I 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.
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.
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!