I closed out September 2016 at one of my favorite places to be, Largo at the Coronet, for Jon Brion‘s monthly foray into playing a show sans set list. Arrived to see a grand piano on stage, as was also the case at the July show, but this time positioned a little closer to the Largo piano. The grand piano featured heavily during the show, in fact he never once played a song on the guitar. There was no opening act for the show; Largo owner Mark Flanagan came on stage to introduce Jon, saying, “Thanks be to Jesus, Trump’s not in the house! Here’s Jon Brion.” Jon walked on and made an immediate remark on making “plans for the next Guinness.” The set progressed as follows.
Jon sat down at the grand piano and started with an ominous, haunted sounding piece, possibly “Showtime” and/or “A Dream Upon Waking” (or some combination) from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – if not those, then it certainly had a similar feel as those two pieces. I’m not familiar enough with all of his soundtrack music to immediately identify every piece. A cricket chimed in very loudly and noticeably as he was completing playing the opening number. Jon remarked that the cricket was, “On a tourist visa to the soundboard.” At the end of the song, Jon stopped to listen for the cricket, but all was quiet. Jon noted, “It would make him a good session musician — no noodling around between takes.”
The microphone that was positioned into the body of the grand piano was dropping down into it and Largo House Manager Michael came on stage to fix it. While this was happening, Jon played something he called “Pseudo Sonata for a Droopy Microphone.” Michael brought sand bags to adjust the balance on the mic and try to pull it up by placing them on the side opposite the mic, but that didn’t really work. Jon said, “Wow, it’s defying the sand bag – well, fuck it, that’s what I say.”
Jon started playing something very delicately which turned into “Same Mistakes” from his solo album Meaningless. This had an extended instrumental section at the end as he clearly was enjoying playing the grand piano. He followed this up with “Norman’s Walk” from ParaNorman. Jon then began playing some sort of walking jazz number, hanging out on the high keys, until he plugged in a big ascending crescendo into “Walking Through Walls” from Meaningless. He made excellent use of the piano on this number, expanding instrumental parts and emphasizing dynamics by playing very heavy to start and then pulling it all in close and quiet at the end. It was absolutely breathtaking to watch. I’ve borrowed one of the lines from this song for the title of this post. I’ve always felt like there’s a very powerful, confident, and strong attitude to this song; it certainly gives me additional momentum and strength when it comes up on the iPod when I’m out running.
Jon then turned to the audience and said, “Let’s take some requests.” I didn’t hear anyone say it, but Jon played David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream;” maybe he was reading my mind again — I love that song. Jon called up to the sound booth and asked for “some long slow quarter note delay” on the vocals for the song. He continued his process of digging into the song and squeezing out multiple approaches and tempos in his arrangements, which he would continue throughout the night. The cricket started up again during this one and Jon pulled back and played more softly on the piano and quipped, “It’s important to allow other people time to solo.”
Well, following that thorough rendition, Jon remarked, “I’m going to have to think for a minute.” He decided on playing the “Theme” from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He played his song “Row” from the same film, but it was fantastic to hear him play the full version including lyrics, instead of the short instrumental that is on the soundtrack. Some of the lyrics include, “In my bed almost dead and going over what was said… I talk to you, so tightly wound that the world we knew was not around.”
There was a shift after this song in which Jon Brion cranked his performance level up another notch. He started playing a song on the grand piano, but then reached around to start playing the Largo piano (set to tack) with his right hand, while his left was still on the grand piano playing the bass lines. I’m an average sort of piano player and I just can’t even wrap my head the idea of playing a second piano, behind my back. If I tried such a feat you might see smoke coming out of my ears due to my brain overheating from working so hard! I guess that’s what separates the pros from the amateurs. The song he turned out to be creating was Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” He also sang the lyrics and completed the song with both hands on the grand piano. During the song, the cricket started chirping again right after Jon began playing on the Largo piano and Jon smiled as soon as he heard it.
You could tell from the stage set-up that he was planning on having a guest and it was at this point in the show that Jon announced, “Ladies and Gentleman, Mr Sebastian Steinberg is in the house.” Sebastian brought his double bass on stage. Jon always kicks it up a notch when he has someone else he can play off of and this was no exception! The pair begin to play “Take the A Train” and Jon can’t hold back his delight at Sebastian’s performance. Jon comes so much more alive when there is another talented musician around to perform with him. After the song, Jon said, “Our official cover, bass solo – Sebastian Steinberg. Audience by you.” One of those moments when I was wishing that Largo was not a seated venue so that I could start dancing as my body was overflowing with the rhythm of the music. The duo then launched into classic R&B song “Fever” with Jon drumming on the piano with some sort of makeshift drumstick and playing the bass notes of the piano with the other hand. Sebastian started off plucking his bass but then switched to his bow halfway through, as they perform a highly rhythmic and groovy version of this song.
Then Jon dusted off an old song of his that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before, “Please Stay Away From Me.” Some lyrics include, “Another trying day, if you don’t get your way, …begrudgingly you must admit, cause you’re starting some shit, by throwing a fit…Please Stay Away From Me.” “You never feel quite whole when you don’t have control…I know whose will will be done and that all of God’s creatures are one.” I cannot find an existing recording of this on the Internet, so if anyone knows of one, please comment.
Jon then asked the audience, “What do people want to hear us do together?” They play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and suddenly it gets really percussive from both of them, with more piano drumming and Sebastian thumping on his bass. Jon again does the double piano playing trick which you can see and hear in the brief video clip posted by Largo. Another request is called out and Jon said it was going to be, “Thelonious Monk style – I’ll do a little intro first.” It turns out to be Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” heavy on the jazz improvisation. I’m getting weary of this song being requested as it has been played multiple times in the last year, at least this time it was nearly unrecognizable for the most part as they were mostly improvising, adding bits of the melody and chord structures in here and there. Jon did that droning, humming thing that he sometimes does when he is concentrating on playing (I say droning because it reminds me of that sustained note you hear as the undercurrent from the drone on bagpipes). I am so curious as to why he does that. Is that extreme concentration and he can’t help it? He’s not humming the melody of the song. Is he trying to hold the key of the song? Next up was another request, Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” delivered as a beautiful, fairly straightforward rendition without any fireworks. This song has gained some sentimental value for me over the last year, so I it was special to hear him playing it.
Jon then asked Sebastian, “What do you feel like playing?” Sebastian responded, “Dominoes, at home with my cat.” Anyway, Jon suggested some “wacky thing,” which turned out to be “Caravan.” During the song Sebastian said to the audience as the pair were driving dissonance into the heart of the piece, “Is it making you uncomfortable? It ought to be.” Jon then put the tambourine in the piano on top of the strings and played Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” with the audience singing along. So many songs to choose from, why does he keep playing this one? Though he skipped it last month, he played it at both the June and July shows. I know everyone can sing it, but surely there are other songs everyone can sing? Then, as he finished that one, he transitioned straight into Harry Nilsson’s “One.” Is this a re-play to make up for last month’s lack of voice when he tried it out then? It sounded good on the grand piano. He included a “Pink Panther Theme” tease at the end of the song.
Jon called out for “some super heavy slapback on the vocal mics, dryer and louder, zero feedback and longer delay, louder return.” Then he taped over the strings inside the piano with duct tape and played “Blue Moon.” At some point he calls up to the booth, “You got all tasteful – don’t.” I was involved in a musical revue of Rogers and Hart in high school, so I know this tune pretty well. Jon skipped the bridge of the song and someone (not me, though I noticed it right away) shouted out about Jon missing the bridge of the song and Jon responded, “Elvis skipped the bridge.” Therefore, the link is to the Elvis cover of the song. Then, he performed one of my favorite songs on the piano by The Beatles, “Sexy Sadie.” Ok, that made up for GJWHF and “Tainted Love;” I was very happy with that selection! That link is for just 30 seconds of the song because the YouTube minders do not seem to allow The Beatles songs to be posted or to remain posted on the site. Jon played a request from one of my friends, “I Wanna Be Sedated.” The audience sang along but forgot the line that goes, “Just put me in a wheelchair get me to the show; hurry hurry hurry before I go loco.” As the song came its conclusion, Jon played a teaser of “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
Jon says, “I’ll do a few of mine while we close out.” He’s true to his word, playing three of his songs: “Hook Line and Sinker” from Meaningless, “Over Our Heads” from the I Heart Huckabees soundtrack, and his unrecorded song “That’s What People Do.” He leaves the stage and doesn’t return for an encore, finishing the show right at midnight, which he has been doing regularly for the last several shows. Though the renditions of many of the songs he performed that evening were truly satisfying, ending without an encore after such stunning performances felt odd. Alas, true to Jon Brion to leave us wanting more.