It Wouldn’t Be Make-Believe

Stage Set Up for Jon Brion’s March Show

I couldn’t bear the thought of missing Jon Brion at Largo at the Coronet after seeing his fantastic show the previous month, so on March 31, 2017 I was back at Largo for another installment of his show. The stage is set with two projection screens, a MiniKorg on the ledge of the piano, a full rack of guitars, a chair for a guest with a gorgeous violin and a mandolin next to it, and at the center of the stage, a celesta. The show began with the longest wait ever in between Michael making his house announcements and anyone coming on stage (I didn’t time it but it seemed like 10 minutes). Largo-owner Flanny eventually appeared and remarked that we’ve been listening to Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five, who have been opening for Jon for 20 years. Jon always comes on after a track called “Scuttlebutt.” Just listening to that has triggered a sort of Pavlovian response and I’m half expecting Jon to magically materialize.

Finally Jon appeared on stage, wearing his fedora, gray trousers, a fine line vertically-striped shirt, and his pin striped jacket. He sat on the chair in the middle of the stage and remarked, “All of our nervous systems have been glued to TVs around the town.” He pulled some faces in simulated reaction to watching the news, miming shock and mouthing “motherfucker.” And I bet since the show he has been doing that in reality twice as often! But on with the show.

  1. Jon moved to the piano, set down his half full glass of Guinness and said, “Middle C is a good place to start” as he began with some piano improvisation, which at one point consisted of patterns of ascending and descending notes falling after each other like so many dominoes, then progressed to sequences of chords placed on the beat.
  2. Next, Jon began working through some jazz-style chords on piano, which lead into his song “Strings That Tie to You” from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  At the beginning of the vocals he points to the microphone and then up to have the vocal volume increased, though honestly the vocal volume already sound pretty strong through the speaker. He was singing this song very softly and delicately and perhaps that was why he asked for the volume to be turned up.
  3. Following that tune he receives a simultaneous delivery of Guinness, one from stage left and one from stage right. Jon jokes, “I like stereo!” He plays a fast flourish on the piano followed by some chords and here I really notice his fingers choosing the notes that he is playing as there is just a second of hesitation and slight movement to the left or right of certain keys. This is something I never noticed before. He played his unrecorded song “Someone Else’s Problem Now” and for some reason this version on this particular night feels especially empowering, like becoming unencumbered.
  4. He then stepped away from the piano and walked across the stage to look at his rack of guitars and headed toward the orange Gretsch, which brought some positive sounds from multiple people in the audience – not just the front row this time! Jon remarked, “I like the response any time I get near this….you know you’re getting snowed ’cause it’s just so pretty.” Then he played a popular song from the ’50s, “I Don’t Really Want to Know.” I was in the hot seat again in front of Jon and was snowed in the figurative sense — being overwhelmed by the beauty of the guitar tone and the Brion tractor beam. He kept the song short and sweet, with a pretty ending.
  5. Jon adjusted the tuning and went in the opposite direction with the tone, going for fuzzy flange, playing bass notes that resonated in my chest. Then he switched that tone off and proceeded into The Grays song, “Same Things.” I wondered at the way he was playing it if he was angry or filled with regret that he was doing the same things. It’s amazing how his songs take on subtle changes of meaning when viewed in different contexts. Jon changed tones a few times during the song, adding in an interesting effect that I’m not sure how to describe and frankly I couldn’t keep up on the notes with all the alterations he was making.  At the end of the song he called out to the sound booth, “Is there a vocal compressor?” Then he spoke to the audience, “Now there’s inside banter going on, not an inside joke, more like inside cranium,” as he gestured toward his head.
  6. He moved back over to the piano and we get the Jon Brion vamp music as he’s figuring out what he is doing next. He puts Percy Grainger playing “Maguire’s Kick” on the right screen and starts at the talking intro (you can hear it at the link). Jon notes, “This is the educational portion of the show…you’re not going to have PBS any more, so this is what you get!” On the left screen goes a guy playing piano and Jon introduces him “That is Brad Mehldau.” Referring back to the Percy Grainger description on the film clip he adds that Brad, “Does not jog to gigs, did not get married at the Hollywood Bowl, you might have seen him when PBS used to exist.” Jon fiddled with the MiniKorg and switched to tack piano and announced, “Greg (?) used to request this a lot.” He played “Stop the World” with high notes on piano and bass notes on MiniKorg, which rumbled through the room.
  7. It was request time and Jon played half of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” with the audience singing and it started well, but train wrecked on the second verse. Jon shut it down and said he was “pulling the plug” for the audiences lack of knowing lyrics. Felt like playing one of those music video games like Guitar Hero and you fail midway through because you suck!
  8. Somehow from the ashes of that song arose a surprisingly decent audience singalong rendition of  “867-5309/Jenny” originally by Tommy Tutone. Someone in the audience knew all the lyrics! At its conclusion Jon commented, “So it’s THAT kind of evening.” Pause. “It’s better we know now.” “Sebastian Steinberg is in the building, if he wants to make his presence known in the vicinity of the stage.” Sebastian eventually appears carrying his upright bass. Jon gives him a great big bear hug and remarks that he hasn’t seen Sebastian in a long time.
  9. Jon tells him, “I’ll play an intro of some type,” without saying which song he is playing. It was a very jazzy type of intro. We all learn on the first line that it is “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Jon said it is “my favorite Cole Parter song if you put a gun to my head and I had to chose.” Though he would rather not be in that situation! Sebastian played along on bass.
  10. Switching over to tack piano, Jon played his own unrecorded song, “Please Stay Away From Me” with Sebastian still on bass. As the song finishes Jon changes it back to the regular piano sound.
  11. Paul Cartwright joined in on stage on violin. Jon announced that they were going to play what he referred to as “Pseudo Classical European in C Minor,” which was actually “Strangest Times” from I Heart Huckabees. At one point in the song Jon called out for a “group solo” and everyone launched into their own variation on the theme.

    Paul Cartwright’s Beautiful Violin
  12. Jon took another request, this time for The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” to which he added MiniKorg with heavy voice distortion through the microphone. He sang the lyrics but they were barely comprehensible because of the considerable distortion. Perfect song choice as he has an excellent violinist on the stage.
  13. Another request from the audience and Jon announces that they are going to be a “Modern ass acoustic 3-piece Karaoke machine. Time for a  “Dancing Queen” singalong. Jon added, “Feel free to sing keyboard and synth hooks.” Not the best vocals from the audience as again people are struggling for lyrics in the second verse.
  14. Following that nonsense, Jon, still on piano, launched straight into his song “Here We Go” from Punch-Drunk Love, receiving a big spontaneous cheer from the crowd in the back when Jon starts playing it.
  15. Something I hadn’t seen before, Jon took the upright bass from Sebastian and played it, while Sebastian played on the Epiphone guitar. Paul switched to the mandolin. They cover an old George Jones song, “She Thinks I Still Care.”
  16. Sebastian then took his bass back and Jon got out the “French guitar” and sat down to play, while Paul is back on violin again. Jon said they are doing the “Gypsy Jazz version,” which was for a cover of Prince’s “Controversy.” Link I’ve found is actually to a bootleg version of Jon performing this song at a different time and in a different style.
  17. Still on the French Guitar, Jon played a straightforward, pleasing rendition of “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” This feels like a quintessential Largo song — if the venue had a theme song, this should be it. There’s something that is so brilliant about Largo performances that in the days following a show there one begins to wonder if the experience really happened.  One almost needs to hold to the belief that it happened — I try to capture these quixotic moments in my blog, but feel my writing can’t quite ever effectively latch on to the fleeting occasion. I’m condensing this fitting lyric for the title of this post, “It wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me.”
  18. Then Jon stands up and does something I have been waiting for him to do since I started attending Jon Brion concerts somewhat regularly a couple years ago. He plays the celesta! The song he chose to perform was “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Finally! Such a pretty, yet aching rendition.

    Well-loved Celesta Still Sounds Pretty
  19. Then the audience chose the key for the next song by show of applause for the keys of C and D. There was more enthusiasm for D and Jon said, “I’m a big fan of D from way fucking back.” He headed back to the piano and set up his videos. The orchestra goes up on the right screen and the opera singer on the left screen. He also superimposed someone driving through a city and the Ritchie sisters sitting on the porch singing “Four Marys.” He twiddled around with synth noises and played “Gigantic” by The Pixies. At some point after singing the word “gigantic” only the orchestra is left up on one screen. He used the vocal distortion on the MiniKorg and  the opera singer went back on screen, of which he scratches the music and slowed it down to a somber tempo, as he concluded the piece and his set.

But wait, there’s more! Not on the main stage, but we had been promised a set by David Garza and Sebastian Steinberg in the Little Room. It’s already after midnight and most of the audience heads straight out the door. The Little Room is barely half full, but it is an appreciative group. David takes the lead and the musicians knock through a short set of seven songs. First up, David and Sebastian pay tribute to Chuck Berry with a cover of “Rock and Roll Music.” They follow it with a bluesy number “My Babe.” I couldn’t place why I knew the tune so well (it was late at night and this was my third night out in a row and I was tired) until I realized when listening again that it is the same tune as “This Train.” Not sure what the next song was, maybe one of David’s, but Paul joined in on violin. They followed that with one David sang in Spanish, which I don’t know either. Then completely changing course, something I thought I’d never see, Devo’s “Whip It” played on acoustic guitar, violin, and bass in the Little Room. Pretty on point vocals courtesy of Mr. Garza. David then called out that if there was a piano player in the room whose initials rhymed with “Hey Vee,” he should come to the stage. Jon Brion obliged and the now quartet played David’s groovy song “Summer Love Jam,” followed by a smooth jam on his heavily-lyric laden song “Drone.” David referred to the four as “The Clash of the Little Room.”

At the conclusion of the set, people filtered out of the room except for about dozen of us — mostly Largo people and their friends are left, plus one random couple. David and Jon are still there. Then a really special moment happened. The door to the Little Room was shut with us inside. David lent his guitar to a young guy, Malcolm McRae, to let him check it out, but all of a sudden he was performing a song for this intimate group circled around him next to the Little Room bar. He possessed a very pleasant, soothing kind of crooner voice as he nervously began his song, but within a few measures he eased into the comfort of it. We were all transfixed in the moment. Later, Paul attempted to play “Kathy’s Song” on David’s guitar; well he nailed the guitar part, but couldn’t remember the lyrics. I could have sung them if I could have remembered how the song started. I tried to pull them up on my phone but the moment passed. David took back his guitar and the next half hour cycled between pieces of conversation and infusions of song. David played a few more, including his tune that references “April fool” (“Two of a Kind“?) as it was now April Fool’s Day, though this was no joke, but a beautiful serendipitous gift. David also played a life affirming cover of the Rolling Stones, “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)” and his reggae-themed song “Last Skank With You,” to which the small group provided rhythm through clapping and tapping feet and Jon used the bar for a percussion kit. This unexpected after-the-after-show gathering was absolute magic. Does it ever get better than that? I don’t think it is possible. I basked in the blissful moment before reality kicked in and everyone had to call it a night.

New Jon Brion Poster in the Largo Courtyard