Due to Thanksgiving, Jon Brion’s monthly Largo show fell earlier in the month than usual, taking place on November 18, 2016. It was just over a week after the US election that had many heads still spinning here on the left coast. Largo-owner Mark Flanagan introduced Jon by saying, “2017 is gonna be great.” I wondered what on earth he could be talking about until he carried on a moment later, “We’re going to have benefits for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU and celebrate Leonard Cohen.” As if I didn’t already have so much respect for that man just for creating Largo, I heartily applaud his grassroots efforts to effect change through the resources he has.
Jon came out on stage and said, “We all made it out, so that’s good,” giving everyone a big hint as to where his thoughts resided. He went straight to the piano and the night commenced as follows.
- Jon started with the usual instrumental on the Largo piano. Nice flow, mostly slow.
- He then switched the piano to tack and built heavy-handed staccato chords into “Knock Yourself Out” from I Heart Huckabees. He played the piano with a lot of force and punctuation.
- When he finished, he began his first long monologue of the night – he talked a lot at this show, maybe the most I have heard from him in one main stage show since I started attending regularly a couple years ago. I was only able to note a few things down each time he got talkative. Jon said, “If you see me stretching like a baseball player…” and explained that he had had a bout of tendinitis ten years ago which flared up again this week. Earlier in the day he had an injection to calm it down. Clearly disturbed by the national election results and national news, he also expressed that he was having, “Words and thoughts and tensions and worries for my fellow man.” I have to say, I am right there with him and this night of music would set off some of my own contemplative thoughts and sorrowful emotions. He then said, “Let’s take as many requests as we can.” Of course people shouted out for Leonard Cohen/Cohen’s songs, as it was also just over a week since Cohen died. Jon went into some comments about Cohen then. “What’s glorious about Leonard was his uniqueness in a world that celebrates it” (he then immediate implied that most people don’t actually celebrate that.) “His commitment to what he thought was good was astonishing.” As to whether or not Jon was going to play any of Cohen’s songs tonight, he wasn’t, stating, “I’d prefer he was walking around in the world.” Then Jon started heading into political territory saying something to the point of, no matter what side you were in support of, “We’ve been watching a long slow train wreck.” Eventually, he got back to a request and encouraged people to singalong – melody or harmony, “If I play something where you know horn parts – sing it.” He played the suitably appropriate Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever,” including a swirling ending that turned into the Wicked Witch motif from The Wizard of Oz. Oh let’s please escape from reality.
- Jon noted the piano keys sticking down (same as last show). He played Randy Newman’s “Political Science” as a singalong, though fewer people knew the words to this than for the previous song; when finished Jon exclaimed, “God Bless Randy Newman!”
- Jon switched over to the Gibson acoustic guitar and started playing a riff – “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult, but only got through the first verse and chorus and then abandoned it because people didn’t know the lyrics. He told an anecdote about a friend recording with Kenny Rogers and looking at Hot Tub Kenny Rogers for inspiration between takes.
- More requests were shouted at John. He played the Bob Dylan song, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” This was a delicate, well-handled performance of this song. I was sitting in front of Jon again and am still painfully identifying with the lyrics of this when I hear it, and now perhaps on a broader front, quite a lot of Americans may feel that things are over.
- Jon brought out the orange Gretsch and said, “If you occasionally hear the sound of a mouse in this guitar…” and then moved the tremolo bar, which was squeaking. He played The Kinks song “Waterloo Sunset” on it anyway, paying particularly attention to the tone, flipping switches and turning pedals on and off throughout. I also loved how he would sneak harmonics into this song in the middle of playing the chords. We all know he is ridiculously talented, but he manages to squeeze out guitar, lead, and rhythm guitar sounds all on one instrument, which still has me in awe, every time. That never gets old. Gosh I love this song, but is another one that I have a hard time hearing, particularly when Jon sings it, as it is so evocative — I become homesick for a place I’ve left.
- Still on the Gretsch, Jon launched into a rarely-played song from The Grays “Not Long For This World.” That was incredibly moving, depressing, and heavy, with lyrics such as, “And I’m tired of facing all of this, and I’m tired of waking, I’m tired of faking this, so I resign, I don’t need any more time.” I’ve borrowed a lyric for the title of this post, as thematically this song seems to encompass the whole evening and perhaps, most of the month of November, some might even say most of the year 2016. I could feel the vibrations from the guitar music in the floor and through my chair and hitting me in the chest. Jon was working it out in the instrumental part of the song. Both here and on the piano, which he played fairly heavy-handed most of the night, I felt like he was trying to take some anger and frustration out of himself through the physical act of playing the music. Perhaps a drum kit would have been more satisfying. This set of three songs in a row, really brought my mood down to a level that I could not recover from for the rest of the night.
- He then headed back to the piano and played the “Theme” from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When he finished he asked the audience if they wanted to take a break (having remarked on the fact that he was able to drink his Guinness through the evening and we had nothing) and get drinks, etc., and one guy said yes first and a bunch of people said no and then a mix of shouts followed. Jon then joked as he hammered his fist down onto the edge of the piano, “The dissent in this country!” He continued on with no break.
- There was a very stompy beginning of “Strange Bath” from I Heart Huckabees and he played the piano rather vigorously through the piece, almost ferociously attacking the keys. At this point, even though requests were being taken, I felt like we were more than ever hearing or watching Jon workout his thoughts and feelings, and yet since he was playing a bunch of comfortable old favorites, he could have been on autopilot. I find he often plays this piece when he is about to try to change the mood of the show and from the following song choices, that seems like a reasonable assumption.
- Jon turned on his old school drum machine (not sure exactly what to call it and unfortunately I deleted my stage set up photo that showed it from my camera before saving the photo to my computer). He set it to a dance beat to accompany him under the Roxy Music song, “More Than This,” which he played on piano and sang.
- Jon then played a request for the Jackson Five’s “ABC” but no one knew the verse so he abandoned that shortly after the chorus, saying something about not wrecking that song.
- He again asked for requests and someone in the audience asked him, “What do you want to do?” and Jon responded, “Curl up in a fetal position,” and continued on to explain that wouldn’t be a good request for him to do. Instead he once again really sunk his fingers into the keys for his attempt at positive thinking, “This Will Be Our Year” by The Zombies. “You don’t have to worry, all your worried days are gone, This Will be Our Year, took a long time to come.” I’d love to be able to believe that. At least I could be glad that he played this song that I like.
- Jon then had a request for Harry Nilsson and played a medley of two of his songs “Good Old Desk” and then straight into “Me and My Arrow.” This brought home to me that I don’t know enough Nilsson songs and I had better remedy that.
- Jon pulled out the Gibson guitar again. Not sure why, he quipped, “I’m always in Space Jam mode.” He did some interesting finger picking style which turned into the Cheap Trick Song, “Surrender.”
- Then right into Prince’s “1999.” That song just seems so odd to hear 17 years after that year. We are as far on the other side of 1999 as Prince was looking toward it back when he recorded the song in 1982. Furthermore, to look back at where you were in that year and to have knowledge of all the things that have happened since, but hadn’t happened yet back then, is slightly mind-boggling. This song was certainly a nostalgic and moving moment in the show for me, as 1999 was a fairly optimistic and forward-looking year, especially in comparison to the current one.
- Jon headed back to the piano to play what he called his “favorite song” and dedicated it to Michelle and Barack Obama, with apologies to anyone who didn’t like that, but he had to hear Joey(?) Ramone in support of George W. Bush, so (too bad for people who don’t like it). The song was the standard “After You’ve Gone” — check out link to see a version where Jon plays guitar while Fiona Apple sings about a decade ago. He played this one so solidly, loudly, and with stomping as if trying to exorcise all of the bad vibes or in order to be heard in D.C., I can’t decide which. He played it through one full time as an instrumental and then repeated and sang the lyrics.
- Encore. Jon commented, “That was my version of speed freakathon’s 3rd day. That was my version of show band.” I’m not sure why I wrote that down or what he meant, but I think it was after he teased “Superfreak.” Jon also starting talking politics again, a lot of which I didn’t take notes on, but one poignant comment was, “Let’s watch how our journalists and comedians are treated, if that gets questionable, our fears have reason.” (Just a couple days later, the Pence/Hamilton/Trump tweet happened — so let’s watch how are actors and musicians are treated too.) After a slew of requests, Jon decided on playing David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.” You can’t go wrong with Bowie. Jon requested to the soundboard, “You can lay the reverb on pretty thick on the piano and vocal.” They complied. He used his drum machine again (forgive me if that isn’t what it is called) and didn’t even have to change the setting — he remarked how it was the same beat as “More Than This.” The audience sang along.
- To close, he played a medley of The Smiths songs “This Charming Man” and “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” I can’t think of a more appropriate ending.
I normally feel better after Jon’s shows. I felt worse after this one, probably from some combination of my empathy for him and his hand troubles (I’ve had something similiar — tenosynovitis in both my wrists in the past), as well as feeling a general downheartedness at the turmoil our country is in and seeing how that was affecting Jon. Toward the end of the show Jon also said something along these lines, for someone such as he who loves music so much, that it was difficult to be able enjoy and find solace in it. I sincerely hope that by having to play for the Largo audience that he found some pleasure in it and was able to offload some of the concerns that were weighing him down. The good news is that Flanny is true to his word and fundraisers for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU are already scheduled for the first weekend of December.