I was back at Largo at the Coronet on Friday, March 25, 2016 for Jon Brion’s monthly show. The addition of special guest Grant-Lee Phillips livened up the night. I’ve seen Grant-Lee perform a few times: three times with his band Grant Lee Buffalo, once on the “Surf and Turf” tour with Glen Phillips, and twice with Steve Poltz. I adore Grant-Lee’s voice and his wonderful sense of humor, so I was absolutely delighted when he played an opening set and later joined Jon on the stage.
When Grant-Lee sat down with his Gibson J-200 guitar to open, he glanced around himself at the leather-backed chair, classic UFO shaped metal lamp, and patterned rug and remarked, “I’m gonna settle in to Jon’s little steampunk parlor he has set up here.” Grant-Lee is getting started touring behind his new album The Narrows (he heads to Europe in April) and began his set by playing five new songs from the album. “Holy Irons” was the first of these, which he kicked off noting how dry it is here, saying, “I snorted a lot of (pause) dust yesterday — that valley dust.” Next he played “Smoke and Sparks,” followed by “Loaded Gun,” which he referred to as having an “old Memphis rhythm.” He introduced “Cry Cry” by saying, “This is more of a historical, emotional nature.” He prefaced the final song from the new album, “No Mercy in July,” with the comment, “I’ve been following the water crisis and I said to myself, ‘There is a romantic topic!'” A thought-provoking line of that song, “Can’t hold out long, one more summer and we may be up and gone.”
Jon Brion then joined Grant-Lee on stage and sat down at the piano. They play the Grant Lee Buffalo song “The Hook” from the album Fuzzy. There was some discussion about the next song and Grant-Lee noted that he now plays it a half step up from the original version, but somehow they got sidetracked onto playing Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.” Sebastian Steinberg joined them on stage as the song commenced. During the song, Jon called out for, “Tons of slapback on everything to Alec in the sound booth.” The audience was swept up into the energy of the song and sang along, especially the refrain. In between songs, there was some complementary banter between Jon and Grant-Lee; Jon was clearly enamored of Grant-Lee’s talents. Sebastian, who was positioned between the two, pulled his bass upstage, noting he needed to “get out of the way of the love bolts.” Next the trio played the previously planned “Happiness,” which is from Grant Lee Buffalo’s great album Mighty Joe Moon. Have I mentioned how much I love Grant-Lee’s voice? It sounded so good on this one. As Grant-Lee leaves the stage, Jon said to the audience, “You lucky dogs, you just got to hear that!” As my 9-year-old son would say, “I know, right?”
The Jon Brion set then commenced, well sort of, as he remarked that he needed to warm up his fingers and that “the show will start in about 40 minutes.” He mentioned he would “have to reach back 80 years or so” and played a classic jazz standard thing (which I failed to identify) with broken bass chords in the left hand of the style he often is inclined to play in the early part of his show. This style most reminds me of my Dad’s piano playing and fills me with a feeling of nostalgia.
Jon then played his emotionally-saturated song “Go Ahead and Break My Heart,” after which Sebastian left the stage. May the powers that be please have Jon release this amazing song in a portable format? This song is lyrically stunning and the music that goes with it is equally beautiful. I’m loving this song so much lately; I’ve used the main line for the title of this post. Here are most of the lyrics I was able to note down (assuming I heard them correctly, some lyrics are missing):
- Giving it a go round, not ’cause I’m weak or strong, I’ve just been locked away too long…
- Guess I might as well, oh I’m willing can’t you tell
- So go ahead and break my heart it makes no difference to me because I haven’t been free
- Go ahead and break my heart, don’t care if you do, but could you wait until the night is through
- ..figure why not, I’m gonna take another shot
- I’m gonna take it for a spin and I don’t care if you win
- So go ahead and break my heart, I said go ahead and try, I won’t even ask you why
- Go ahead and break my heart, it’s okay if you do, but could you wait a year or two
- Giving it a go round, you can show me what you’ve got, you might think I’m kidding but I’m not.
- I’m (not?) giving it a go round though my heart’s been in a sling, I’m just too tired to guard the thing
- Go ahead and break my heart ’cause it could go that way, I don’t know why I shy away
- Go ahead and break my heart, I don’t care if you do or don’t, I’m just hoping that you won’t.
Then Jon wanted “one more round of making my fingers move” and played some of his typical warm up stuff and mixed in snippets of songs like “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,”the bass line of “Sunshine of Your Love,” the Wicked Witch of the West motif from Wizard of Oz, and “Rhapsody in Blue.” I wonder if he heard me mutter “more of that” as he played that instantly recognizable measure of “Rhapsody in Blue”, either way he played a couple minutes of that one. From there he segued straight into his tune “Strange Bath” from I Heart Huckabees, which he seems to often use as a transition piece.
Then Jon switched over to playing that beat up looking Gibson guitar, which he appeared to be fighting against whenever he played it that night. Hey Jon, I know a guy who can do an amazing set up for you. He played “It Looks Like You,” which has been recorded by Evan Dando. He took a request from a frequent audience member for “The Girl I Knew.” Interesting how those two different songs’ lines could be a couplet: “It Looks Like You got some explaining to do; The Girl I Knew would make fun of you.” He played a bunch of brooding chords and launched into that one song that he has played a few times in the last year, I’ll call it “What Are We Left With” as I don’t know the official title. It has lyrics such as “The sweetest smile on your face and now you’re something to avoid…you’re strange and you’re accusing every friend, and I’ll just stick to the scene where we already know its end.”
Jon headed back to the piano and said before the next song that, “This song is not a knock on anything that anyone wants” and something about those who don’t want those things to not be psychologically analyzed. He played an unreleased song that I refer to as “That’s What People Do,” which has a following lyric of “and if you don’t there’s something wrong with you.” This song explores the idea that unmet expectations about traditional life choices are the impetus for much judgment or evaluation of the non-conformist. He continued on this melancholy thread with “Strings that Tie to You” from the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack. Then, from the same movie he played his song “Row,” which is on the soundtrack as an instrumental, but in this instance he sang the words from his notebook! A couple of lines were, “We’re all but dead and in my head we’re going over all that was said” and “forgotten more than you remember, as echos of our former splendor fade.” My mood was taken down several levels during this section of the show. I felt like I was underwater and waiting to be pulled to the surface.
Jon sensed it was time to switch things up. Sebastian returned to the stage and they played Slim Gaillard’s “Flat Foot Floogie.” Then, Jon decided he was going to play a tune by Duke Ellington and says to Sebastian, “We haven’t done the stock one.”. Sebastian replies with a great comeback, “I don’t know half the shit I play in this room!” They played a solid version of “Satin Doll.” Then they played “Trouble” from Jon’s album Meaningless. I had only just discovered Jon’s version of Queen’s “Play the Game” on YouTube the day before, so it was pretty cool when he then played it at the show. Love his recorded arrangement of this song (at the link), which captures the style of the original but has that Jon Brion interesting instruments magic about it.
Grant-Lee returned to the stage at this point and the trio performed Queen’s monster of a song, “We Are the Champions” with the audience joining in and Grant-Lee leading the vocals. This was followed by the Queen and David Bowie song “Under Pressure,” with a huge audience singalong. I had read an article that week that included an anecdote about Grant-Lee having once attempted this with Jon at the old Largo as a duet with Elliott Smith. This sparked off the transition from Queen to Bowie as they next covered Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” (from Scary Monsters). Then Jon made a request for Grant-Lee to play his song “Fuzzy.” Such beautiful vocals from Grant-Lee on that tune.
On the drive to Largo, I had been hoping for a song to pop up on my shuffled iPod that would fulfill an emotional need for something with depth and feeling. The next song that came on was Bowie’s “Life on Mars” from Hunky Dory. How cool when the trio decided to perform that song that same night with Grant-Lee on vocals. After the song Grant-Lee and Sebastian left the stage. Jon played “Meaningless” on guitar, which had been requested earlier, followed by “Knock Yourself Out” from I Heart Huckabees. For the encore, he returned to the piano and gave a rare performance of his song “Trial and Error,” as requested by someone in the audience. He concluded the night with what he referred to as an “Irving Berlin song I learned from a Fats Waller record.” I am not 100% sure what that song was, but it may have been “Waiting At the End of the Road,” which fits the criteria and sounds plausible from what I remember of the tune.
It was an emotional roller coaster of a show. Fantastic to see Grant-Lee Phillips perform and one could see that Jon was excited to have him there. While I love solo acoustic performances, I feel like some of Jon’s shows have been lacking that interaction with musicians that seems to really drive and inspire him, which you see happen to him when he sits in on other people’s shows. The next two Jon Brion shows are scheduled for April 29 (I’m going to miss that one) and May 27.