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

  1. Great music, a close pal, a cozy bar and a woman in red…..wonderful,wonderful way to spend an evening.
    And considering the dramatic opening sentence, we will be waiting breathlessly for the second part ….

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