August 25, 2017 — Another Friday at the end of the month, must be time for Jon Brion‘s show at Largo at the Coronet. Owner Mark Flanagan came on stage and greeted the audience, remarking “It does feel like when you’re in this room…fuck everything else! Everything’s gonna be alright.” Then he introduced special guest Zach Galifianakis to open the show with a set of stand-up comedy. Stand-up is not my area of expertise, but Zach had me laughing with his down-played, nervous-looking delivery and exaggerated life commentary and observations (at one moment opening the door to the Largo alley and pretending to check on his kids as if they were parked in a car outside). His set was fairly short and soon enough Jon strode on to the stage.
- Jon headed straight for the piano for his usual improv warm-up, starting off playing rather rapidly, with an ebullient style. Eventually he decelerated into some closely played, pretty tones, then built tension followed by resolution, culminating in jocular stride piano. Referencing the multiple pieces of equipment on the stage, Jon announced that we were in for a “public soundcheck.”
- “Moonage Daydream” — David Bowie cover. After asking for requests from the audience, this song title was immediately shouted out and Jon obliged. Checking through different rhythms on his beat machine, Jon picked out one that had a samba feel to it, remarking that it was “the best so far” and thus he performed the song with a piano lounge feel, also incorporating the miniKorg into the show.
- After asking for more requests he briefly teased the audience with the most recognizable components of a few different songs, including, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Theme,” “Whip It,” “Mr. Roboto,” and “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Then came the irrepressible request for “Freebird.” Jon remarked, “‘Freebird,’ so early in the set? ‘Freebird,’ third song of the night. I was gonna close with that.” He went on to play the song with swatches of “I Wish I Was in Dixie” and “Hail to the Chief,” mixing in modulating chords and some segments of those songs in a minor key.
- “Strings that Tie to You” from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Played on the piano and making use of the movie screens and projectors on stage, Jon put up an older man playing guitar on one screen and Maria Callas singing a song from Tosca (I believe that I’ve found that correct video at the link, she was certainly singing next to those candles that appear around 1m14s) on another. From where I was sitting there was an interesting visual juxtaposition so that it looked like Maria Callas was singing into the microphone that was placed at the front of the Largo stage. I was itching so badly to snap a photo of that (no photos allowed at Largo though). Meanwhile, Jon had looped the repeated piano part of the song and while that was playing back he played chords on the piano and the bass line on the miniKorg, occasionally blasting accents of Maria’s singing over the top of it all. As the song finished, assistant Pete brought out another Guinness for Jon, to which Jon said to him, “Nice mind reading job.” Pete responded, “It’s the ‘Freebird;’ got me thinking.”
- “At It Again” — one of Jon Brion’s unrecorded original songs (I love this song, please record it already). As Jon picks up his black and white Gretsch he comments to the audience, “Remember that public soundcheck I mentioned earlier? We’re in it.” He thumbs his way though the righteous bass notes to begin this song. There’s a buzz attached to the Gretsch being on and after the song an audience member is heard to exclaim, “Oh shit!,” which may or may not have had anything to do with what was happening on stage. Jon acknowledged it with a “maybe.”
- “Why Do You Do This to Yourself” — co-written with and recorded by Evan Dando. Jon poignantly sings this toward a certain audience member who may or may not have been dozing off in the front row (not me). Indeed, I wondered the same thing. At the conclusion of the song and annoyed with the continual buzzing and unplugging the Gretsch Jon curmudgeonly curses, “Misbehaving bunch of motherfucking shit!”
- He headed back to the piano saying, “Let’s start this whole thing over again.” He asked for requests and took his time deciding what he was going to do all while playing part of “Over the Rainbow” on piano. Someone called out “Gershwin plays The Police!” Jon began playing what I thought was a teaser of it, but then he created the mash-up, basing the rhythm on the quarter note beats of “Roxanne” while mixing in the melody of “Summertime” with “Rhapsody in Blue” riffs and possibly other references I missed. The was one of the magic moments of the night.
- “Theme” from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Rapid tremolos cleared the path into this soporific, emotionally-drenched, gorgeous theme. Finishing the piece, he laid down something jazzy on the piano for a minute and then switched to tack piano, keeping it all very atmospheric, before playing directly into a straightforward rendition of the next song.
- “Knock Yourself Out” from I Heart Huckabees
- “All the Young Dudes” — cover of David Bowie’s song made famous by Mott the Hoople. “Okay motherfuckers, it’s singalong time. Anyone who knows the verse lyrics on this, sing ’em.” Well, that turned out to be led by one soulful gentleman in the audience and the rest of us mainly chimed in on the chorus. I guess it should be my homework to learn that whole song. At the conclusion of this one Jon noted he was hearing, “A lot of Hall and Oates and a lot of Velvets requests; it usually wouldn’t happen on the same night. (People laughed.) Don’t worry, I’m not going to smoosh them together.” (Spellcheck doesn’t think smoosh is a word, but I think it is a perfectly good one. Obviously it hasn’t heard what Jon Brion can do.) Next, Jon began to fiddle around trying to find a beat on his beat-making machine, but couldn’t find anything that suited him, remarking, “The rhythm machine let me down.” (Sounds like a great album title.) He headed to the drums on stage and tracked his own rhythm and played that on a loop. While strapping a different Gretsch on, he headed to the center of the stage and announced, “Hi, I’m Jon, I’ll be your human karaoke machine.” He started tuning the guitar and added, “I’m going to tune for you, not every karaoke machine will do this.”
- “Alison” — cover of an Elvis Costello song. This was a decent version of the song with a fair amount of the audience singing along.
- “This is Where I Belong” — cover of a Kinks song, performed with the same Gretsch and thoroughly enjoyable.
- “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” — cover of the song by The Korgis. Jon began this one by looping his drum track first. He gave no indication as to what he was about to play and that was when I realized that part of the appeal to me of Jon’s shows is the feeling of wondering what he is going to do next. Because it could be anything and usually at least one time per show, there is that one song or medley when it is (such as “Gershwin plays The Police” earlier in this show). This particular piece he’s been returning to somewhat regularly for the past few years. To me, this song, with its succinct lyrics and uncomplicated rhythm, is like a mantra one could create a mediation session around and Jon’s performance of it on this night found me feeling emotionally and mentally expanded. So I’ve honored this song by using its first line as the post title. While playing it on the piano, Jon also gave the song the big screen treatment, sticking an orchestra up on the house right screen and dueling guitarists on the left screen, before Eric Clapton won some solo screen time at the end. This piece closed the set, ending a little earlier in the night than usual, as Jon had promised to play a few more on the piano in the Little Room.
True to his word, Jon performed in the Little Room, though a brief set of six (not-so-brief) songs. He began with jazz improvisation on the piano, followed by a jaunty stride piano piece that had Jon’s body possessed by its rhythm, with feet stomping, body twisting, and heels grinding down. He even broke a fingernail while playing it. He drew from his I Heart Huckabees score for the third one, incorporating “You Learn.” On conclusion, he remarked, “Any wrong notes, blame on the microphone,” as he pulled a microphone out of the inside of the piano. I had noticed that microphone laying on top of the piano before he started playing for the evening and was sure his actions had caused it to fall inside. I was in the front and muttered under my breath, “You knocked it in there.” I guess Jon heard me, because he then said, “I know I knocked it in there playing raucous stride piano.” He then took a request for “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” playing a beautiful, intimate, and understated version. I wondered how he could stay focused on it when we could hear someone’s car radio playing something else just outside the Little Room door off the street. The next piece he called a “Soundtrack for a Silent Film That Hasn’t Been Made Yet” and it sounded exactly like that. Brilliant. He closed with a full audience singalong of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” with every voice filling the small space of the room. Jon tacked on an extra ending for the song, “Look at the law men beating up the wrong guy, oh man, I guess it’s Sheriff Arpaio. Fuck Trump and his show.” Upon finishing, Jon briefly addressed the audience, “You can either go gentle into that good night or not.” Hear, hear.