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.