I was so glad to be back at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles on Friday, February 24, 2017 for Jon Brion‘s show after having missed January’s installment. It didn’t seem like there were going to be any guests that night (no note on the email from Largo that there would be special guests), but with Largo, you never know what will happen. As the lights were dimmed over the audience, owner Mark Flanagan came on stage to introduce John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, who came on stage to test out the jokes they would run at the Independent Film Spirit Awards being held the following day. You can watch a clip of their opening monologue from the event online. The best part of their whole shtick though was when they pretended they were introducing various artists during the ceremony and announced Joseph Gordon-Levitt and remarked that he would be bounding up to the stage wearing a fedora. It turned out he was actually at Largo and went running up and onto the stage (though wearing a baseball cap). In closing their set, I was amused by John introducing Jon Brion by saying, “Mercury is always in retrograde for him.”
The stage was set up with a couple of movie screens and projectors, the miniKorg, synthesizer, and a few guitars. Jon took to the stage, set his beer down on the table near where he plays guitar and headed to the piano, played a couple measures and then went back to retrieve his glass and put it on the piano. He noted that he was actually the one wearing the fedora and proceeded to take it off and not wear it at all the rest of the night. He was wearing his turquoise trousers, a denim shirt, and a pin-striped coat. The first eight songs of the set were classic Brion. It was exactly what I’d put on a set list if I was making one for someone who wanted to hear a typical experience of him playing at Largo.
- He played his usual piano warm up with some tightly placed chord sequences to get started. Upon completion he said, “Those guys (Kroll and Mulaney) got the jauntiness out of the way, I’ll go right into Dirgeville to start.”
- Jon started playing on the MiniKorg with his left hand and the Largo piano with his right hand. It began as nothing immediately definitive, yet it had an instrumental I Heart Huckabees sound for about a minute or two and then he transitioned to the song from the movie soundtrack, “Over Our Heads.” In these times that find a person world weary, one might find comfort rather than anguish in this passage, “Think your troubles are so serious; well one day you’ll be so long gone; ’cause nothing ever lasts; it all gets torn to shreds; if something’s everlasting; it’s Over Our Heads.” I’ve taken a line from this song to use as the title of this post.
- Jon then switched to tack piano and played “Meaningless” from his album of the same name. He choked slightly while singing an early line in the song. Afterward, he commented on that, “Had a little saliva go down the wind pipe at the beginning of that one.”
- Jon then moved across the stage and picked up the orange Gretsch guitar. He began to fiddle around with pedals and tones, played some chords descending down the neck, and made maximum use of the tremolo bar and vibrato. This was an impassioned and grungy version of “’Round Midnight.” Halfway through he knocked off the heavy fuzziness and played a more clean, unaffected style. When he finished singing he returned to some intense playing for the solo section, putting every part of the guitar in use, and spending quite a lot of time exploring the song, as we’ve heard in the past. There was effective use of harmonics and picking the strings in non-traditional locations, but bending strings with the right hand – what?! – amazing ingenuity throughout his performance of this song.
- Jon accepted another Guinness delivered from Pete. He took a request from the back of the room for Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” the first one that was shouted out. Jon played the song as a fingerpicking version on acoustic guitar and as sort of a singalong – the audience mostly singing the chorus and leaving Jon to remember the verses. He sped up the tempo toward the beginning of the song announcing, “Let’s get this groove cooking a little more.” He also changed the key a step higher a couple times during the song.
- Back to the piano for Bowie’s “Life on Mars” with full singalong from most of the audience. Simply gorgeous and of course this is such a fantastic song if you are accomplished enough to be able to play it, as Jon incontrovertibly is, it is always going to be a winner.
- Again the change to tack piano and Jon put his harmonica holder around his neck for “Knock Yourself Out” from I Heart Huckabees.
- Straightforward piano. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind “Theme.” I sat back and enjoyed this one, basking at its understated beauty.
- Jon started fiddling with the synthesizer and it made some blooping robot/computer noises like you might have heard in a 60s or 70s Sci-Fi movie. Jon commented, “That’s what it sounds like in my head when I’m staring off into space.” Heavily paraphrasing here – he went on to mention something about if you ever see him in Starbucks and he looks like that, then that is what is happening. He then said, “I’m gonna discipline some machines that are disobeying” and started adjusting knobs relating to the video projector/looping thing (is that the technical term…ha!) “Let’s see if we see the smiling, talented face of Jo Jones.” Nope, but we could hear something as Jon noted, “Projector is down.” As the drummer Jo Jones appeared on screen, Jon said, “This man makes me happy.” Jon played a bass line on the MiniKorg and then also began playing piano and stomping his feet. He performed a cover of The Smiths song, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” Adds orchestra on screen superimposed over Jo Jones – it is Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” He played part of the song with just MiniKorg, then switched to piano, and then began scratching the video sound, with the synthesizer looped in, extending the ending.
- Piano alone and his original song “Please Stay Away From Me.” He sings so high on this one — it’s a soft, tender rendition despite the plea of the song.
- After three slow songs in a row, Jon said he’s going to “Wake us up with this guy!” Any guesses? He’s resurrected Mr. “and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4” Drummer Man whom we last saw in December and Jon assigns him to the left screen. An older guy playing Spanish guitar goes up on the right screen. Jon has his left hand on piano and creates synth sounds with the right. Also, an old banjo bluegrass type of band with F.D. Roosevelt sat in the middle goes to the left screen. Jon played on the MiniKorg and sang “Gigantic” by The Pixies. He pulls off a hard stop to this song where he slammed his hands down on the decks running the videos, stopping them instantly. He removes his coat when the song is over.
- Next, a return to piano for Fats Waller’s “Alligator Crawl” with lots of stomping and humming from Jon. Beautiful and delightful on piano and a relief to the wall of sound created on the previous song.
- Jon them commences some random piano playing that turns into the standard, “Night and Day.” Amazing interpretation of this; a gorgeous rendition. Jon makes full use of the range of notes on the keyboard and feels the intensity with more stomping and seemingly random humming. He would throw in a flurry of notes and then back off and simplify, making a strong use of dynamics. This one song was worth the price of admission and was one of my highlights of the evening. This is a song I know pretty well from listening to it multiple times back when I was younger and didn’t have a lot of music in my collection (the link for the song goes to the version I listened to sung by the amazing Ella Fitzgerald). I absolutely adored what Jon did with his interpretation of the song. Once again I posit, I could listen to him perform stuff like this every single night and not tire of it.
- Still at the piano, he played his song, “Here We Go” from Punch-Drunk Love. Another beautiful performance and the vocal was spot on.
- Jon asks for another round of requests. Somebody said the national anthem and Jon got that look on his face (the light bulb turns on, eureka!). He started off with “Hail to the Chief” on piano, but in a minor key and adding as much dissonance and cringe-worthiness to it as possible, but some really complex sounding lines. Then he added on “The Star Spangled Banner” and I wrote “grim as hell” in my notes. A few touches of the tune “America” from West Side Story where the lyrics would be “I like to be in America, okay by me in a America, everything free in America, for a small fee in America.” Then he squeezed in some strains of “Over the Rainbow,” then transitioned back to the national anthem, and bounced over to “Hail to the Chief” and back to “the rockets red glare” part of national anthem, and finished the medley on “Hail to the Chief.” Was that cathartic for him, I wonder?
- He then played one verse and chorus of the Cheers theme song, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” with the audience singing in full voice. Largo has a bit of a Cheers feeling to it, with many friends and familiar faces appearing at repeated shows and a general camaraderie even among strangers.
- A few random bits of songs are played as people make more requests. Jon teased us with just a couple bars of each song: “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Bali Hai” and some others; I couldn’t keep up on the notes.
- Then a somewhat regular attendee shouted out “Rite of Spring” as a request and Jon went to the front of the stage pontificating. I think Jon was on his third Guinness by this point. He was ready for the challenge and created a masterpiece before our eyes. I’ve detailed as much as I could about what he is doing, but it in no way can measure up to the aural experience of the thing. Jon sent up “The Rite of Spring, Part 1″The Adoration of the Earth,” by Stravinsky on the left screen. He sat down at the MiniKorg and piano and used the MiniKorg microphone to warp the sound of his voice. He continued on to compose what felt like was a movie score to our current political climate. He generated some lyrics off the top of his head, such as, “I hate everyone of those gay-baiting, Jew-hating bastards…maybe by spring some of them will go away….Fuck Trump…it’s all I can think about every day.” Crazy synth playing was looped in. He played more of a proper version of “Over the Rainbow” on piano with lots of descending bass notes with the left hand on the beat. For a moment it felt like he was playing against everything that was bothering him, fighting a political battle with music. The duct tape came out and was stuck across some piano strings in the middle. More manic synth was added. He’s created a plucking sound from the piano which blended well with the orchestra on screen (which was at about the four minute mark in the song). So much tension issued forth from the stage. At one point Jon was holding piano strings down with his left hand to maintain the plucking sound. Then he let the orchestra take over. You can’t help but feel that you are watching a genius at work when he is in this mode — he was immersed in the music and electric in his actions. Next up on the right screen, men singing. The other screen was stuck alternating between bowing on double bass and french horns playing. He created bursts of noise with the video decks, so briefly, almost pulling the music out of the context of musical notes, so it was more like individual, staccato tones and not cohesive music. Then he continued matching the sound of the orchestra on the MiniKorg, while improvising on piano with his right hand to guys snapping a la the Jets in West Side Story, who were superimposed on the left screen. While his feet were stomping the beat, Jon played a purposely skewered version of “Over the Rainbow” on piano with both hands. Next he added a cool visual to the right screen, the “Solar Do-Nothing Machine.” At this point Jon started repeating “Number 9” into the microphone, after which he was scratching and whizzing the video decks around. Then he put a guy playing piano on over the top of the orchestra video on the left screen (the snapping guys were gone by this point). Screen right was changed to a different orchestra. He alternated on a fifth interval on the piano with his left hand as he slowed down both of the replacement videos to match the keys on the videos to the pitches he was playing. Then he played “Over the Rainbow” on piano with the orchestra on and then the piano guy on. Soon he transitioned into a straight jazz piano version of the song and turned everything else off. Then it was back to the original “Rites of Spring” orchestra on screen, with Jon playing thunderous piano on the bass keys along with the orchestra. He stopped the videos. Jon finished with the last line of “Over the Rainbow” on just piano. “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I.” It was an incredible on-the-fly composition, even if he has played parts of it before. He said “thank you” and headed straight off stage at the end and the house lights came up promptly. I was flooded with the feeling that I had witnessed something astounding and struck by the ephemeral nature of Jon’s performance pieces. Nothing ever lasts, indeed.
Or does it? Jon Brion’s recorded catalog is worthy of being saved and enjoyed for many years.