Archive for July, 2009

Life of Brion – The MacGyver of Rock

Posted in Uncategorized on July 27, 2009 by pulmyears



That’s the word emblazoned on a plaque hanging up above the stage at The Swedish American Hall, upstairs from the Cafe Du Nord, here in San Francisco, where this past Saturday a lucky few of us experienced a rare San Francisco set by multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, composer and all around musical genius, Jon Brion.

Jonny B

As you may be aware, Jon Brion has written the scores and songs for films such as Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees and Synecdoche, New York, among others. You may also be aware that he has produced and collaborated with a who’s who of contemporary songwriters, including Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Rhett Miller, Kanye West and Eels. He has only released one solo album, that I know of, which had the misleading title Meaningless, and was a key member of the influential and ephemeral power pop juggernaut that was The Grays, in collaboration with Jason Falkner, Buddy Judge and Dan McCarroll. They left only one album, Ro Sham Bo on Epic, before their four-headed monster split to follow four diverse paths, but they have retained a kind of mythical status among power pop aficionados as something of a Big Star for the 90’s pop rock crowd.

Brion, who rarely ventures out from the comfort of West Hollywood’s Largo Theatre, let alone out of L.A. itself, was up in these parts ostensibly to join one of his favourite bands, Of Montreal, the former Elephant 6 band fronted and masterminded by Kevin Barnes, who were playing at Oakland’s Fox Theatre on Friday. Having a free Saturday, and presumably having lost the revenue from missing his regular Friday gig back in L.A., Brion hastily put together a pick-up gig solo here in San Francisco.

Fylgia. I looked it up online, and according to one Norse dictionary of Deities, Fylgia is a Norse name for Guardian angel, a kind of guiding spirit who watches over souls.

How fitting, then, that Brion, whom I wouldn’t put past having looked it up himself, opened the show with a mildly bombastic and somewhat late-period Beatlesque  interpretation of George and Ira Gershwin’s jazz standard  “Someone To Watch Over Me.”  This being Jon Brion, the version had less to do with the Frank Sinatra number from Songs For Young Lovers and more in common with side two of Abbey Road. One of Brion’s favourite tricks is to create the sound of a full band on stage using live “loops,” brief sampled recordings, made on the spot, to which he adds a seemingly endless palette of “live overdubs” such as piano, rhythm and lead guitars and bass (actually low strung guitar), and any other odd or interesting sounds he can find in his onstage junkshop arsenal of musical hardware and software. There’s the Chamberlin, a kind of analog sampler from the 60’s, an old patch bay analog synthesizer up above the piano, and some toy instruments. Heck, there’s stuff up there that I didn’t even recognize.

Jon Brion theremin

I didn’t see a kitchen sink up there but believe me, if he had one, he’d make it sound like Pet Sounds. He may not be like the “most interesting man in the world” from the Dos Equis commercials, but he is certainly, The MacGyver of Rock.

Jon likes to work without a set-list and part of what makes his shows back at Largo so fascinating and theatrical is that snow-flake quality to his improvisations; oh sure he’s got a bag of tricks,(I mean, who doesnt?) but for two hours or so he is 100% in the moment, letting the muse or some errant glitches in the sound system, strike him. He, naturally, strikes back just as freely and even takes requests. Saturday in San Francisco was no different. In fact, it was remarkably close to the vibe of his L.A. residency, and he even shared with the audience that he saw this show as “a kind of dry run” for possibly taking the show out on a tour of selected cities.

Of his own material, he was happy to comply with fairly unadorned versions of fan requests for “Knock Yourself Out” the folkie acoustic guitar and harmonica ditty from I Heart Huckabees, “Not Ready Yet” a song he co-wrote with Mark Everett of Eels, who recorded a much louder version on their Beautiful Freak album. He even played my shouted request for “Ruin My Day,” a shoulda beena hit from Meaningless.

There were some surprises, at least for me as I hadn’t seen him in a few years. One new thing was his use of musical video clips, fashioned into loops, that he jammed with in real time. A Jamaican rhythm section loop was overlayed with a film of a violinist and a video of Ravi and Anoushka Shankar on classical Indian instruments, over which he played a whole other song on the piano.
On the lower tech end of the spectrum Brion became a silent movie house  pianna player to a Felix The Cat short Felix Goes West, over which he tinkled a medley of “California, Here We Come” which morphed into Nirvana’s “Lithium,” all in that traditional olde tyme piano tempo and style.

I’ll never forget one night in Largo, many years ago, when Jon was taking requests. A shy figure approached the stage with his request jotted down on a folded up slip of paper. That man was Elliott Smith. His request was Cheap Trick’s “Voices.”  Since then, Brion has recorded the song in his own inimitable style (it closes out Meaningless.) At the end of the night in San Francisco, I shouted – along with others – for him to play another request. My pick was “Voices” (privately in honour of the late Elliott Smith), no shy slip of paper for me though, and Brion complied with an 8 to 10 minute finale during which he looped and layered – building up from piano to full spectrum – adding everything from video samples of theremin masters and a Mexican family fiddle band.

JonBrion 1

It was a miracle to watch, even better to hear, and wherever those Norse gods in the ceiling of the Swedish American Hall were, I’m sure they watched over this unique night of music and smiled like Vikings in Valhalla.


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