Stop the World

Time for the monthly Jon Brion concert report! I certainly was not going to miss this one after last month’s incredible show. Back at Largo at the Coronet on Friday, June 24, 2016, I walked in the theatre to see all of the looping equipment set up. Back-to-back looping concerts, are you freaking kidding me?  After having a rough day myself and still reeling from the repercussions of all the unbelievable things going on in our world, I was ready for this sanctuary — to be transported from all that by whatever Jon had in store.

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Stage Set Up for Jon Brion’s June Show

There was no opener that night, but none was needed as the audience was enthusiastic from the start. Largo-owner Flanny came out on stage to introduce Jon, who soon appeared looking slightly rumpled in a dark blazer, blue shirt with tiny white polka-dots, and gray trousers. He addressed the audience, referencing all of the equipment on the stage, “The continued public experiment begins.” He headed straight for his safe place, the piano.

He commenced playing a piano medley that started with and continually returned to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” with short bits of things like the “Cantina” music from Star Wars stuck in there for good measure, also including Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd Movement.  He then looped the piano and started playing on the miniKorg, messing around with tempo and style. He added some synth sounds to the mix and then started playing a jazzy piano style over the top. I felt like sometimes it worked and other moments it just sounded sloppy or maybe I am just not good enough of a musician to follow what he was doing properly. Whatever, it was fascinating.  He remained at the piano and played a few measures of something else, commenting, “It’s pseudo-classical night.” Then he decided he wanted to get away from that and so abruptly began his song “Ruin My Day” from his album Meaningless.

Still at the piano he began to play in a style that one might call “tickling the ivories.” I have no idea what it was, but it eventually transitioned into a beautiful rendition of “Stardust.” There was a lot of playing around with the melody while simultaneously stomping the floor. He then broke into something with a quicker tempo at the end that I am also at a loss to name.

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Back of the Guyatone

He got out his Guyatone guitar and looped some chords on it, then played lead and sang, “Why Do You Do This to Yourself?”  He stayed with the Guyatone, but changed to a fuzzier tone, making great use of the tremolo, and playing for a minute or two before launching into “Same Thing,” which he recorded with his band The Grays back in the 1990s for the album Ro Sham Bo. Really appreciated him rocking this song, though he seemed to be having some tuning issues with this guitar.

As Jon began wandering around the stage looking at things, he remarked, “Let’s have another spectacular lull and see if I can get some of this crap working.” It was time to use his music samples and projectors.  Jon started off with a reel that informed us about Percy Grainger and continued with a recording of him playing Irish Folk tune, “McGuire’s Kick,” which Jon put on a loop. The piano was switched to tack and Jon began performing and singing, “Stop the World.”  Nice lyrics: “There are times when I’m doing well, then a voice deep inside will start, can anyone stop the world from beating up my heart?” I’ve used “Stop the World” as the post title, but it is really the whole phrase that I like.

Next it was time for a singalong as Jon turned to the audience and asked for requests. Remarking that there were a lot of high quality requests, he then began to play Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” on piano. Was that a high quality request or was he in jest?  He kept it totally ’80s by playing a verse and chorus of Cyndi’s song “All Through the Night.” The audience wasn’t on top of the lyrics for this one and so he aborted the attempt, switching to trustworthy singalong favorite, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Then he played what I will call transitional songs: first something on the piano and miniKorg, which I didn’t recognize. Then “Strange Bath” from I Heart Huckabees, which I find he often plays when he wants to change directions of the mood or style of music being played. He headed to the drums and looped them, then added in the piano, got a guitar and played a bass line and plays and sings a song possibly called, “Get Over Yourself.” Except he isn’t happy with the guitar tuning so he kicks off the bass line, but decides not to continue without it, saying he is “not going to take a bass-less out-of-tune guitar version.” He re-records the bass line and finishes the song. When he is done playing he hands that guitar straight off the stage to Bob Bruno.

With the remark, “Oh trustworthy 19th century technology!” Jon returns to the beloved piano and plays a furious flurry of notes and then his classic song, “Trouble” from Meaningless. This was the song that got me interested in seeing Jon, so I’m always grateful to hear it. Meanwhile, the front row was being continually blinded by the interrogation lamp set up next to the piano. Can someone do something about this lamp? The bulb hangs out of the shade and if it is just slightly tilted toward the audience it is burning our retinas away!

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“Interrogation Light” on the Right

Slightly amused that Jon followed up a song with the lyrics, “There’s a conversation we’re about to have, and it’s full of twists and turns, half truths and vague concerns, from one who never learns to one who never learns, and I never learn,”  with a song called “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime.”  Jon provided the music for the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack, on which this song appears, though it is sung by Beck; the original is by the Korgis. This was another piece that he spent some time looping live, first on drums, adding in some prerecorded orchestra music on the left screen, playing piano, adding synthesizer, adding a sample of a guitar solo onto the right screen, and playing the miniKorg too. Jon masterfully made all these bits of music work together as he sung this song and stretched out the guitar sample at the end. This was another one of those moments of witnessing a genius at work — just watching in amazement at what he was doing. During this song, the vibration of the low notes on the miniKorg were cutting right through my body. Intense.

Jon spoke to the audience again, remarking, “Thank you for permitting me the freedom to publicly go through some half working gear.” Then he asked for requests for something that was either fun or interesting and worthwhile to experience. There were a lot of different requests, but the one for The Beatles sparked his imagination as he headed to the drums to loop them, added the bass, added the guitar, sang a few lyrics, and then ended up on the piano for “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” from the White Album. Another epic looping moment! Also, one of those times when I really wanted to get up and dance, but that is not the done thing at Largo. Upon finishing, Jon called for another Guinness (his third) and delivered the best quote of the night, “The beer is the one thing that’s absolutely working tonight!”

Well, how to follow that up?  With The Boss, clearly! Jon performed an acoustic guitar singalong of “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. Then he picked up a 12-string guitar to play a straightforward rendition of “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” by Beck.  This was followed by more requests shouted from the audience and a complete 180° turn in the music. Jon, noting that people were feeling Swedish based on requests coming in, began looping up the drums, synth, miniKorg, and piano to perform Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” with the audience enthusiastically joining in the vocals. He wondered how to wrap things up and finished with a gorgeous piano-only rendition of “Cold as Ice” by Foreigner, but played in the style of Fats Waller. Good call to whoever shouted out that request.

The audience loudly encouraged Jon to come out for an encore and he once again was open to requests. He performed a mellow “Famous Blue Raincoat” by Leonard Cohen on piano and miniKorg.  So once again, Jon has provided an excellent night out of entertainment, despite some technical glitches, taking the audience on a roller coaster ride of popular music. I don’t know how he is going to top these last two shows come July (the gauntlet has been thrown).

 

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There’s Something Exciting Outside of Me

On Wednesday, June 15, 2016, I was at The Troubadour to catch one of my favorite Southern California bands, Beta Play, opening for Rita Wilson. The last time I saw them was back in October 2015 at their EP release show in Santa Barbara, California. Beta Play band members are: Tom Cantillon on vocals and guitar, Mike Cantillon on keyboard, guitar, and backing vocals, and Mike Dyer on bass and backing vocals. Recently, drummer Matt Palermo sadly left the band to pursue other interests and to spend some time in India. Joshua Daubin, from Nashville, expertly filled in on drums at this gig.

Beta Play began their set with their newest single, “The Way We Play,” which was released for purchase on iTunes the day after the show (so buy it now). The song was co-written with Glen Phillips, front man of Toad the Wet Sprocket, and is evocative of early ’80s synth pop, but with a modern twist. One could imagine a band like The Human League or singer Gary Numan quite comfortably performing this tune. Kudos to keyboardist Mike Cantillon for delivering the goods on this number. I’ve borrowed a line from this song for the title of this post.

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Brothers Mike and Tom Cantillon of Beta Play Performing at The Troubadour

Next they played “Innocent,” which can be found on the album Only Human, released under the band’s former moniker Tommy and the High Pilots. This fun, firecracker of a song was great for getting the audience dancing. A good number of Beta Play fans were represented in the crowd and their enthusiasm when this song was played was surely contagious. I bet some of Rita Wilson’s fans became Beta Play fans that night.

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Mike Dyer on Bass

The first track from last year’s self-titled EP was up next, “I Am the Prey.” (Is this song a response to Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf“?) I was standing near bassist Mike Dyer and remember being impressed by the rhythmic pulse of the bass line on this tune.  I hadn’t really noticed it in the recorded mix, but standing nearby at the show helped it come through quite clearly and it felt pretty groovy.  The energy built up by the band in the first two numbers, continued flowing right through this song.

For “Heaven is Under the Sun,” another tune from their EP,  Tom put down his guitar and invited the crowd to dance along. He proceeded to dance around the stage while singing this song about resisting naysayers, being secure in your choices, and finding beauty in life. A charismatic vocalist, Tom, has all of the traits you’d want in a front man: an exceptionally good, unmistakable voice; the musical chops to sing, play guitar, and write songs; a charming boy-next-door demeanor; the ability to engage and energize the audience; and zero wrong dance moves.

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Up Close with Beta Play’s Tom Cantillon

They then performed “Do You Love Me,” a song that the band revisited from its initial incarnation as “Devil to Pay” under Tommy and the High Pilots. This well-written tune was made a bit more atmospheric and with a stronger rhythm on the drums. At the show Tom got right into the faces of the audience to deliver it. Honestly, he couldn’t have been closer if had jumped down into the crowd (which he has done on many occasions). The flawless harmony provided by Mike Cantillon made this number extra special. The voices of these brothers blend together beautifully and their enviable sense of phrasing leads to well-polished live vocals.

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Mike Cantillon Switches from Keyboards to Guitar

After having had some months to cogitate on it, I’ve decided that “Electric 22” is my favorite song from the Beta Play EP. You can hear Tom speak about the shocking (literally) origin of this song here.  I hope that writing this song helped Tom lay claim to his own vitality and heal himself. The song is powerful and moving; when they played it live at The Troubadour, it rocked!  The arrangement of the recorded version is solid and steady; I can easily imagine it being played on pop/rock radio stations. I wish someone would get it in rotation on the airwaves.

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Drummer Joshua Daubin

The band finished their set with a fan favorite from the Only Human album, “Somebody Make a Move.” Tom encouraged the audience to sing with the band in the call and response section of the song and I believe the whole room was singing. Beta Play certainly more than did their job of warming up the audience in advance of the headlining act. All of the band members were on top form for their first show in this historic venue. Tom was attuned to every little thing and graciously shared the music so directly with the audience. Mike Cantillon played and sang so perfectly and Mike Dyer was as confident on stage as I’ve ever seen him.  I was impressed with Joshua for staying true to the sound and style of the band while keeping the beat the whole night. Beta Play are playing their next show at Hotel Cafe in Hollywood on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. If you can go see them, do it!

Wanting to speak to some of my friends who were at the show before I called it an early night, and being completely unfamiliar with her material, I only stayed for a few songs of Rita Wilson’s set. From what I heard, she is a fine singer and everything she performed was pleasant to the ear. You could hear the influence of one of her favorite songwriters, Joni Mitchell in her style, with Rita even performing a song inspired by her called, “Joni.” She also reminded me of a ’90s-era Shania Twain or Sheryl Crow. She was promoting her recently released, self-titled album, so check it out if that sounds like your kind of music.

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Rita Wilson Performing at The Troubadour

There’s No Derailing Destiny

DSC05999On Sunday, June 5, 2016 I was back at my favorite venue, Largo at the Coronet, to finally see Robyn Hitchcock in concert. I just missed out on seeing him at a 21+ venue that was down the street from where I lived, right before I turned 21. The last few times he has played at Largo I have had conflicts or the tickets sold out before I purchased one. Not this time though and I was ready for a night of music and strangeness that only Robyn could provide. Everything about Robyn is distinctive: from the immediately recognizable tone of his singing voice to the imaginative, mystifying, quirky, thought-provoking, and sometimes sentimental lyrics of his songs, to his flowing guitar-picking, and his often multi-colored patterned or dotted shirts. He has a style all his own and carries it comfortably.

Opening for Robyn was Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift, who moved to Nashville a couple of years ago because, in her words, she “likes country music.” She played a beautiful guitar with a mother-of-pearl neck and small rectangles of wood inserted for fret markers. She was backed by the versatile Luther Russell on lead guitar (a Gibson SG). Luther recently released an album with Big Star band member Jody Stephens under the name Those Pretty Wrongs. Emma fits in the Americana genre or perhaps old school country, with a sound at times reminiscent of Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn.

Emma mostly played songs from her debut self-titled album, beginning with the aptly named “Bittersweet” (she could be self-describing her style — a sweet voice and music singing sad, introspective lyrics) followed by “Woodland Street.” Next she faithfully covered the Gram Parsons song, “Brass Buttons.” She spoke to the audience after this song, noting, “I pride myself on being a professional miserablist [sic] — and we’re just going to keep on getting sad.” There followed a song of regret for “James,” which began with the lyric, “James, I didn’t mean to kiss you, something in the night threw my reason to the wind.” Poor James. I’m a sucker for songs using seasons as a metaphor for a longer span of time or age and so appreciated the lyric writing on Emma’s next tune, “Seasons.”

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Emma Swift Tuning Before the Show

For Emma’s final song she invited Robyn to join her on stage, announcing him by proclaiming, “Make way for the marvelous and most likely polka-dotted, Robyn Hitchcock!” Yes indeed, he was wearing a polka-dotted shirt. The pair sang a despairing Rowland S. Howard song called “Shivers,” which opens with the line “I’ve been contemplating suicide, but it really doesn’t suit my style.” Their voices blended together well in harmony, with Emma’s light clear tones balancing out Robyn’s resonant lines. Nice guitar soloing by Luther during this final number in Emma’s set.

Robyn began his set with a couple songs from his days with the Soft Boys, playing “I Got the Hots” and “Tonight” from Underwater Moonlight. On concluding the latter song, he remarked, “Out goes the first of many demons, shrieking off into the dust.” Feeling cathartic, Robyn? Then he commented on how he chooses songs for his shows, “You tend to assemble a collage of your memories. You tend to play the highlights.”  He indicated that he would play, “A collection of songs of mine that I like (pause) and remember!”

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Robyn Hitchcock Meeting Fans in the Courtyard After the Show

Before beginning “52 Stations” from his album Groovy Decay, he asked the sound booth to make his guitar sound like a 12-string. It is interesting which lyrics jump out from songs that one is not already familiar with. From this song it was, “There’s a few good reasons why you’re not with me.” Next he played “Balloon Man” from Globe of Frogs, surprising my friend who was at the show. Sometimes you expect to hear the fan favorites, but sometimes artists get tired of playing them (à la Radiohead with “Creep“) and they get removed from the rotation. During the song he made an aside to the audience, “You know I wrote this for The Bangles?  I follow Susanna on Twitter.” (Me too.) He prefaced the odd song “Trilobite” by noting, “One of the interesting things about us is that we give names to things that have been gone long before we are born.” He continued on about the trilobite and Elton John, who is referenced in the song, which can be found on the album Mossy Liquor: Outtakes and Prototypes. This song is a fine example of what I mean when I refer to the strangeness of Robyn’s lyrics. This feels more like a stream of consciousness song or perhaps was built on the rhythm of the sound of the words. It sounds like something that Dr. Seuss would have sung if he were an indie rock singer and not a children’s author.

Once again he called up to Alec in the sound booth, “Alec, can you make this sound like it’s fun? Maybe some echo on the mic — guitar like it’s in a band produced by Tony Visconti.” We were propelled into the poptastic portion of the evening as he launched into “Saturday Groovers” from his album Goodnight Oslo with The Venus 3, followed by “Glass Hotel” from Eye.  Was Robyn listening to The Beatles song “Savoy Truffle” when he was inspired to write “The Cheese Alarm?”  Using cheese instead of candy as the delivery mechanism, it echos the lyrical form and sentiment of the Harrison-penned classic and was a popular song choice with the Largo crowd.

Robyn then played one recorded with the Egyptians, “Raymond Chandler Evening” from Element of Light. He introduced the song by noting it had been “written about L.A.” before he’d been here. He was joined on violin by Paz Lenchantin. She suitable accompanied his songs, adding the perfect amount of flavor without overpowering the sauce. Next he introduced a song I am not familiar with called “Light Blue Afternoon,” maybe because it was from a Norwegian-only release Tromsø Kaptein. Lyrics of the song included, “Just a speck in the mirror on a light blue afternoon, and that speck is getting bigger. It’ll be a big speck soon, on a light blue afternoon. It’s been coming all your life and there’s no derailing destiny.” That final line was another that caught my imagination so much that I’ve used it for the title of this post.

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The Largo Stage Set Up for Robyn’s Show

The concert energy level then kicked up a notch as Jon Brion appeared on the stage. They played a cover of the Jimi Hendrix song “The Wind Cries Mary,” which Robyn previously recorded for his album Shadow Cat. Paz exited and vocalist Jessica Pratt entered, as Robyn parsed some notes to Jon on the song he was about to play, “It’s in E…a lot of vamping about in B.” Then they launched into “This Could Be the Day” from I Often Dream of Trains. Emma Swift joined them on harmony for a beautiful rendition of another song off the same album, the nostalgic “Trams of Old London.” I was quite struck by their rendition of the song “Linctus House” (from Eye) and was feeling a strong affinity with the lyrics. During the song, Jon was doing some interesting percussive rhythm on the body of the piano and with his microphone. That guy can turn anything into music.

For the next song, another one recorded with the Egyptians, “Ride” from Perspex Island, Paz came back on stage to provide more support on the violin. One line that stood out during the song, “But if you don’t love yourself, what’s the use of someone else, loving you?” I believe Jon was off stage for this song. After the song, Robyn remarked, “There’s two kinds of people: living people and dead people, and you have the choice to be both.” Hmm. Then Robyn played a song that I myself have learned on guitar and that I was hoping to hear that night — “I Often Dream of Trains” from the album of the same title. Having lived in the UK for a few years and ridden the railways there, this was a special moment for me.  I’ve even been on a train to Reading, and I still do have dreams of them, though perhaps not often.  Jon returned to the stage to embellish the end of this song with his pretty piano playing.

With Jon back on stage it was a great opportunity for Robyn to play his cover of Roxy Music’s song “To Turn You On” and have some awesome piano accompaniment.  The original version of the song is from their album Avalon and Robyn’s version is on his most recent album The Man Upstairs. Such a lovely, elegant interpretation of this song. They played another cover next, a thoughtful version of The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says.” Before playing the final song, Robyn had the best quote of the night, “Very few venues, namely zero, have Jon Brion as an app.” Well, zero other venues have regular access to this genius of music, Largo is the place to get your Jon Brion fix (his next show is Friday, June 24). This is part of what makes Largo one of the best places to see live music, you never know who is going to join in a show (any number of musicians or comedians who regularly play at Largo might appear), and so many of the performances are one of a kind.  To close the evening, all the musicians that had played earlier returned to the stage to perform a voluminous “Olé! Tarantula,” taken from the album of the same name, which was recorded with the Venus 3.

DSC06162Emma and Robyn both headed to the lobby after the show to sell their latest albums, sign autographs, and chat with fans. Some of us were even lucky enough to get photos with Robyn. I value whenever an artist takes a moment to greet the fans and I thank Emma and Robyn for doing so that night. It might be just a few minutes of their time, but for me it is like finally completing a puzzle that has been missing a piece. It also is a nice opportunity to compliment and share your appreciation for their work and feel like it is a little bit more of a reciprocal relationship rather than a one-way street. Of course some artists are easier to talk to than others. I found both Emma and Robyn to both be easily approachable and sincere.  It was a perfect end to a thoroughly satisfying night of music that I had waited so long to experience.

Where My Music’s Playing

DSC05964On Wednesday, June 1, 2016 I headed to the historic Hollywood Bowl to see the legendary Paul Simon in concert. I am sure I heard Paul Simon songs as a child, but he didn’t register as an important fixture in my knowledge of music until I was an early teen and I began listening to the music of the Beatles fanatically. From there it was a short stretch to other artists of the 60s and thus began my appreciation of Simon and Garfunkel. I remember a friend playing one of their records in her basement; and distinctly, listening to “The Sound of Silence” as we chatted about junior high school stuff and kept our hands busy building strange things with Lego bricks. Yet, as I listened, I felt the weight of something bigger building around me, that I hadn’t experienced yet, but was out there waiting for me to discover. These two voices singing in beautiful harmony from decades past, sharing their beliefs, telling me what has been, and what I could know if I listened closely. I never thought back then that I would some day see Paul Simon on stage. My dreams where still confined by the small town I lived in and perhaps an anxiety of adventuring into a wider world. And though I paid for my ticket, it felt like a gift to attend this concert.

The Hollywood Bowl is such an iconic venue. The first time I visited it, I was a local playing tourist. My son was interested in the movie “Anchors Aweigh!” at the time and there is a great scene in that movie filmed at the Bowl. I wanted him to see that it was a real place, though of course it has been redesigned since the movie was filmed.  I brought my two young sons and my nephew to go through the museum during the daytime. The LA Philharmonic was practicing on the stage that morning and we were allowed to sit in the seats and listen to the music for awhile.  The second time there, I attended a Death Cab for Cutie in July 2015, just a couple months before I started this blog, sitting pretty far back in the nosebleed bleacher seats.

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Blake Mills Performing at the Hollywood Bowl

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Blake Mills on the Big Screen

Traffic near the bowl was terrible on the evening of the Paul Simon concert — even though I was trying to park in the lot at Hollywood and Highland and not actually drive all the way up to the Bowl. Despite my leaving an extra hour of time for travel issues to the venue, I wasn’t able to make it to my seat on the center aisle, until opener Blake Mills was nearly done with his set.  I had been eager to hear Blake, who I’ve seen in the past as a guest at Largo, play his own set, as I think he uses some luscious tones and has a beautiful feel for playing guitar. I did get to see two full songs — one of his own, I believe, and a sublime cover of the Santo & Johnny tune “Sleep Walk.” He announced that he was playing with another Largo regular, musician Tyler Chester. I am hopeful that Blake will play in L.A. again soon, so I can catch more of his music.

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Paul Simon and His Band Performing at the Hollywood Bowl

I am not going to write in great length about Paul Simon’s set. He’s been doing this job longer than I’ve been alive and is clearly extremely talented and successful as both a writer and a musician. For years he has been admirably penning some of the most well-known songs of our time and has succeeded in showcasing various cultures’ music in a way that is accessible to many different people. Paul Simon’s song choices were fairly friendly for the casual fan, as he played many of his popular pieces along with a few from his new album. He often thanked the audience for their applause and stopped playing briefly only a few times to talk to the crowd. The set opened up with the band playing “Proof” before Simon stepped onstage to sing “The Boy in the Bubble.” From that point on it was a whirlwind trip through 50 years of songs and despite four encores, felt like it was over just as we were getting somewhere. Much credit to Paul Simon’s backing band, for playing with recording quality prowess on multiple instruments for the long evening of music. For more information about the band, check out the breakdown in this effusively-written article on the show.

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Paul Simon at the Hollywood Bowl

The set list was as follows:

  1. Proof” from Rhythm of the Saints, played as an instrumental
  2. The Boy in the Bubble” from Graceland
  3. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” from Still Crazy After All These Years
  4. Dazzling Blue” from So Beautiful Or So What
  5. That Was Your Mother” from Graceland, Paul danced at the start of this one
  6. Rewrite” from So Beautiful Or So What
  7. Honky Tonk” (Bill Doggett cover) the link is to video of this tune, as well as “Rewrite,” “Slip Slidin’ Away”, and “Mother and Child Reunion” taken by someone at the Hollywood Bowl concert, decent audio, though video looks like they were filming the big screen.
  8. Slip Slidin’ Away” from Greatest Hits, Etc.
  9. Mother and Child Reunion” from Paul Simon
  10. Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” from Paul Simon
  11. Spirit Voices” from Rhythm of the Saints , Paul gave quite a detailed introduction to this song about being in South America and drinking an herbal brew, Ayahuasca, after doing so he was told he was “going to see the anaconda.” Snippets of the story here and here from the show.
  12. The Obvious Child” from Rhythm of the Saints
  13. Stranger to Stranger” from new album Stranger to Stranger
  14. Homeward Bound”  from the Simon & Garfunkel album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, Paul introduced this by saying, “That’s a new song (Stranger to Stranger) and here’s an old song.” One of my favorite songs, and a highlight of the night. I’ve used a line from the song for the post title. I feel like I am “home” when I am listening to live music.
  15. El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” from the Simon & Garfunkel album Bridge Over Troubled Water, played as an instrumental
  16. Duncan” from Paul Simon
  17. The Werewolf” from new album Stranger to Stranger, the drummer donned a wolf head mask
  18. The Cool, Cool River” from Rhythm of the Saints
  19. Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” from Graceland
  20. You Can Call Me Al” from Graceland, finally the whole crowd is standing at Paul’s encouragement
  21. ENCORE 1: “Wristband” from new album Stranger to Stranger
  22. Graceland” from Graceland, link is to video I shot at the concert
  23. ENCORE 2: “Still Crazy After All These Years” from Still Crazy After All These Years
  24. ENCORE 3: “Late in the Evening” from One-Trick Pony
  25. The Boxer”  from the Simon & Garfunkel album Bridge Over Troubled Water, played with Blake Mills on guitar, after the song finished Paul says he hopes to play with Blake again
  26. ENCORE 4: “The Sound of Silence”  from Simon & Garfunkel album Sounds of Silence, Paul played this one solo acoustic. Another highlight for me.
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Blake Mills and Paul Simon on the Big Screen at the Bowl

Just For One Day

DSC05913I was back at Largo at the Coronet on May 27, 2016 for Jon Brion‘s monthly show. I sadly missed the April one and was feeling overdue on getting some live Jon Brion music in my ears. The stage was set with an array of instruments, including a handful of guitars, a drum kit, a miniKorg synthesizer, sampler, and two movie screens. Largo had tweeted earlier in the day that Jon had brought in his looping rig. This was most definitely going to be an entertaining night, but what I did not know was that I was about to experience the most ambitious Jon Brion concert I have attended to date and one of the most remarkable displays of musicianship that I have ever seen.

 

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Stage Set Up for Jon Brion’s May Concert

Film director Judd Apatow opened with a stand-up comedy routine.  I won’t spoil all his jokes by telling them, but topics included food and eating as much as you want, no one sleeping well anymore with a narration of the night’s waking up timeline, Judd dancing behind Neil Young at a recent benefit concert, a Cosby impression, parenting and figuring out how much to help your kids and how much to encourage independence, what his daughters are up to (and their friends and whether or not to rat them out to their parents about things they are doing), and of course, Donald Trump, a pretty easy target for ridicule.

Following Judd’s monologue about people not sleeping properly these days, Jon Brion got on stage and stood at the microphone for a good couple minutes and did his own stand up bit on no one getting any sleep in the 1860s either, including a hilarious rundown on likely problems of that time, including having to use the outhouse in the middle of the night and being kept awake from being too cold. This combination of impromptu stand-up routine with a fresh new haircut, a gleam in his eye like a high-spirited boy, Jon looking healthier than he has in months and radiating an energy I haven’t seen in a long time, or maybe ever; I could sense we were in for an incredible night.

I was therefore surprised when he sat down at the piano and played a surprisingly melancholy instrumental, “Something You Can’t Return To” from the Synecdoche, NY soundtrack.  He followed that up with the verbose, down-on-its-luck song “Everything Happens to Me,” originally popularized by Frank Sinatra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Upon completion of this song, he called for a second Guinness, having nearly completed the first. He then was quite chatty toward the audience, referring to the equipment on the stage as “electronic defecation.” He referenced his experiment in doing shows with no set list. As he struggled for another way to describe it, an audience member called out “unpreparedness” and Jon responded emphatically, “As a mission statement!” I have to say, perhaps unprepared in what he intends to play or how to do it, but completely armed with the skill to follow through once he starts something. The lights on stage were then dimmed and Jon yelled, “Can we have some of those lights back up? It’s no time for moodiness!” He paused and then continued more quietly, “I’ll be moody myself.”  During all of this time he’s moving around the stage looking for inspiration.

Heading back to the security of the piano, he queues up a rhythmic audio and visual loop on the left screen of an old band playing shakers, drums, bass, etc., while putting on an orchestra (with visual of the conductor) on the right screen. Over the top of these sounds, Jon plays tack piano and sings Roxy Music’s “More Than This.”  I thought the line of the song, “Who’s to say where we’re going?” seemed appropriate for the evening — somewhere aurally amazing, clearly. At one point the left screen got an opera singer superimposed, while Jon then began playing on the miniKorg. When he completed the song Jon thanks Bobb Bruno for setting up all of the equipment on the stage.

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Ready for Live Looping

Jon then straps on a black and white Gretsch Super Sonic and sets up some monster tone on it. He played a couple minutes worth of “She’s At It Again,” while fiddling around with the guitar tone, and then aborted the song, never singing it. That was such a tease — I like that song and enjoy seeing Jon rock out when he plays it. Instead, a change of pace again as he played the more delicate sounding tune, “One More Excuse to Cry.”  I don’t believe I’ve heard this one before. Lyrics included, “The world is cruel, the world is small in size, and people do their best to criticize, and we all know the world is full of lies, so I don’t need yours as one more excuse to cry.” Love these lyrics, — I don’t think Jon uses Facebook or reads online news comments, but he manages to have his finger on the pulse!  (OK, that is just one interpretation.) Beautiful use of tremolo in the guitar solo on this song.

He begins one more song on this guitar by improvising, at one point strumming strings behind the bridge with his right hand while playing up and down the neck with his left hand. Then he builds the song into a heavier, edgy sound, which turned out to be an absolutely rocking version of “Meaningless” from his album of the same title. Cool to hear a familiar song played in a slightly different style than he has been doing live in the last few months and closer to the album version if you could isolate the guitar and vocals.  When he reached the line “I said don’t leave me,” he ramped up the guitar strumming. I was sitting in the front row and I could feel the vibration running through the floor and into the soles of my shoes when he was playing this one. It was a thoroughly satisfying experience.

Time to head back to the piano again, where Jon put on his harmonica and played on piano a fairly faithful version of “Knock Yourself Out” from the I Heart Huckabees soundtrack.  I love every single word of this song. Jon gets a lot of credit for being such an amazingly accomplished musician and producer, but can we just take a moment to acknowledge what an excellent lyricist he is?  Jon Brion, making existentialism comprehensible in two minutes and nine seconds!

We then got the rare treat of hearing “Trial and Error” on piano, including Jon singing the lyrics. “Got a system, got a plan, got it wired, it’s well in hand… got a system and it’s called trial and error.” When he completed that one, he turned to the audience and asked for requests. Lots of Bowie songs yelled out, but he played and sang the doubly requested “Strings that Tie to You” from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, on piano and miniKorg.

Time for some more looping fun as Jon looped up the drums, then piano, strapped on the Guyatone LG-60 guitar and recorded a bass line, then played guitar live and sang “The Girl I Knew (Would Make Fun of You).”  To watch him do this live, is truly mind-blowing. As an amateur musician, I have a hard time wrapping my head around it, but also I have a major appreciation for what it takes to do this. Not only to do it, but to do it as well as Jon does. He is an absolutely incredible human being. I’ve got a friend who is developing a wearable PET scanner and once the technology is there, I think it would be fascinating to find out what is happening in Jon’s brain when he live loops a whole song like this.

Jon then teased us with some guitar sounds and then moved over to the piano and his sampler, messing around with various high pitched sounds as if he is sending a message via telegraph, which then turned into The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”  He then beat the hell out of the drums and looped them in, playing the Guyatone guitar again (bass notes looped and guitar live), creating a cacophony of sound, an assault on the ears, as he performs the song. The joy of his work was evident on his face; he appeared ecstatically pleased with it!

When that is over he went back to the piano and played pretty quickly, as if he needed to get back to basics. He played a medley of songs I didn’t really recognized, including possibly “Incense and Peppermints” and definitely “Secret Agent Man.”

After this touchstone, he was ready to loop again, starting on drums, then adding samples of an orchestra to the right screen. He played piano and added two women singing the traditional song “Four Marys” on the left screen. Then Jon began to sing the song “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” by The Korgis. Jon demonstrated how one can beautifully loop a slow song and create an incredibly atmospheric piece.  At one point he also added a guitar player over the top of the left screen and we saw a brief flash of a title “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives. You can just imagine in your mind how these things might fit together or try your hand at DIY home mixing by playing each piece from the links in different windows (though turn the volume down on The Korgis as it is much louder than the orchestra or the ladies — of course, keeping in mind Jon is looping parts of these pieces).

On this Jon Brion roller coaster ride, we then reached the quiet and mellow section of the track. He brought out that old Gibson that needs some attention and played “The Love of My Life so Far,” which had been previously requested by an audience member much earlier in the show. I love how often he files requests away and then surprises you by performing them later.  When Jon finished he made comments indicating he was ready to wrap up for the night, including saying, “Forgive me for what this just was…Insert clever analogy there.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard Jon talk to the audience so much during a show since I started attending regularly about two years ago. As much as I like to revel in moodiness and feel the weight of emotional lyrics and heavy tunes, I would love to see more of this enlivened, so obviously talented and not holding it back, Jon Brion.

Once more he asks for requests from the audience and runs down why certain songs are good choices for a singalong or not. In the end he decides on David Bowie’s, “Space Oddity,” which has been successful in the past.  He returns to the piano where he begins “Rhapsody in Blue” and giggles emanate from the crowd. He explains that he is warming up and “playing through the decades.” He plays a medley of songs:  “Rhapsody in Blue,” something I didn’t recognize, “In the Mood,” “Blue Moon,” “Whiter Shade of Pale” and then finally launching into “Space Oddity.” As it commenced he yelled out at the audience, “Sing, you fuckers!” and when it got to that instrumental bit, “Now clap, you fuckers,” (you know — the part with the two big claps; 2:42 in the video clip).

Jon went through MUCH (totally unnecessary) apologizing before his final song. He posited, “I’m going boldly into public embarrassment,” and talked about having a “fire sale in the lobby” of all the equipment. Then he played and looped in order: drums, piano, miniKorg, a bass line on the Guyatone, and then played guitar and sang to create David Bowie’s “Heroes.” During the guitar solo part he appeared to go to another place, perhaps to the stars to join Bowie. He was so completely inside the music, one couldn’t tell where it began and where it ended. The guitar was just another part of his body that he used as naturally as you use your hands. When he completed the vocals, he laid the guitar on the ground and started up the audio/visual samples and built the sound up to peak perfection. We were at the top of the hill and ready to descend. He purposely made the sound very messing before shutting everything off. This was an astounding feat of solo musicianship and do I dare say the musical arrangement of the song was better than Bowie’s version? I listened to Bowie’s version the next morning and it felt empty in comparison. To watch Jon build this song was absolutely un-freaking-real. When it was over he left the stage and didn’t come back. He put everything out there on that final performance. At the end of the show, my friend turned to me and said, “We’ll never see that again.” In the spirit of the fleeting nature of live music that goes unrecorded, I’ve used the lyric, “just for one day” from “Heroes” for the title of this blog. Best Jon Brion show in years!

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Jon’s Guitars