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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