Bowie.

Largo is a magical place in many regards, but one element has popped up more than once, and it did again tonight. Not only did one person in the audience know all the words to "Life on Mars," but he also had a beautiful singing voice. Call him a ringer, but he was our guiding voice and a pleasure to hear. When you think about it, this should come as no surprise when you're in one of the entertainment capitals of the country, if not the world. I can only imagine how many musicians were in the audience, but I'm grateful for that particular songbird.

"God Only Knows" was more traditional in that almost everyone seemed to know the words or knew enough of them to chime in. I feel like almost every song at Largo is a celebration, but this is always the ultimate unifier and reminder that you're among friends. I hope Jon -- and we -- can do it again soon.

Skyrizi song
Strangest Times
God Bless the Child
Stop the World
Ruin My Day
Knock Yourself Out
Eternal Sunshine Theme
At It Again
Round Midnight *
Don't Get Around Much Anymore *
Funkytown/Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy *
Drone **
Got My Mojo Workin' **
Blue Skies ***
Mona Lisa ***
More Than This

Life on Mars *
God Only Knows *

* = with Sebastian Steinberg
** = with Sebastian Steinberg and David Garza
*** = with Sebastian Steinberg, David Garza, and John C. Reilly

Related shows
» man of the world
» this is how i tell it
» no one will be a stranger

Friday, February 21, 2020

it's a Californian bungalow in a cul-de-sac

I fall in love with artists, but I also fall in love with venues. I dream about several I may never visit again, and I try to come back to the ones within reasonable (or not) distance. The stars aligned when Courtney Barnett showed up on the Pappy & Harriet's schedule, on a Friday to boot! It was time to hit the road for this treat.

Courtney Barnett, Pappy & Harriet's, January 31, 2020

You could argue that Pappy & Harriet's is not within reasonable distance from almost anywhere. It's a hell of a drive from the heart of Los Angeles on a good day. Throw in SoCal's notoriously congested Friday afternoon traffic, and a nominally two-hour trip almost doubled in duration. But hey, we knew that going in. Might as well enjoy the scenery and the company.

After stops at a San Gabriel dumpling destination and our resident casino hotel, we finally made our way to Pappy & Harriet's at an uncharacteristically (for me) nontwitchy hour ... and promptly squeezed into a crowded, buzzing room as opening act Hachiku started her set. As it was only my second time there, I'll eventually figure out what's a good hour to arrive at Pappy & Harriet's for those of us who aren't vertically blessed. It was fine, even if I had to curve my gaze around fans and phones alike in front of me. That's the price you pay for favoring small, no-frills rooms with low stages.

Courtney Barnett, Pappy + HarrietsCourtney came onstage in her typical low-key style, and after the initial chatter, the crowd appeared to be good fans and not just the onlookers and scenesters who show up at LA gigs. It was hard to say how many people had trekked out for the show and how many were locals, though it soon became clear that a contingent of faithful fans had followed her out to the desert. One of them requested "Sunday Roast," and she obliged. At other points, they filled in the harmonies and backing vocals for beloved tracks. A young child in the audience managed to project their voice enough that Courtney could hear their "I love you" through the bustle of the bar. And as much as the crowd embraced her, she said she wanted to spend more time in the area as well, maybe even buy a house. Score one for Pioneertown!

This was Courtney's solo tour, and it was just her and a guitar or two. But anyone who knows me knows that I love the stripped-down treatment. She made the usual jokes of an artist striking out on their own, asking us to imagine a guitar solo, but she didn't need to. Her breezy delivery and melodies did more than enough work to carry us along. As I understand it, she did her standard set, with "Depreston," "Avant Gardener," and one of the tracks with Kurt Vile. She revealed that the song she had been calling "Untitled" now had a title (that I can't recall), and she threw in a few covers. One was by an Australian band that I didn't recognize, but the others spanned a variety of influences: Hank Williams (perhaps inspired by our environment), the Lemonheads, and -- my not at all secret wish granted -- Gillian Welch. Insert heart eyes emoji.

Several years ago, I realized that a new generation of indie rock was taking over, and I had neither the desire nor the energy to pursue some of those names. For the most part, I'm fine with that decision, but at times, I realize I've been slow on the uptake with other amazing artists. Yes, it took a long time and a lot of miles for me to finally see Courtney Barnett in her element (I don't count Solid Sound since that was a festival), but I wouldn't change a thing. If Courtney stays true to her word, this may not be the last time I travel far out west to catch her show.

Hachiku was also a solo female performer, a German woman currently living in Australia. Her voice packed power at times, and she also sang a couple of covers: the Cranberries' "Dreams" (RIP Dolores) and Nena's "99 Luftballons." As someone who came of age in the '80s, I knew the song was a commentary on the Cold War, but somehow, it sounded more emphatic sung in German -- maybe because I didn't hear the line about Captain Kirk. I'm always up for an '80s revival and am doubly pleased when artists who were at best in diapers during that time are coming around to the decade's charms. Let's dance!

See also:
» come with me

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

man of the world

The great Oscar Wilde once said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” But guess what? Consistency also means you make friends in interesting places and occasionally reap the rewards of faithful patronage. Case in point: The last Jon Brion show of not only the year, but the decade.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 20, 2019

A couple of days before this show, Largo posted via its Instagram and Twitter accounts that Jon would welcome a special guest at this show. I registered the note but didn't think much of it. After all, I've been to enough of them to know that the guest could be just about anyone, and I come to see Jon. Everyone else is butter.

But not long after we arrived, we ran into another Largo regular, and she revealed the mystery. Neil Finn would be the guest tonight. You can't necessarily tell from this blog, but Neil is a longtime beloved performer. I was already a fan of Largo, but when I heard that Neil was starting to drop in for Jon's sets, I chalked up yet another reason to visit Los Angeles. My wish finally came true in 2004, when Neil guested at a Jon Brion show. I pretty much died that night, and fortunately, I managed to document the experience. Neil has continued to support Largo (and vice versa), but to be able to see him as an unannounced guest is a special treat.

But first, Jon's show! The stage was well stocked with the two video screens, a full drum kit, a mess of guitars, a Mellotron, and a Leslie cabinet.

Flanagan and Bobb Bruno emerged together -- Flanny looking like a young Kris Kringle from the Rankin-Bass Christmas classics, and Bobb offering silent moral support. Flanagan ran down a list of Jon's recent ailments (arm, leg, head), then brought the patient to the stage. For what it's worth, Jon looked fine, decked in a classic vintage outfit and carrying a pint of Guinness. So far, so good.

He started with a piano tune that's probably an actual composition and not simply noodling, but once again, I have to shrug because I rarely recognize any of the jazz standards. Fortunately, he soon went in on a couple of his own compositions. "Knock Yourself Out" was a mostly traditional interpretation on piano, and "Over Our Heads" was also fairly traditional (for Jon), with a vocoder and sampled feedback from inside the piano.

He asked for requests and decided on a mashup of "Moonage Daydream" in the Christmas style. The celeste mostly supplied the holiday effect, bringing to mind "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" at times. Not missing a beat, Jon continued to mess around on the EMS Synthi until he eventually coaxed out "Ashes to Ashes." Once again, the celeste came through for a tiny sprinkle of "Jingle Bells" amid the electronic angst.

With little fanfare, Jon yelled backstage and asked Neil if he felt like singing. Neil joined us posthaste, but he wasn't alone. Largo regular Sebastian Steinberg joined him, and what do you know? So did Mick Fleetwood! Yes, that Mick Fleetwood from that band that Neil has been touring with for the last year-plus. For those keeping score at home, yes, this was Mick's first appearance at Largo, and he made a hell of a debut.

They went immediately into one of Neil's classics, "I Got You." Neil managed to hit the mute pedal just as he was about to rock out, but no worries -- the bigger story was the fact that Mick was playing the shit out of the drums. You can take the rocker out of the stadium, but you can't take the stadium out of the rocker! They followed up with an old Peter Green song, for those who remember the pre-Buckingham Nicks era of Fleetwood Mac. Neil's voice remains one of my favorites, and he didn't disappoint this evening.

Neil left the stage, but Mick and Sebastian stayed to join Jon as an impromptu jazz combo. This happens at Largo a lot, as new acquaintances become partners and collaborators in real time. Once more, I'm completely useless when it comes to identifying the song or even the artists. The first one was rollicking as each musician settled into a groove. Jon was rocking in his seat, pulling the piano bench back and forth as he moved to the tune. Sebastian was an old pro, his focus evident as a longtime Largo fixture. The second song had a Jerry Lee Lewis vibe, and the third one was more languid at first. My stab in the dark is Fats Domino, but I'm sure that's way off. After the show, Flanny mentioned that one of the tunes was from Thelonious Monk, but I'd be hard-pressed to figure out which it was.

Mick, for his part, looked hugely invested as he worked the entire drum kit, his long arms hitting every inch of the drum kit. I loved watching him as he watched Jon for musical cues and perhaps more -- maybe to express his approval? Like I said, I've seen that look before, and it's a huge tell when world-renowned artists are clearly so happy to be in the Largo environment.

Here's a funny aside: It looked like Mick brought his own tech to the show. A man hung to the side of the stage and intently watched his every move. I believe he also collected Mick's drumsticks after every session.

Jon settled in alone for his "Please Stay Away From Me" and fired up the video machines and footage of Andres Segovia for "Strings That Tie to You," capped by an instrumental nod to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (No, I don't always need to hear the lyrics!)

But the solo spell was short-lived, as Jon brought Neil back out, this time accompanied by Liam Finn (to audible gasps from Evonne and me). Mick and Sebastian soon followed, and they settled into a Neil Young rock block. The first title, "After the Gold Rush," fell apart a little on the second verse, even though an audience member tried to help.

When they couldn't immediately figure out what to do as the second track, Jon took the lead to bring on "Only Love Will Break Your Heart," which was a lot kinder to everyone involved. It was pretty clear that Jon wasn't really in the mood for singing that night (perhaps related to the afflictions Flanny mentioned?), so it was a good thing that Neil was ready to man the mics. They finished up the Neil-on-Neil set (album idea!) with "Southern Man."

Neil asked for requests and finally opted for Crowded House songs, starting with "Chocolate Cake," where Neil and Liam's complementary vocals jumped out. For "Private Universe," Liam moved to percussion, where he and Mick went with the double drummer setup that I love so much (see: early Adam and the Ants records) to great effect.

They came to a short impasse as Neil confessed he couldn't remember the old classics he and Jon have done so much at their combo shows. From the front row, I offered "Moon River," and Neil obliged. As someone who's attended several of their shows together and listened to numerous bootlegs, I can do this all day, but I was more than happy that they took up the one request.

To close Neil's portion of the show, Jon suggested "Four Seasons in One Day," and for his part, he played at first the Mellotron, then switched back to the piano for a sublime bridge on this always lovely song.

For the capper, Jon at first tickled some keys, and my heart skipped because I recognized it as Elliott Smith's "Happiness," which probably would've made me cry in my seat. But instead, he fired up the beat machine and opted for another favorite. With Sebastian Steinberg and Paul Cartwright, they coaxed out "More Than This." I will never object to it.

And he threw in a few notes of "Jingle Bells" on celeste for good measure. Happy holidays and have yourself a great new decade!

Flanny and Bobb Bruno intro

-- piano
-- Knock Yourself Out
-- Over Our Heads
-- Christmas Moonage Daydream
-- Ashes to Ashes

w/ Neil Finn, Mick Fleetwood, and Sebastian Steinberg
-- I Got You
-- Man of the World

w/ Mick Fleetwood, and Sebastian Steinberg
-- mystery song 1
-- mystery song 2
-- mystery song 3

-- Please Stay Away from Me
-- Strings That Tie to You/Somewhere Over the Rainbow

w/ Neil Finn, Liam Finn, Mick Fleetwood, and Sebastian Steinberg
-- After the Gold Rush
-- Only Love Will Break Your Heart
-- Southern Man
-- Chocolate Cake
-- Private Universe
-- Moon River
-- Four Seasons in One Day
-- Moon River

-- More Than This

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
» strangest times
» i'll be a rock 'n' rolling bitch for you
» purple rain
» a few of my favorite things
» on such a winter's day