Concerts, Music

Twenty Fifteen, Post Three: On Stromae

stromae

My favorite 2014 concert happened by accident.

‘Alors On Danse’ exploded into my playlist five years ago with the intensity of an Akira-esque thermonuclear bomb, displacing the current summer dance favorite ‘We No Speak Americano’. 1 The song somehow managed to get everything right. The happy marriage of the bass-and-brass phrases, accompanied by what sounded like an over-excited poodle running around yapping in time with the beats – did it matter that I could not understand what the song was saying, other than “let’s dance”?

Stromae was due to perform at Los Angeles in October. I knew that in advance, having kept an eye on the events schedule at the Fonda Theater. I was more interested in La Roux and The Tune-Yards who were playing around the same time. I briefly contemplated buying tickets to go see him, but spending $40 on what I thought was a one-hit wonder – not my cup of tea. Besides, tickets weren’t sold out, and isn’t that a sign that maybe he wasn’t cool enough? Yes, shameful admission: sometimes it feels better to get tickets to sold-out shows. Bam!

A few days before the show, my boss – who is Moroccan – remarked that he was interested in Stromae. He had been listening to his new album obsessively, and mentioned that it was really good. Racine Carrée (which means ‘square root’) was indeed appealing, but did not grab me immediately.That is the thing with music – you need time and patience and maybe a little bit of willingness to get into something new. The one song that sounded super-catchy had the words ‘rendezvous’ in the chorus, and that was the song I kept humming to myself every now and then. It appeared that tickets were indeed sold out, even though they showed up as available on the website. I did some halfhearted Craigslist-scouring, but to no avail. Stub-hub, never one of my go-to sites, showed obscene prices. My Stromae experience was over before it even began.

About 3 days before the show, a friend sent an email to me and a few others about how her friend was traveling to France and would miss the concert; she was traveling at the same time as well, so would anyone be interested in two tickets at the floor price? I was, and another person in the mailing list that I did not know at the time was, too. And that is how I landed up at the Fonda Theater that October night, maybe one of 10 non French-speaking people in the audience.

My ticket was for the balcony. I tried wheedling my way into the floor, but the security guard, normally more than willing to listen, was unrelenting. The floor was packed, the balcony was too. October in LA is not much different from August in LA, and the air-conditioning – even with an expensive beer – were not enough to quell that feeling of impending heat-related collapse. I found out that the Fonda had a terrace with turf carpeting. It was worth missing the opening act to sit under the stars and contemplate cutting and running. Yes, I was this close to just leaving.

I did not leave. I remember dancing like crazy. I remember a French girl in front of me who did not stop screaming, dancing and singing along throughout the show, and her American boyfriend awkwardly looked at her, shaking his head every time she asked him to dance. Douche. I remember being mesmerized by the strobe lights throbbing in time to the tribal drums of the opening song (it was ‘Ta Fete’, the first song in Racine Carrée), the crowd chanting along with the chorus. I remember the trippy animations that accompanied ‘Humain L’eau’, with its nutty, dissonant riff. Stromae taking the piss out of Americans and French people at the same time while talking about french fries (“They are not French and they are not American. They are from Belgium”), neatly seguing into the opening of “Moules Frites”. 2The guy had a bum leg, and still managed to dance around like a maniac. He was a bonafide star, I kid you not. If it sounds like I have a gigantic man-crush, yes, I am not denying it.

It was the first concert where the artiste thanked nearly every member of his crew, from the light-man to the costume designer to the chaffeurs. It was one of the craziest encores I had seen in a while. From collapsing on stage while performing the gut-wrenching “Formidable”, to being carried in like a stiff mannequin for ‘Papaoutai’; from singing an acapella version of the rendezvous song with all the musicians (‘Tous les mêmes’ is the title), sans microphones, and with the entire audience shushing each other, to just being plain fucking awesome, Stromae did it all. He promised to be back in LA in 2015, and that is one show I won’t miss this year.

Racine Carrée has been a constant on my play queue in the second half of the year. It is not just the music. The videos – good lord, the videos are incredible. They also come with sub-titles, an added bonus, and it becomes clearer why this guy is such a phenomenon in Francophone countries. ‘Formidable’ was shot guerilla-style at a Brussels tram station; Stromae appeared drunk, incoherently shouting at passersby, later accosted by policemen who tell him they are big fans and ask if they should drop him home. ‘Ta fete’ shows him at his flamboyant best, overseeing a gladiatorial contest in a get-up that comes with a beret, trenchcoat and a microphone cane, how cool is that? ‘Tous les mêmes’ has him in drag, playing both the male and female adversaries in an eternal war of the sexes, that culminates in a dance-off. It also showcases Stromae’s complete unself-consciousness in front of the camera; one minute, he is a rakish nose-picking boor, grabbing at his girlfriend’s ass while heading out the door; the other, he is a seething woman remonstrating her boyfriend’s lack of interest in her.

The crowd-pleaser of the album is undoubtedly ‘Papaoutai’ (“Where are you, papa?”), which is ironic considering that this has the saddest setting ever. A kid tries to engage with a glassy-eyed mannequin of a father while other kids have their real dads with them. “Everybody knows how to make babies/ but nobody knows how to make papas. Mister know-it-all would have inherited it, that’s it/he probably learnt it while sucking his thumbs”, says the lyrics as the song jumps from sadness to anger to resignation, even as it pulsates with thumping beat and a chorus worthy of hosannas. I find the tone of the song- and Stromae’s delivery of these lyrics – reminiscent of some of Eminem’s best work. Is it worth noting that the artiste’s father – a Rwandan architect who later died in the 1994 genocide in his home country – was absent for most of his childhood?

Notes:

  1. Fun fact: Renato Carosone’s Sicilian original plays in a scene in the George Clooney movie ‘The American’, which I watched recently. The song plays on the TV when the actor is sitting down for dinner at a cafe. That brought back memories of my first week in Romania, when in my third visit to a pizzeria near my apartment, I noticed that everybody in the place had gone quiet and were pretending not to glance at me. A quick look at the TV, and I realized why – Raj Kapoor’s Awaara was playing on national TV, with subtitles. “Vagabondul”, remarked the waiter as everyone, myself included, broke into laughter.
  2. Obviously, I did not know the song titles back then, it was only afterwards, when I got into the album with the intent of reliving the sounds I heard in the concert that I was able to figure out which song was what.
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Concerts, Music

Concert Diaries: Ariana Hall, Live At The Hotel Cafe

The Hotel Cafe, located on Cahuenga and Hollywood Boulevard, is an odd little place. You’re supposed to enter around the back, and they don’t card you when going in – or maybe I just looked over 21. You walk inside, pass through a corridor – a door to the side says “Performers only” –  and enter the main hall. There is a stage inside, and six tables close to it, a bunch of chairs clustered around them. That’s it, six tables.  And a bar. And you ponder why this place is considered one of the best music venues in the US, popular enough to warrant its own nationwide tour. A look at previous lineups reveals names like KT Tunstall, Imogen Heap, John Mayer, Weezer and Badly Drawn Boy have played there before.

Oh, and they have a really funny FAQ page.

I was there last evening because pals Amy and Andrew told me about Ariana Hall performing there. Both of them knew Ariana personally, and I had met her before through them. We had a nice dinner together, all four of us, at her place last November, one night before she was due to leave for a tour. While I had heard her CD before, I had never seen her perform. Andrew wasn’t able to make it last evening, but Amy and I decided to go. We bus-ed it to Hollywood. Reached early, strolled along Hollywood Boulevard to the venue.

It’s nearly a year since I’ve been in LA, but going down the the Walk of Fame, seeing the bronze stars engraved in the sidewalk below my feet – known and unknown names on them – still feels surreal. I subconsciously try to avoid walking on the stars themselves, it feels kind of disrespectful. I think the day I begin walking on them is the day I stop making a big deal of being in LA. Don’t want that to happen.

We decided to pop into Umami Burgers, where I ordered an Earth burger. Yes, vegetarian, don’t ask. On the patio outside, they were screening ‘Back to the Future II’ for a bunch of fans – the lovely LA weather made it a beautiful night. The food, though meat-deprived, was delicious.

Done with dinner, we arrived at Hotel Cafe to find all the tables taken, just as the reviewer on Yelp had said (“get there early. Or be prepared to stand around holding your beer”). I tried scouting for a strategic location to do just that, but Amy miraculously managed two chairs around a table where a single lady was sitting. A pretty waitress came by – I liked the way she asked “you guys ok?”, instead of “what can I get you?” We were, but I ordered a Corona anyway.

There was someone already on stage – a pretty lady with a guitar, singing sad love songs, with the right amount of humor in between (“That was supposed to be a downer”, she quipped, when the audience whooped in appreciation after a song). Her name, I found out later when looking up the calendar, was Brooke Northrop. She’s pretty darn good – listen to ‘Room to Breathe’ on her page. “Just wait till Ariana starts”, Amy whispered, noticing my reactions.  Hmm, talk about expectation-buildup. Brooke finished her set with a Ben Folds cover, and the crowd suddenly began to swell. In about 4 minutes, there were four taps on my shoulder, people asking if I was staying for the next show. Oh yes, I was, thank you.

Amy was right. Ariana live knocked my socks off. She started with ‘Mmm(I Like You)’. I had heard the song before on her website, and it did not do much for me. But live, stripped of the violin and the bells and with just a voice and a guitar, the song bubbled with delicious passion. For the next bunch of songs, a bunch of musicians joined her – a guitarist and occasional banjo/ukulele player, a drummer and a bassist switching between a double bass and an electric bass guitar. Ariana herself switched between the guitar and the piano. Most of the songs she sang were original compositions, some of them were co-written, and nearly all of them were like gut-punches that made me grin like an idiot.

The positive response from the audience was tremendous. At one point, it felt like Ariana knew everyone in there; knowing her, it wouldn’t be that far-fetched. One of the songs that stood out for me was  a musical interpretation of a Tony Barnstone poem called ‘The War is Over’, because of the playful way it began, and the words. Umm, not that I knew who Tony Barnstone was before Ariana mentioned the source, his book Tongue of War, a collection of poems on World War IIAnother song had the musicians step away from the microphones to go totally unplugged, made possible only because of the intimacy the venue offered. Every note, every strum rang clearly through the hall, and the applause at the end of it was impressive. Amy’s whoops, for the record, put everyone else’s to shame. I tried matching up, but a recent cold had soaked away my vocal chords. Ariana went on to play one of her songs from the movie Au Pair Kansas, and ended her set with a two-song medley, one of which was from an upcoming Judd Apatow movie. (Where she sings. And plays herself. This woman is unstoppable.)

At the end of it all, Ariana sang out her thank-you’s, but we did not let her go that easy. She wrapped it up with a single-song encore – which I found a bit of a downer, but hey, you can’t have it all. I’ve decided I like Hotel Cafe a lot, and apparently the Pierces are playing there on January 17th. For the $15 admission fee and the kind of vibe about the place, it’s totally worth the price of admission. I am so there.

Then I got back home and ironed clothes until 2 AM, with ‘Mmm (I Like You) playing in my head.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxR2bisGQ20[/youtube]

(Not from yesterday, but a good live performance of the song by her. Ignore the noise of the crowd.)

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Concerts, Music, Myself

Concert Diaries: James Blake, Live At The Music Box

One of the happiest aspects of moving to LA has been this – anytime I listen to a new artiste, or even an old favorite, I go to the corresponding last.fm page and look at their scheduled appearances. In nearly all cases, the artiste is scheduled to perform in this city. Maybe it’s just my choice of musicians, but the ones I’ve been to in the recent past have performed in small, intimate locations – the Wiltern, the Greek Theater, The Music Box. The last I went to was James Blake, last Monday. I had a great time.

Blake makes my kind of music. The kind that refuses to let me parallel-process as I listen to it. Moody, atmospheric synth-collages dance around his voice, which itself is auto-tuned, flange-layered, digitally masticated beyond recognition. Hearing his self-titled album for the first time was a sort of quasi-religious experience. I remember sitting in a corner that night with my earphones, my eyes closed, trying to take in every nuance of ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ as it played over and over. That particular song touched a raw nerve – a plaintive five-line refrain that whispered and stormed, echoed and warbled, as the world changed around it. I had associated Blake’s style with that of a solo music-smith’s digital experiments, that would lose its potency live. Sometimes, the mystery behind the curtain – the smoke, the mirrors – is necessary to accentuate the musicmanship. Intrigued by the idea of a live performance, I went looking for his videos online. And was blown away a second time.

As a venue, the Music Box falls into the mid-sized category, perfect for someone like Blake. I got there early – not a bad thing at all, as when the doors opened at 8, I headed straight to the front of the floor and stayed put. For what seemed like hours and hours, groan. Teengirl Fantasy took the stage at exactly 9 PM, and played a set that blew ears, minds and expectations. I had never heard of them before, but whew, their sound-cloud offering does not get a fraction of the vibe of their live set, where thumping bass loops mesh with otherworldly sounds.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/users/1448452″]

You knew Blake was coming onstage when the stage lights turned blue. (No, seriously. That’s the predominant color on his album cover. I was expecting that, yeah) Right from the opening song – ‘Unluck’, the first track on his album – Blake and his musical cohorts on drums and sampler/guitar seemed to bend the rules of sound and light that night, playing to an appreciative audience that cheered and woo-hoo-ed at every opportunity. Weirdly enough, there were cheers even mid-song, forcing Blake to break character and smile impishly, in the middle of some particularly soulful passages.

Random observations about the show:

  • The way the singer’s voice shattered my assumptions. It surprised me to see just how much of Blake’s voice is really his voice, not electronically manipulated or enhanced – especially in songs like ‘Give Me My Month’, where it’s just him and the piano. He is a tremendously gifted singer, and it was awe-inspiring to see how the vocal calisthenics that appeared studio-tweaked were just raw talent.
  • I liked the way Ben Assiter used both a drum machine and an acoustic drum-kit, sometimes simultaneously. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but I am obsessed with sounds, and this is what I mean by a peek at the bones of a song – the realization, for example, that the sound of the hi-hat on Blake’s cover of Feist’s ‘Limit to your Love’ is really a hi-hat.
  • ‘I Never Learned To Share’ and ‘Lindisfarne’, two songs where Blake actually sequences and layers his voice, gave me goosebumps.
  • The new songs they played, one to close the show, the other in the encore, sounded more upbeat, much unlike Blake’s usual style, making for a concert where the melancholy, sparse melodies were punctuated with very peppy, head-bopping sequences.  And it also makes me happy to know that Blake is not sticking to the style that has worked for him, and is trying out different things. It’s also made me fairly sure that I am going to see this guy the next time he performs in LA.
  • The throbbing bass, oh dear god, especially on the encore track ‘Anti-War Dub’ and ‘Limit to your Love’. Think about the deepest, most gut-rattling growl of a subsonic frequency you’ve ever heard, and you’ll probably understand. Maybe.
  • Blake introduced drummer Ben Assiter and guitarist Rob McAndrews as his high-school friends, who have been accompanying him since the very beginning of his career. That made me smile.
  • My favorite Blake song, in case you haven’t figured it out already, is ‘The Wilhelm Scream’. It was the last song (pre-encore), just like I had expected, but maybe because I had already you-tubed it, the song did not have the level of spontaneity to it as the others. Perhaps that is not so surprising after all, considering how much these guys must have played the track live.
  • This did not however prevent me from recording the song myself, on the phone.

Note: the pictures were taken off the iPhone, please excuse the poor quality.
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AR Rahman, Life, Music

A most unexpected Rahman concert

The first, and only, AR Rahman concert I had been to was in Hyderabad, in 2003. It was the first time Rahman had ever toured, and expectations were high, the man himself had not sold out was at the top of his game, and I had all-access backstage passes. Since then, I’ve passed on every ARR concert that happened in the vicinity, partly because I could not really top the 2003 experience, and partly because there was not really anything new happening in any of the concerts – you could make out parts being badly lip-synched, there would be the mandatory Sivamani jam, garish background dancers, and a bunch of crowd-pleasing songs. Ho-hum.

But when Sasi told me about Rahman playing at the Hollywood Bowl in July, I was struck with that Rahmantic yearning again. And that’s how we landed up there this Sunday, with a bottle of wine, bags of popcorn, and a cumulative high after listening to ‘Jiya Se Jiya’ in the car. (the Hollywood Bowl allows you to bring your own food in, which was a pleasant surprise) As expected, the place was desi-ville, right from the parking lot to the crowded stands. (Which also meant there was a great deal of queue-bumping. Or queue-nonexistence.) A bhangra group, apparently a bunch of SoCal dancers called the Sher Foundation were performing at the entrance and inviting passers-by to join in, leading to much exhibition of left feet.

The concert began with a performance by Rhythms of Rajasthan, a folk singing troupe. Nobody really paid them much attention, people were still streaming in, it was not dark enough to see the screens, and there were no crunchy beats to make you get up and dance, yo. Karsh Kale was up next. He played an excellent 45-minute set, with some great singers joining him onstage, as well as a female violinist named Lili Haydn, who owned. Salim Merchant came onstage for a bit, jamming to his song ‘Shukran Allah’ from Kurbaan with Kale and his crew. Overall, a fantastic performance, and I was primed for the evening. But no ARR in sight, instead Sher Foundation and something called Bollywood Step Dance came onstage and did what every wannabe on every talent show on every TV channel does – dance to Bollywood songs. Omkara, Jab We Met, facepalm. Thankfully, this did not last too long.

The announcer came on stage, did his usual Rahman spiel. Mispronounced name, check. Slumdog Millionaire mention, check. Audience going wild, check. Random drunk Tamil dude screaming ‘thalaivar’ over and over again, check. Conductor Matt Dunkley walked in. The opening sequence to Enthiran played on the giant screen, and the crowd roared as Robonikanth sauntered into view. The music began to play, slowly building, and the choir launched into ‘Arima Arima’. But whoa, it was a version much different from the one on the soundtrack. I believe the precise moment I began to gape with disbelief was when ‘Arima’ became a rearranged ‘Puthiya Manithan’ Because this was good, guys. This was not stick-to-the-crowd-pleasers Rahman I was expecting. The  Spirit of Unity tour in 2003 had the bombastic ‘Oruvan Oruvan’ from Muthu opening every show. The overture to that song is a magnificent orchestral piece that was tweaked a little, so that the meaty beats and SPB’s robust vocals that lead to the song became a bubbly hymn of anticipation, driving fanboys like yours truly delirious with happiness. This version of Enthiran evoked something quite like that. But I expected the singers to emerge any minute, destroying those few minutes of sonic adventurism that we were witnessing. I was wrong.

Rahman came onstage, talked a bit about how happy he was to be there. Said something funny about this not being a ‘rockstar event’. A brief speech about Roja, and he walked away. The orchestra struck up again, with a delicate reinterpretation of ‘Kaadhal Rojave’, with ARR regular Naveen on the solo flute. It was at this point I realized this was going to be much, much more than a regular concert.

Chances were high that something like this would suck. You know why? Because orchestral reinterpretations fall into two categories – gimmicky or wannabe. An outfit like Apocalyptica, once the novelty of hearing METALLICA-ON-CELLO-WOO-HOO wears off, is just a bunch of celloists scraping on their instruments as hard as possible to make them sound like badass Les Pauls. Off the top of my head, the only orchestral version I loved whole-heartedly, without coming back to it some time later and going ‘wha-huh, I enjoyed that?’ was Jon Lord’s Concerto For Group And Orchestra.  And please don’t say S&M. No, it does not hold up. Matt Dunkley, who was the conductor and arranger for the concert, has apparently worked with ARR since

The choice of songs was superb. These were the underrated gems, the pieces that do not make it to your top 10 ARR lists. ‘Ayo Re Sakhi’ from Water, (which was nearly ruined by the female vocalist, a lady named Amrita. I will get to her in a minute) , pieces from Couples Retreat and 127 Hours.  ‘Mausam & Escape’ from Slumdog Millionaire was a frenzied piano/sitar duet, with sitarist Asad Khan joining Rahman on the keys, and a very unexpected choice for that soundtrack. The predictable inclusions – the theme from Warriors of Heaven and Earth and ‘Once Upon A Time in India’ from Lagaan, the Bombay theme. The most unpredictable one was a suite from The Rising, otherwise known as Mangal Pandey. I have to admit that the piece made me itch to go and revisit the OST, though I am not courageous enough to consider watching the film again. (Shudder!)

The one piece I could not recognize at all was ‘Changing Seasons’. Was it from Raavan? I have absolutely no clue, because my post-2009 ARRfu is weak. I do not remember seeing it anywhere before, even on promos.

The low points –

  • Almost no connection between the content of the video clips and the piece being conducted at the moment. Imagine watching an action sequence with a romantic theme playing in the background, and you will understand what I mean.
  • The multiple anti-British themes (and their corresponding videos) got a little tedious. Thankfully, no pieces from Bose: The Forgotten Hero.
  • The choice of Jai Ho’ as the closing song. While I get it, it’s the most recognized Rahman song in Hollywoodland, familiar enough for even the random drunk woman sitting next to me to wake up and cheer. But you have a Philharmonic orchestra and start off with programmed beats and a bunch of under-trained vocalists to substitute for Sukhwinder Singh’s power-packed vocals. Seriously?
  • The terrible, terrible female vocalist, who had no business sharing a stage with the Man, or anywhere near a microphone. She sounded nervous at first, a little out of breath, when singing the Water song, but one can only forgive so much. Her voice was grating enough to suck away all the joy out of ‘Jai Ho’. I missed you, Tanvi Shah. You may be the only Indian woman who can say ‘Salut, baila baila!’ without making me giggle.

And now to wait for an official CD release.

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Life, Music

The Jon Brion Experience ( or how Palaka Sasidhar Rocked My LA Stay Part 1)

As the evening drew to a close, she bent close to me, her red dress sparkling under the lights, and spoke into my ears – “Ah, so you are a virgin?”

Wait, I get ahead of myself, like always.

A couple of weeks ago, I got reassigned to a new project, and the client’s office being in Los Angeles, they needed me there for some time, to meet the team and get acquainted with what it was exactly that I was supposed to do. Los Angeles, a city I had visited for 3 whole days two years ago, jazzing it up with pal Sasi and taking in landmarks that are etched in the minds of anyone remotely acquainted with film. Sunset Boulevard. Westwood Village. Hollywood. Mulholland Drive. Disneyland. Ok, not fucking Disneyland, I think I am too old for that. ( Says the guy who squeals like a baby when he sees a Sleeping Beauty snowglobe) But anyway, three weeks in Los Angeles! And this time, Sasi even had a car, and much more experience about what would float my boat during the stay.

“Jon Brion”, he asked me, a few days before I was to leave. “Do you know of him?”

Know Jon Brion? I heard Jon Brion’s music for the first time in 2005, when the soundtrack of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind melted my heart and my ears, and for a brief period of time in 2005, I went berserk and got a-hold of every Jon Brion soundtrack in existence. ( And this was a herculean task in a time when broadband speeds were still sub-64 kbps and Rapidshare wasn’t the searchable uber-repository that it is today ). Magnolia. Punch-drunk Love. I <3 Huckabees. It was humongously tough trying to find his earlier work, and I finally stopped with the Aimee Mann collaborations, which played in a loop for about a month on my Winamp playlist. It was a rush listening to her Brion-produced version of ‘One (is the Loneliest Number)’, that I had heard as a electronica/heavy-metal-driven cover by Filter on the X-Files soundtrack. It’s tough for anyone to call one single version of an oft-covered song as a definitive one, but I’ve heard multiple versions of ‘One’, and Brion’s organ-backed interpretation makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Of course, when Sasi asked me about Jon Brion, none of this really came up in my short answer. “Yes”, I said. “I love his music, but I haven’t really been following him after 2005.”

“You will probably enjoy watching him live”, Sasi remarked. “Let me see what I can do.” And I gotta say this about Sasi. He has this habit of understating stuff. After the first line, the “let me see” part nearly made me crush the keyboard. “You better do something about it, mate”, I said. And then my Indian-ness kicked in. “How much are the tickets?” And Sasi being the guy he is, he disappeared conveniently from Google talk, leaving me on tenterhooks for about a minute, but then I found out a new link on Twitter and forgot all about watching Jon Brion live. Being an ADD-monkey helps sometimes.

Jon Brion came up again when I landed. “We are going to Brion’s concert on Friday evening”, Sasi reminded me on Wednesday. “Wait, what? There’s a signing by James Jean at a store, do you think I can do both?” “In that case, we can do the concert next Friday.” Hmm, interesting. Turns out that Jon Brion performed every Friday at a club called The Largo, so it was not a one-off concert like I had thought. As things transpired, we landed at the Largo that very Friday, because the Jean signing turned out to be scheduled for the next weekend.

The club turned out to be very unlike what I envisaged it to be. The concert was held in a mini-theatre that could seat about 500 people, deep in the bowels of the location and away from the bar. It was already dark inside when we landed up, and most of the good seats appeared to be taken. ( “There are people who come every week”, said Sasi. “He plays a different set-list every time.” Ha, a far cry from Indian bands then. The one in Java City, Bangalore has been playing the same fifteen songs every Saturday the last seven years, or so I heard) We did manage to get a good view of the stage, and I watched people pour in even as the clock ticked closer to 9:30 PM. Someone named Alex had booked an entire row – and the complete entourage turned up precisely at 9:30, whooping and yelling – a birthday party, perhaps? The stage was lit moderately, and occasionally someone would turn up and tweak a knob on the sound-system, or carry a guitar and place it on a stand in front of the drums. On the left was a piano, and what looked like a Mellotron ( how do I know what a Mellotron looks like, you ask? The merits of Ent-quizzing, love) along with a number of small keyboards piled on the piano. The drums were in the middle, and there was a row of guitars of various shapes and sizes towards the right. Pleasant jazz played on the PA, and at about 9:35 PM, as the track that was playing came to a close (Did they time it according to the length of the song, I wondered), in walked Jon Brion, carrying a cup of coffee in his hand, to much cheering and applause.

“I need to finish this, or you folks will be listening to a lot of down-tempo stuff today evening”, he announced, cheerily, sipping on his coffee and sauntering around the stage, looking like he was making sure everything was in place. I waited for the drummers to enter, and the guitarist, when he sat on the piano and started playing this rollicking, honky-tonk-style melody. The auditorium was small enough for us to hear his feet stomping rhythmically on the floor, as he kept time, and the occasional gutteral “pah” that escaped his mouth. He was done, to much applause, and then jumped up and ran towards the drum kit. It was then I realized that Jon Brion would be playing all the instruments himself. I had heard that he was a multi-instrumentalist, but come on, even guys like that have backing musicians who switch instruments and let the star of the show take over for some part of the show. But not Brion, it seemed. He attacked the drums hesitatingly at first, and settled down into a pleasant groove that went a few bars, with rolls, flourishes and all, and then, as he leapt up, the drums, having been recorded, continued playing. He ran towards the piano, played a loop in synch with the drums, and this new piano-drum loop formed a new layer even as he ran towards the bass guitar and picked on a progression that added a new layer to the music. And then he sang, strumming on a guitar, and even that was connected to a processor that enabled him to layer the sounds one over the other. It didn’t sound like pre-recorded music at all ( well, except for the recorded drum sound, which did not hold a candle to what came from the kit when Brion played it) – what we were hearing was an organic, freshly-sculpted melody! This jigsaw-method of making live music continued for quite some time, as Brion raced across the stage, often humming a melody even as he played the drums one minute, raced to pick a guitar up, fiddled around with it for a bit and chucked it away in favour of another.  At times, he would stop everything and play a brilliant solo on the guitar, a hillbilly tune this instant, a blues melody in another.

Then came the audience-participation section of the show, which, according to what Sasi had told me, got mighty interesting. Brion asked for audience requests, and people exploded, yelling song- names at him even as he sat sipping his coffee. The girl sitting in front of me yelled “I am the Walrus!” Brion laughed – a peculiar sound that sounded like a combination of a bark and a sneeze, and began noodling about on the mellotron. “You guys need to sing along”, he said, as he got that precise violin sound out of the instrument. And we did – who doesn’t like singing along to a Beatles song, after all? –   and when we got to goo goo g’joob g’goo goo g’joob, he switched to a tuba sample, making it sound even more whimsical. A large number of audience requests were played, each more fun than the other – including a very very popular Bruce Springsteen song, a Kinks number – sadly, I do not remember most of the other songs. They did not allow photographs inside the Largo, so I do not have any pictures of how it all looked like. What totally got me was the way Brion was so, so relaxed and non-starry about performing in front of such an involved audience, and being able to perform without a rigid set-list at that.

The grand finale of the show came two hours later, a mind-bogglingly awesome mash-up of two videos, that of a pianist playing a tinkling melody, two women singing an acapella tune and a snippet of an orchestra playing. What Brion did was to slow a bit, and speed up others, change pitch, volume and phase to produce an eerie sonic effect that did not sound anything like the originals. He used that as a template for a song of his own, and gradually changed and shifted sound-palettes to create something quite unlike I had ever heard, part dissonance, part celestial harmony. Brion announced that there would be a second set, and this one would be even more intimate, it would be in the bar, and could seat only 50 people. Expecting a rush towards the venue, we hurried inside, but strangely, not many people seemed interested in the second set – what the fuck, LA people? – and we ordered our drinks and got ourselves nice seats. The music played this time was definitely more jammy, less loops and more spontaneous playing, both from Brion and from a session pianist who joined him. I forget his name, goddamnit, but he sang a song towards the end that gave me goosebumps.

As I was sitting there, a lady came in and joined the two people sitting next to me in the same row – and those guys seemed to have very strong impulses to go to the rest-room every now and then. She came and sat next to me then, and we looked at each other and smiled, acknowledging our mutual love of the music. When a song ended, she leaned closer to me and said – “Do you come here often?” “No”, I replied. “It’s my first time. I am not from around here.” The next song started just then, and the woman smiled, her red dress sparkling under the lights, and leaned a little closer. “Ah, so you’re a virgin.”

Not anymore, lady, not anymore.

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