Live Today

Friday, July 29, 2016 saw me back at Largo at the Coronet for Jon Brion‘s monthly show. After two months in a row of live looping, I wondered what he had planned for us this time around. No looping, but certainly some excitement as word spread that there was a grand piano on the stage. We wondered if there was going to be another piano player as a special guest or if it was for Jon. The special guest turned out to be Margaret Cho, who did not play the piano, of course, but delivered a hilarious set of stand-up comedy. She has the ability to boldly express many thoughts in a straightforward yet amusing way, and sometimes the shock value alone has people laughing out loud. It is always a treat to see her deliver a set.

Jon came out on stage with a freshly shaven face, which he was patting with his hands, and commented, “ I had a disposable razor have its way with me.” Presumably he had shaved back stage. Largo — truly a second home. He headed straight to the grand piano and did his usual two-piece warm up before moving into “Strange Bath” from I Heart Huckabees. It was so different to watch Jon play from the opposite view I normally have, which is of his back, since he normally plays the Largo piano on stage right. The experience was enhanced by being able to see his facial expressions as he played the grand piano, facing center stage, particularly during the instrumental numbers. One could witness the emotional depth and concentration that flashed across his features, whether introspective or wistful or self-satisfied with his own cleverness. After playing a few more modulations, he performed “Strings That Tie to You” from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When he finished he remarked, “I think I should order another Guinness right away. And a styptic pencil.”

Still on the piano, he played the powerful, yet to be released song, “She’s At It Again.” I believe that’s the first time I have heard that one on piano, usually we get it on electric guitar and he creates some amazing tones and then rocks the hell out of it. It was riveting to hear it performed in a different way and I hung on to every note as he played. Some lyrics, “She’s at it again and I wish the best for you .. and if you ask she’ll say it’s just a phase, a phase that never bends, and I hate to see the way you hurt and your struggle to maintain.” When he finished he bemoaned, “I broke a nail;” must have happened as he’d been trying to give the song that edgy feel via the keyboard. Jon didn’t seem sure what he was going to do next and noted that he brought “some notebooks of stuff.” He also was still trying to get the measure of the piano, commenting, “This is a rental piano, so about halfway through it will come together.”

As typical when he is at a loss for the next song or can’t quite figure out what direction he wants to take, he asked for requests and latched on to “Waterloo Sunset” originally by The Kinks. This was performed along with some tentative audience singing (not sure if that was because people weren’t sure if it was okay to sing this one or if that many people really don’t know the lyrics). He played a request for his song “Meaningless,” which is on his album of the same title. I was totally feeling connected to the line “Live today,” that particularly night and so I am using those words as the post title. Then he played “The Same Mistakes,” from his album Meaningless. His masterful and gorgeous piano arrangement supported the vocals so perfectly. I wrote “mad pianist” in my notes here, as he created an incredible interpretation that I could never have conceived of even in imagination, never mind in execution.

Then Jon began laying items, such as his notebook and a cloth, inside of the grand piano (the cover was open) to dampen strings and played the well-known riff of “Popcorn” before beginning “Tainted Love,” which the audience sang along to with zeal. At this point I noted, only Jon Brion could make you feel like he’s playing a synth when he’s playing a grand piano. Once again we see how his attention to tone transforms would could be an average performance into something special. This is what we voyeurs of the process pay to see once a month – the genius at work. Then he turned away from the entertaining and camp to serenade us with his unrecorded song “Go Ahead and Break My Heart.” I’m left now undecided about whether I like this song better on guitar or piano. Please record this song and release it, Jon; I am now eager to hear the full treatment.

That song completely emptied my mind and I was dumbfounded to even think of a song when he next asked for requests. Others had no problems and the requests were many and loud. Some joker shouted “Freebird” and Jon responded, “Careful, I play Freebird.” There were multiple requests in the room for “Here We Go” as often a request is shouted out and others pick up on it and repeat it, perhaps in the hope that he will be persuaded to play by sheer numbers of voices yelling the same thing. Jon commented on the “stereo-panning” across the room of the request. But he didn’t play that one this time. Instead, he was struck by a bolt of patriotism or was taking the pulse of the room in his playing of the national anthem. Yes, we all sang the “Star Spangled Banner” with all the fervor of a crowd at a sporting event, but with a much higher quality of singing. This was followed by Randy Newman’s satirical song, “Political Science,” with a few messed up lyrics. He then moved away from the grand piano for the first time that night, opting for the tack piano sound on the Largo piano to play his poptastic existentialist number, “Knock Yourself Out,” from I Heart Huckabees. This trio of songs was an interesting musical comment on the state of the nation from Jon Brion.

He finally got his acoustic guitar out and played a request of one of his older songs that I don’t recall having heard before, “CITGO Sign.” This put him into a nostalgic mood and he introduced the next song “I’ll Take You Anyday,” by remarking “Twenty years ago this month, the old Largo opened…this is the first thing I ever played at the old joint.” (Largo used to be a dinner and music venue located on Fairfax.) Still on the guitar, Jon noted, “The first time I played this next song…was roughly around the same time,” before beginning “Same Things,” a song recorded with his former band The Grays that is on their album Ro Sham Bo.

He finished on guitar and headed back to the grand piano, saying, “I’m slightly in moody bastard mode.” He called the next piece, “Moody Bastard Instrumental in Eb…we will modulate up to E.” A few people clapped at this and Jon raised his fist in the air and proclaimed, “My people!” He also noted something like, “Yeah it’s a slow ballad…for me, I think of it as speed metal.” The song was the atmospheric and moody Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Theme.”

The next song he played (debuted?), was a new song. Some of the lyrics included: “But I got to be honest for believing beyond this…my love gave me a sign…my love threw me the look, my love shot me the hook, the kind that can kill you, which it probably will do… but I’ve been living without you, that’s what it amounts to.” Curious to see how this one evolves.

He asked for requests again. Someone shouted “Enter Sandman” among a lot of other shouts. Jon played the famous motif and then got that look on his face like a light bulb went off over his head. He then played a mash-up of the “Pink Panther Theme” and “Enter Sandman.” He also commented, “Maybe it’s going to be the kind of night where I just play the recognizable piece of about 40 fucking songs!” Then he attempted to accomplish this by rapidly playing through loads of well known riffs, including and not necessarily in order: “Goldfinger,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Here Come the Warm Jets,” “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Ode to Joy,” “Incense & Peppermints,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “English Country Garden,” “Come As You Are,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Waltz in A Flat” by Brahms, “Theme from Jaws,” the famous tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the “Wicked Witch’s Theme” from The Wizard of Oz, “Moon River,” (that one was for me, right?) “Moonlight Serenade” and then going back to The Wizard of Oz for“If I Only Had a Brain” which he ended up playing and having the audience singalong. Then he closed that section with a slow piano arrangement of “Over the Rainbow.” He played one more tune for the main set, his song “I Was Happy With You.”

For the encore, commenting that since he, “Got a thing where all the keys work and stuff” he would play one of his favorites and he launched into Fats Waller’s “Alligator Crawl.” He concluded with a beautiful rendition of Bowie’s “Life on Mars” with the audience singing along. While not the epic looping of the previous two shows, it certainly was another fantastic night of music with Jon Brion. I believe I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating, I could listen to Jon Brion play piano all night long. I hope the grand piano rental becomes a yearly tradition.

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Grand Piano on the Largo Stage for Jon Brion’s July Show

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I’m In a Los Angeles Cathedral

After seeing The Lone Bellow at the Bluegrass Situation Festival last October, it was exciting to attend another one of their shows, this time as they opened for The National at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, California on July 28, 2016. It was a little disheartening to see so many seats still open at a sold out show as the band took the stage, but early start times at the Greek compounded with L.A. traffic seem to make this a regular occurrence at this venue. Nevertheless, the band played as if every seat was full. The Greek also has arguably the best sound quality of any venue in the city, which makes up for the hassles of driving there (and that broken down car blocking the left lane of the 110 and slowing everything to a crawl) and parking.

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The Lone Bellow Performing at The Greek Theatre

Sitting somewhere in the gray area between Americana and Country, The Lone Bellow broke out a batch of their best tunes for their brief opening spot. The soaring, spine-tingling three-part harmonies of Zach Williams, Brian Elmquist, and Kanene Pipkin, exuded emotionally-wrought energy that was palpable, even from the terrace level of the Greek. Their music, with its hint of gospel flavoring, left me feeling that I was at a revival meeting and that my soul was washed clean and renewed by the time they left the stage. Highlights for me included Kanene singing “Call to War” and one of my favorites of this band’s songs, “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold.”  Their set included:

  1. Cold As It Is” from Then Came the Morning
  2. If You Don’t Love Me” from Then Came the Morning
  3.  “Marietta” from Then Came the Morning
  4. You Never Need Nobody” from The Lone Bellow
  5. Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” from Then Came the Morning
  6. Watch Over Us” from Then Came the Morning
  7. Call to War” from Then Came the Morning
  8. Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” from The Lone Bellow
  9. Then Came the Morning” from Then Came the Morning
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The National Performing at The Greek Theatre

I’m going to admit to my lack of advance knowledge of The National, other than I bought their album Trouble Will Find Me at the same time I bought my ticket to this concert a few months earlier. I listened to it a handful of times prior to this show so I had a loose familiarity with their style. Given the band’s decade-plus existence I wasn’t prepared for lead singer, Matt Berninger’s, slightly awkward stage presence, which wavered from glued to the microphone for minutes at time while singing to bursts of lunging around the stage and squatting down to the ground in front of the drum kit almost as if he wasn’t feeling well. I was honestly worried for the guy toward the end of the night when he appeared to either have drunk too much of something from his plastic cup and/or was battling exhaustion. However, he never seemed to miss his lyrics or the beat and climbed through the pit into the audience to sing (as he has done at other shows) near the close of the concert. The band itself was fantastic, providing the safety net over which Matt could perform his vocal meandering tightrope walk. It almost didn’t matter how he was singing, as the relentless, repetitive, driving rhythms and flawless execution of the music urged the audience to adulation. The lighting designer for this show deserves some appreciation — stunning visuals. The National’s set for the night, included a handful of new songs, a few with working titles. They played:

  1. Sometimes I Don’t Think” — introduced as a new song. After this song Matt finds a beetle on the stage that he hands off to someone in the pit, saying “There is a beetle here that is gonna get killed if someone doesn’t take it home with them.” It becomes a running theme.
  2. Don’t Swallow the Cap” from Trouble Will Find Me
  3. I Should Live in Salt” from Trouble Will Find Me
  4. Bloodbuzz Ohio” from High Violet
  5. Checking Out of a Collapsing Space” – this new song was introduced under this title. Seems to also be known as “Roman Candle” per their set list (but maybe they shouldn’t call it that because there is another song/album with that title). Following performing this tune, Matt noted he was going to “attempt the impossible, which is inter-song banter.”
  6. Afraid of Everyone” from High Violet, introduced with the comment, “This is for my good friend America, who is going through a rough time right now.”
  7. Squalor Victoria” from Boxer
  8. I Need My Girl” from Trouble Will Find Me
  9. This is the Last Time” from Trouble Will Find Me
  10. Find A Way” — another new song, dedicated to the beetle that has been dubbed “Chris.” Matt asks, “Can you find your way out of the glasses case?” where the beetle is being held.
  11. Sea of Love” from Trouble Will Find Me. Matt says, “This is for Chris, who died during that song.” How fitting, with the lyrics the album was named for, “If I stay here, trouble will find me.” R.I.P. Chris.
  12. Sorrow” from High Violet
  13. It’s Just the Lights” — another new song, which may possibly change titles, includes lyric, “I’m going crazy but I’m not crazy, it’s just the lights.” His voice wandered over the top of the music on this song, like he hasn’t quite figure out what he wants to do with the melody.
  14. Pink Rabbits” from Trouble Will Find Me, this was a highlight of the night for me.
  15. England” from High Violet, big cheer from the audience when he sang the line, “I’m in a Los Angeles Cathedral.”  Given what had transpired for me with the opener, I think that is just about the perfect title for this post.
  16. Morning Dew” Grateful Dead cover from Day of the Dead
  17. Graceless” from Trouble Will Find Me
  18. Fake Empire” from Boxer
  19. The Day I Die” new song
  20. Prom Song 13th Century” the first song of the encore was a new song performed as a duet with Annie Clark of St. Vincent. I believe they said she learned that song only that day and it shows in the video that was recorded at that show, as she seems a little unsure of herself.
  21. Mr. November” from Alligator
  22. Terrible Love” from High Violet
  23. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” from High Violet,  was played acoustic from the front of the stage with the audience singing along.
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The National Performing at The Greek Theatre

 

 

The Song Where I Listen

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On Wednesday, July 20, 2016, I saw Béla Fleck and Chris Thile performing at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I love this beautiful venue and wish I could spend some time roaming the theater and photographing parts of the decor (check out the link to their web site to see what I mean if you haven’t been there). Upon entering the stage, the two gentleman careened straight into the lightning quick number “Riddles in the Dark” from Chris’s album, Not All Who Wander Are Lost. (Yes, a young Chris was inspired by The Hobbit.) On its conclusion, Chris remarked on the style of the theater and the lights  behind the lattice work on the house right and left sides and in the overhead circle were changed to red, an effect that Chris continually referred to as the “lava bowl.”

The pair both have quite prolific discographies with multiple collaborations with other artists, and so it is difficult to be familiar with all the music they might play. Such was the case with their second tune, which I did not know, but is possibly called “The Fire.” A couple of the lyrics were: “Under the cover of night they come,” and “Too late for the fire.” It is intriguing to watch these two virtuosos perform together, seeing how carefully  they listen to one another and the give and take of the lead and underlying lines, was so evident in their third number, “Up and Running,” from Béla’s album Tales from the Acoustic Planet. You can see video of this song from that night at the Ace at the link.

Chris introduced the next song, “No Concern of Yours” by referencing characters from Mad Men. “If you’re the kind of person who likes to know what a song is about, imagine a conversation between Don Draper and Pete Campbell.” The song was originally recorded by Chris’s progressive bluegrass group, Punch Brothers, and is found on their excellent album Who’s Feeling Young Now?. As the last note rang out someone in the crowd shouted out “beautiful” the second before the applause kicked in. I’d have to agree with him.

The duo then played a pair of songs I didn’t know, the first being something a little slower and groovy. During the second, Chris may have been trying to set a new speed record for playing the mandolin, included a nice of use of rests to bookend and highlight the musical phrases. Following those two, Béla remarked, “And now for something completely different” as we were given Scarlatti’s Sonata in C Major K. 159. Afterward, Béla joked, “I wrote that.”

Next up was Punch Brothers tune “This is the Song (Good Luck),” which I was so moved to hear Chris singing that night. It is one of those songs that sounds incredible whether it is performed individually or by a group. As a solo number you feel the wind blowing through those empty spaces in the performance, which as fittingly meets the mood of the piece as when it is performed in a group and the tune is beautifully embellished by multiple instruments and voices. This was a highlight of the evening for me. The original version can be found on the album Antifogmatic. I’ve used part of the first line of this song for the title of this post.

The final song of the first set, “Metric Lips” was from Béla’s band New Grass Revival. They joked about this one being excavated from the Tar Pits.  Strangely it sounded like perhaps that was true, because for something thought of as new grass, it surely feels more dated than more recent tunes that are considered new grass. Have we reached the point where we are already in post-new grass?

The second set began with another fast number played by Chris and Béla. I didn’t know the name of this one either and they didn’t clue us in. However, I was able to snap one quick photo before the people who were sitting in front of me returned to their seats following the intermission.

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Béla Fleck and Chris Thile Perform at Theatre at Ace Hotel

 

Chris sang gently on the next number “The Ghosts of Industry,” as the two again showed off their impressive skills on their respective instruments, with Béla delivery a pretty, flowing solo, followed by a disjointed one from Chris. Whether or not one can musically breakdown and understand the pieces these men play, relate to them on an emotional level, or feel a general affinity for the music, admiring their abilities to play and remember these complex pieces is certainly something everyone can do. Particularly true when met with a distraction in playing, as happened to Béla toward the end of this number, as he noted after finishing, “I had a fingerpick fly off right as we were reaching the truth!” Well done to him for continuing on seemingly undisturbed.

There followed two more songs from Tales from an Acoustic Planet, played back-to-back; first “The Landing” and then the awesomely named “Cheeseballs in Cowtown” (wait, did he meet me and my friends when I was growing up in Wisconsin?). Béla exited the stage after this and left Chris on his own. Chris told a long narrative about his 14-month-old son Calvin learning to talk and walk and his attempt to understand his son. He played a new song on the topic, which he called “Da,” a multi-use word of his son’s. The mandolin was used to convey the walking part of the theme. Following this, Chris headed offstage and Béla returned to play a couple songs from Tanzania and Mali that were part of his Throw Down Your Heart project to discover the origins of the banjo.

Chris came back on stage and they played “Me and Us” from the Punch Brothers album Antifogmatic. The final song of the set was once again an amazing display of musicianship, the synchronization of the two men on some of the runs was simply breathtaking. My brain felt tired at this point trying to follow and process all of these incredible sounds and I continued to be astounded at the work of the performers. I am not sure what this instrumental was called. I scribbled something illegible down in my notebook that looks like “Shingosun.” I have no idea what that is, but if anyone is trying to come up with a title for a song, feel free to use that one, because no one else has!

For the encore, Chris pronounced, “I think Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs would want us to dig deep.” Béla chimed in that they were “going to play some bluegrass!” They covered Bill Monroe’s “Footprints in the Snow.” In concluding another fine evening of music, I left the theatre completely satisfied with life, if a little worn down by the seemingly relentless onslaught of notes and rhythms my brain had to comprehend in a couple hours of time. Once again, Chris Thile has left me wondering if I should buckle down and practice playing music several hours a day or pass my instruments on to the next person I see, because I will never achieve anything close to his level of proficiency. Or perhaps there is a third option of acceptance of my limitations and continued appreciation for those with more time and inclination to push the boundaries of what can be accomplished on a given instrument. Yes, I think I’ll go with that last one.