Meaningless Before We’d Seen Them Together

Largo at the Coronet is my favorite venue in Los Angeles. It is just about the perfect sized theater and there is not a bad seat in the house for viewing or hearing a concert.  This place has near perfect sound; I rarely find it too loud and all the instruments are well balanced.  They also have a fantastic monthly line-up of musicians and popular comedians. Many of these people perform at Largo on a monthly basis. Friday night I was there to see the phenomenal multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion.

The special guests for the night were Sean and Sara Watkins, who also have a monthly residency at Largo billed as the Watkins Family Hour. They played a quick set of songs starting with an instrumental, “Jefferson,” from Sara’s self-titled solo album. The catchy Lindsey Buckingham song from the recently released Watkins Family Hour album, “Steal Your Heart Away,” followed. Sara also sang her wistful song “You and Me” from her solo album Sun Midnight Sun. Sean took over lead vocals for the Nickel Creek song “21st of May.” Then they dipped back into the Watkins Family Hour album for “Not in Nottingham.” They closed they set with the Everly Brothers tune “You’re the One I Love,” but not before Sara remarked how it felt odd to be singing it with her brother (at WFH Fiona Apple often shares the vocals).

Largo owner Mark Flanagan stepped on stage, nearly at the same time as Jon Brion, to introduce him by calling out, “Girls and boys, get your knickers in a twist — it’s Jon Brion!” Jon headed straight to the iconic Largo piano and played two improvisational jazz numbers (I assume that is what they were as I didn’t recognize them, but please correct me if I am wrong; I am familiar with a lot of music, but not the huge repertoire Jon Brion can play). He followed those two with “Monday” from the I Heart Huckabees soundtrack. There was a microKORG synthesizer set up on the Largo piano which was effectively played on this song and others throughout the night, also a KORG organ and a keyboard glockenspiel (anyone knowing brand of this one, please share).

Largo's Starck Piano, MicroKORG Synthesizer, KORG Organ, and Keyboard Glockenspiel

Largo’s Starck Piano, MicroKORG Synthesizer, KORG Organ, and Keyboard Glockenspiel

Next, while still at the piano, he strapped on a harmonica and played and sang a song I am not familiar with, possibly new, that has some lines “You made the bed, now you’re just lying…I’m going to be fine.” Anyone know the title of this one? He followed this by dabbling with a short song on piano with a classical sounding start and which he also played on his keyboard glockenspiel.

Next he switched over to an acoustic Epiphone guitar and seemed to have fun covering Cheap Trick’s song “Surrender.” He changed to a 12-string guitar for a frenetic version of “I Believe She’s Lying” from his album Meaningless. There were a few jaw-dropping, holy-cow moments as we witnessed his innate ability to find the most incredible combinations of notes and chords all up and down the neck of the guitar at a blistering speed. There is a cool clip on YouTube from the Largo movie that shows him building this song on multiple instruments, including the 12-string guitar. If you’ve never seen Jon Brion playing, this will give you a hint of his genius.

He headed back to the piano and grabbed his role of duct tape, pulling off a strip and sticking it on the wires of the piano. This dampened most of the notes he was playing with his right hand, giving them an almost staccato effect. It was then that I was struck by the thought that one of the things about Jon Brion that makes him amazing (besides his huge knowledge of music, instruments, and ability to play nearly any song he has heard by ear) is his focus on the tonal quality of the music. It isn’t just about playing the right notes and including volume dynamics, but how does that note sound, which instrument produces it best, and even how can he change it within that one instrument (using different settings on synthesizers, pedals with guitars, tweaking where on the guitar the note is played, shifting the pick up emphasis on electric guitar, or sticking duct tape on piano strings). This is what makes him brilliant. I was so happy to hear him play a perfect version of “Meaningless” (one of his songs that has been stuck in my head lately), which seemed to have an embellished ending that reminded me of the music of Stephen Sondheim (specifically reminiscent of “Another Hundred People“). The title of this post comes from part of the “Meaningless” lyrics; the full line that has been holding meaning for me being, “I know that every landmark triggers memories, of stupid places and silly things, that were meaningless before we’d seen them together.”

Jon called out for righteous reverb as he grabbed his Gretsch guitar and set up a simple beat of 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3 and 4. He canceled the reverb order though, requested the audience to singalong, and launched into a cover of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”  He then performed a request from someone in the audience, this time with the righteous reverb, for Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos.”  Moving back to the piano, he played his song “Here We Go” from the movie Punch-Drunk Love.

Then Jon invited Sean and Sara Watkins back to the stage. They played a series of covers with Jon: “Poor Jenny” from the Everly Brothers; “Remember Me” by Stuart Hamblen (with Sara playing a Gibson acoustic electric — “Pat” — instead of her fiddle); both “Going, Going, Gone” and “From a Buick 6” by Bob Dylan; the bluesy “Keep It Clean” by Charley Jordan with Jon playing some slide guitar and then using an EBow/string resonator on his guitar strings; “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)” by Hank Williams with Sara singing beautifully; and finally they closed out the set with “Early in the Morning” by Buddy Holly, with Sara giving it everything in the vocals.

For the encore, Jon was back at the piano. He asked for requests again and closed the show with “Knock Yourself Out.” That felt fitting for me as I had tweeted about that song when I announced that morning that I was going to the show. Pleased to hear it live that night!

A brief note that one of Largo’s rules is no photography, recording or video during the show, thus no photos of Jon Brion. All of the links to mentioned songs are various versions I have been able to find on YouTube, by Jon, Sara or Sean where I can find them, and the original artists for the covers.

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We’re Sharing this Night That’ll Soon Be a Blur

Old 97's and Salim Nourallah on the Marquee at the Troubadour

Old 97’s and Salim Nourallah on the Marquee at the Troubadour

What a privilege to spend Friday, September 18 at the Troubadour seeing one of my favorite bands, Old 97’s, perform. They’ve been around for “20 good years of about 25” as Rhett sings in their song “Longer than You’ve Been Alive,” but I only jumped on the bandwagon almost exactly one year ago. (I also borrowed the title for this post from that song.) I’ve made up for lost time since then, buying all of their albums and nearly all of lead singer Rhett Miller’s solo albums. In the past several months, I’ve managed to see Rhett perform solo five times and experienced my first Old 97’s concert in May.  It is great to reside in the L.A. area for the opportunity to see so many live concerts!

The opener that night was musician and producer, Salim Nourallah.  Salim produced Old 97’s albums: Blame it on Gravity; The Grand Theatre, Volume One; The Grand Theatre, Volume Two; and Most Messed Up; as well as Rhett Miller’s self-titled album (one of my favorites of the whole lot of Rhett’s output).

At the show, Salim stepped onto the stage clad in a white T-shirt, black vest, black Converse, and a pair of the groovy, finely-checkered trousers. His backing band played via cassette tape through a 1979 boombox while Salim sang and sometimes played an acoustic guitar. His sound was something like 1990s Britpop meets Texas meets Indie rock. His lyrics feel poetic, yet story-like, and take a few clever turns.  While performing he got close to the edge of the stage and sang directly to audience members.  I was standing just left of center and right next to the stage. Several times I had to avoid getting whacked by his guitar, which he had left hanging and swinging around from his shoulder while he held the mic and gestured in front of me. You can’t deny that he is an enthusiastic performing and did his best to get the audience into the music, encouraging them to singalong on some of the choruses.

Salim Nourallah Performs at the Troubadour

Salim Nourallah Performs at the Troubadour

His set was so much fun and I gladly purchased his latest album Skeleton Closet after the show. The bulk of his set list was from the new album. It is great when you go to a show and the opener almost makes you forget about the band you came to see.  Listening to his music at home, I have been really enjoying the song “Permanent Holiday.” “The Bullies are Back” is particularly catchy. An album from a previous band effort of Salim’s, called The Travoltas, I bought solely because of the included song “Mail Ya to Australia“, an amusing jazz standard type tune which Salim sang with flair to close his set.

Setlist from Troubadour Show

Set List from Troubadour Show

The crowd was well warmed up by the time the Old 97’s hit the stage. The band got right down to business, starting off with a song from their most recent album Most Messed Up; Give it Time,” could be a template for Old 97’s alt-country rock style. They played through a handful of up tempo numbers before slowing it down for “Salome“, which was a surprise as it wasn’t on the set list (which was right in front of me). There have been a few Old 97’s songs in my head in the days prior to the concert and that was one of them, so I was grateful they played it (too bad no “Rollerskate Skinny” though).

There are several things that I love about the Old 97’s. Rhett Miller’s incredible lyrics — the way he cleverly and seamlessly combines storytelling and stream of consciousness writing in his words. His clear, resonant voice has a good dynamic range; he can effectively rock out, on the edge of shouting lines, or sing softly and sweetly in his vocals. Plus, he looks like a rock star — the camera loves him.

Rhett Miller, lead singer of Old 97's

Rhett Miller, lead singer of Old 97’s

Ken is a fantastic guitar player. He zips through riff after riff, run after run, like it is absolutely no problem. He pulls off some fantastic sounds, especially when pairing his Gretsch guitar with the Matchless amplifier.  During much of the concert Ken moved over to play solos right in front of my face. It was very fulfilling.

Ken Bethea, Guitarist for Old 97's

Ken Bethea, Guitarist for Old 97’s

Murry Hammond, on Bass for Old 97's

Murry Hammond, on Bass for Old 97’s

Murry Hammond knows his way around the bass. Sometimes bass players can play very simply (boringly), but not Murry, he nimbly moves up and down the neck and deftly contributes to the rhythm of each song. He also supplies background vocals and brings a stronger, bright country sound to the group when he takes over lead, which adds variety to a concert. During the main part of the concert he sang lead vocals for “W. TX Teardrops” and “Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue.”

Philip Peeples is a solid, powerful drummer. He keeps things moving along and perfectly compliments the songwriting with his rhythms. He can also throw in a little drum solo when the band isn’t quite ready to start playing, as we witnessed. Sorry, no photo, it is so difficult to get shots of drummers that are in focus. They also tend to hide behind lead singers and guitar players.

I shot a few videos during the concert, which are in the “You Make My World Rock” YouTube account. Rhett announced that the band realized that their album Wreck Your Life had just turned 20 years old and they were going to play a few songs from that album, so I whipped out my camera and recorded “Dressing Room Walls” and “Over the Cliff” (in one video). Another song from Wreck Your Life followed, “Old Familiar Steam,” which I didn’t record. I did record the live version of one of my favorite songs from Satellite Rides, “Designs on You.” Finally, I wanted to share an example of one of their more rock-like songs from the concert, so I shot “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You).” If you listen to these links, note my camera records acoustic concerts well, but gets overwhelmed by amplifiers and particularly drums. If any readers have tips on a point-and-shoot camera (which small enough I can take it into venues without a special pass) that deals with drums better, let me know.

The encore was perfect. First, Rhett came out alone with his Gibson acoustic guitar  and played his single “Most in the Summertime” from his most recent solo album The Traveler. Then Murry came out and strapped on the Gibson to sing a heartfelt rendition of “Valentine” with Rhett on background vocals. As Murry was finishing up, Rhett gave Murry’s shoulders a squeeze — that was sweet. Then Ken and Philip came back out for the full band to play the lustful, booze-infused “Let’s Get Drunk and Get it On,” also from Most Messed Up. Keeping with tradition, they closed with the punk-esque song, “Timebomb,” with Rhett taking his signature rock jump off a nearby speaker to kick off the song.

It was an excellent show from start to finish. Members of the band were available next to the stage to sign merchandise and chat to fans. I love it when bands are accessible to fans. It may be the best bit of relationship building a band can do. I briefly was able to speak with Ken, who commented on it being difficult to hear his guitar on the stage. I assured him it sounded awesome and thanked him for all the close-up solos.  I was also able to say hello to Salim near the merch area and have him sign the CDs that I purchased. He very kindly took a photo with me too.  Thanks to Salim and each member of Old 97’s for giving me an outstanding night of entertainment that I truly needed.

You Are Everything

There are some musicians whose work becomes a part of your life story. You latch onto their words to find the meaning in your life; they help you navigate the rough parts and celebrate the high points. I think everyone who likes music has a singer or a band that fills this role and for me that person is Glen Phillips.

Glen is the lead singer of the band Toad the Wet Sprocket, whose hits in the 1990s included “Walk on the Ocean” and “All I Want” (I just heard the latter at my local grocery store on Thursday).  Glen later went on to record a handful of solo albums and EPs and worked on side projects Mutual Admiration Society, Plover, Remote Tree Children, and W.P.A.

For the last 20-some years, Glen has been observing and experiencing life, distilling it into words and music, and dispensing it to all who care to listen. I have been a dedicated fan for nearly as long. His approach of writing “emotionally specific, situationally vague” lyrics, as he once described them, allows the listener to connect with his words and imbue them with personal meaning. For me, he has been like an absent older brother who sends letters filled with sage advice, which arrive exactly when I need them. He is also my favorite singer; there is something about hearing his voice live in a relatively quiet room that sends chills down my spine (especially when he sings falsetto), reaches inside and squeezes my heart, and has moved me to tears more than once.

Having said that, obviously I was excited to hear him play a solo concert at Soho Restaurant and Music Club in Santa Barbara on Tuesday, September 8. I certainly love hearing him rocking out with Toad, but the solo shows feel so much more intimate, casual, honest, and open, where oftentimes his emotions are laid bare in his performance.  It is also fun to hear him speak of his inspiration for songs, as well as hearing him go off on tangents that are loosely related to the song at hand. He is a pretty well-read guy and most solo shows seem to include a book reference.

Glen Phillips Performing at Soho

Glen Phillips Performing at Soho

Glen certainly mixed things up for us that night, perhaps borrowing a page from the Watkins Family Hour playbook, by having some special guests and amusing banter. He seems to loosen up in this venue, with its welcoming, hometown crowd populated with family and friends. His 14 -year-old daughter Freya (who has performed some duets with her dad previously on the Soho stage) and her friend Curran opened the show. Curran played guitar and provided harmonies to Freya’s lead vocals on a couple numbers. She has a lovely, jazzy type of voice, which is delightful to hear.

Glen kicked off his set with the yet to be released song “Leaving Old Town.” The song has a few nice versions available for viewing on YouTube, so in that way it is already starting to feel familiar. The song is clearly a personal one inspired by Glen’s change in living circumstances during the past year. Such a beautiful and heartfelt piece.

Glen has written a slew of thoughtful songs in his time, some that rarely get played live. He mentioned one of his daughters requested this song and he was worried about remembering it before he started playing, but went on to give a solid live performance (love the vocals) of “Brain Trust Kid” — now the first live version on YouTube. This song comes from his Unlucky Seven EP, which is made up of a set of songs that did not make it onto his album, Winter Pays For Summer. It really shows the depth of his songwriting when even the off cuts are this clever.

A note about the guitar in the video. Glen normally plays a Lakewood (which he did use for a few songs), but for most of the night he was playing a mini Taylor, which was having some difficulty staying in tune. Perhaps too much heat and humidity in SoCal in recent weeks affecting the instrument, as Glen seemed to be tuning more than usual. I don’t mind though, I’d rather have him in tune!

During the show, Glen’s brother, yes that “Brother,” Dan Phillips, accompanied him on piano for a few songs (including new songs “Baptistina” and “Go,” and solo Glen song, “True” — link from show). He also played a djembe on Glen’s song, “Gather.”

Dan Phillips on Piano at Soho

Dan Phillips on Piano at Soho

Surprise special guest Teitur, a singer-songwriter from the Faroe Islands, took over the stage in the middle of the show. What a treat for me, as I started listening to his music about a year ago and was so happy to finally see him live. He played piano and sang his songs: “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” “You Never Leave L.A.,” (just what I was thinking as I was sitting in slow traffic on the 405 on the way up to the show), and “Home.” He borrowed Glen’s mini Taylor guitar to play “Shade of a Shadow,” another one I captured on video. Glen joined him on stage providing harmonies on Teitur’s song “Josephine.”  Then Teitur played piano on Glen’s songs “Don’t Need Anything” (this song has recently become one of my older son’s bedtime song requests) and “Last Sunset” (link of that performance).  If you are unfamiliar with Teitur, I recommend you follow some of the links and check out his music and/or get the album Poetry and Airplanes.

Teitur Introducing a Song at Soho

Teitur Introducing a Song at Soho

Besides the special guests, the wonderful thing about this concert was how much new music Glen played. I’m sure there were people who would have liked to hear more Toad songs (he only played the two big hits mentioned earlier from Toad’s catalog), but I was thrilled to experience the new stuff. Glen has been writing a bunch of new songs over the last several months and recorded a new album in June (not yet released).

Several of the new songs have been already enjoying discussion on the fan circuit. The lighthouse-inspired song “Go” has been played live at a few venues already and during Glen’s StageIt concerts and was fondly referred to as the “Sad Lighthouse Song” until we learned the title. Glen was inspired to write this song after hearing a podcast about lighthouses and says, “The message that they’re basically saying is ‘I love you, now go’ and I liked that idea.”

Glen referred to new song “Baptistina” as “pop and upbeat,” smiling as he noted that it is “all about an extinction level asteroid plummeting into the earth.” He referenced both a podcast titled “Apocalypse!” and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower as inspirational in the creation of this song. You can’t keep that man away from an apocalypse/post-apocalypse song that is begging to be written! (See his songs “My Own Town,” “Fred Meyers” and even the aforementioned “Don’t Need Anything”.)

Another new one to look forward to, especially lyrically, is the song, “The Easy Ones.” I believe at the previous concert I attended that he referenced the Dalai Lama’s work The Art of Happiness as inspiration for this song. The subjects in the three verses echoed so strongly for me in the main areas of my life, with starting lyrics, “You can’t just love the easy ones,” (my kids), “You can’t just play the simple songs” (when learning guitar), and “You can’t just walk the shortest road” (when you are a runner training for races).

One that he wrote just last month, and I think this was the first live performance of it, was a song that includes whistling throughout, with a line in the chorus, “Peace to us, peace through us…”.  He said he wrote it in the afternoon during his vacation in South America and it certainly feels mellow and swaying, like relaxing in a hammock in a shady spot while sunlight spills through tree branches to dapple the ground.

The last of the new ones he played is called “In Grief and In Praise”. This feels like a Bob Dylan song. It examines the inevitability of change and touches on one of Glen’s recurring themes of living in “The Moment.” The chorus says it all: “For all you hold dear will be taken some day, by the Angel of Death or servants of change, in a floodwater tide without rancor or rage, sing loud while you’re able, In Grief and In Praise.” Yet another song that seems written for me as I am processing a major life change. Thanks, Glen.

Toward end of the night he had one last guest, singer Khäsy Modisette, who joined him for harmonies on his song “Everything But You.” Today’s post title is taken from that song’s lyrics.  He also played one of the best songs that he as ever written, IMHO, “Rise Up,” which he originally played with W.P.A.

For those who like more details, most of Glen’s set list of the night is on Setlist.fm. If you made it through this long review and would love to see and hear more of Glen Phillips playing solo right now, I highly recommend the One on One session that Glen recorded, which is available on YouTube. It is simply him with his Lakewood acoustic guitar playing all of his best solo songs, a few amazing covers, and some hits from Toad the Wet Sprocket. It is exquisite.

And Just Be Who You Are

On Saturday night I headed to Amplyfi in Hollywood, CA to see my friend Kapali Long play a short set. This is a small, all ages venue with platinum records and music-themed posters on the walls, band stickers plastered all over an inner door, and an eclectic choice of chairs to sit on. This would be an ideal space for budding artists to play or perhaps for an intimate secret show.

Artwork at Amplyfi

Kapali performed with his usual level of passion and obvious love for music. He started the show with his sweet song, “Double Tall Non-Fat Latte,” a story of love at first sight.  One of my favorite songs by Kapali is a new one called “A Little Bit” (check out the lyric video via the link). This tune should be playing nationally on the radio. It has such a good chorus and broad musical appeal; I can also easily imagine it with a full band treatment. Today’s post title was taken from the song lyrics. Kapali covered Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, which he makes his own with his Hawaiian Islands rhythm on the guitar.  I was able to request one of his songs and have Kapali dedicate it to me — here is the live performance from that night of “What’s It Gonna Be.”

Kapali Long at Amplyfi

In the next few months, besides California, Kapali will be spending some time in Hawaii and New York. He will be in Texas in March during SXSW. Check him out if he is playing near you. He always brings positive energy and much Aloha to each of his shows. You can also buy a few of his singles, including “A Little Bit”, on iTunes.

Love to Hear the Robin Go Tweet, Tweet, Tweet

“You Make My World Rock” is on Twitter too! Follow along at @YouMMWRock. Watch out for the following daily hashtags:

  • #SundaySongDay — focusing on songs by singer/songwriters, those guys and gals creating music with their guitars or pianos (or ukuleles) to guide them.
  • #MiseryLovesMonday — get all your sad songs here. The weekend is over and heaven knows we are miserable now.
  • #TuesdayFanDay — I’ll highlight a song suggested by a follower. Are you a fan of a musician you want to share with the world? Let me know and I’ll give them a shout out.
  • #WiseWordsWednesday — there are some great lyrics out there. Let’s find them all.
  • #ThrowbackThursday — but of course! Your weekly music history fix or a link to song that is over 20 years old.
  • #FridayFunday — let’s enjoy some fun, feel good, just can’t help smiling when you hear it, kind of songs.
  • #SaturdayRocks — We will be rocking out on Saturdays to rock ‘n’ roll, classic rock, hard rock or alternative rock. Maybe even the Crocodile Rock.

Now get thee to Twitter and follow @YouMMWRock.

Take a Chance and Let’s Go

On September 2, I attended my first concert since starting this blog, so here is the first concert report! The show took place at what I like to think of as my home venue, Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach, CA. The line-up for the evening was DOJO, Gears and Zeal Levin.

Opening the night, DJ duo DOJO deftly swapped turns on the controller. They smoothly transitioned between songs, pumping up the crowd and getting them moving on the dance floor.

Local artists, Gears, continued to bring the beats with Tanner Allen mixing the music while Carolina Webb’s soaring voice added emotion and flow to the songs. They were adept at mixing up tempos and keeping within their style, even while covering other songs (including Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”). Both artists looked like they were having a great time and their enthusiasm was contagious; the crowd loved them.

Headliner Zeal Levin and his band changed the mood of the evening from straight-up dance party to grooving, soulful, funktastic revelry. The band was composed of Zeal on lead vocals and guitar, Derrick Elliott on (a 6 string!) bass, Mike Fortunato on trumpet, and Gilbert Lopez on drums.  Things loosened up early on as the band brought up friend Nick Fox as a background vocalist (and backup dancer) for Zeal’s song “Sunshine“.

Zeal Levin singing and playing guitar

Zeal Levin performing at Saint Rocke

Later in the set, the band covered  “Ain’t No Sunshine”, originally by Bill Withers. I enjoy a good cover and this band did not disappoint! It was a stunning rendition where the emotion of the piece was made palpable particularly by Zeal’s guitar work and Mike’s prowess on trumpet. All of the band members shone on their instruments throughout the concert and particularly at the end when Zeal gave each of them some time to solo.

For me, one of the highlights of the night (besides Zeal successfully playing guitar behind his head, which I have never seen done live before) was a song Zeal introduced as a single from his forthcoming record (due out next year) called “Take a Chance”. I borrowed a line from his song for the title of this post, which seemed apt to me as I begin this blog.

I would have loved to capture the sound of some of those smoking hot solos and regret not taking more video. We’ll just have to settle for this picture I took of Zeal completely going for it during one of his solos.

Zeal Levin playing guitar

Zeal Levin takes a solo