(le) poisson rouge
Tuesday, October 4
Better than: Practicing Universal Interconnectivity.
“As you might have noticed already, I’m OK with stupid.”
Jon Brion—the Grammy nominated film score composer, record producer, and multi-instrumentalist—had just teased the crowd at Le Poisson Rouge with an atonal take on Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” before launching into a singalong-ready take on Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go.” His instrument of choice for reinterpreting the sparse electronic landscape of the original ’80s hit was a vibraphone—a choice that was quirky and easy to digest for the audience, but far from idiotic.
Brion, a Los Angeles native in town for a string of east coast performances practically a decade in the making, is no stranger to such a format. For many years, he hosted a regular Friday session at the LA club Largo; the freeform affairs had little structure and were propelled by audience song suggestions, a revolving door of special musical guests, and Brion’s own capricious instincts. Brion said that he decided early on in his longtime Largo run to not have a set list, “and I’ve just kept going like that for years,” he added. Last night at (le) poisson rouge he continued to pull inspiration out of the air like it was a firmly tangible object.
Running around the stage fumbling over gear, anxiously deciding which of his instruments to begin each piece with and then moving to the next as he built loop on top of loop until it the sound resembled that of a full band, speaking to himself and the audience with unbridled candor—every part of his performance cast him in the role of a mad scientist in the midst of a diabolical experiment. He leapt like a playful sparrow between original pieces from his many soundtracks, songs from his only solo album Mindless, unreleased personal work, and countless audience requests that ranged from Kenny Chesney to Slayer. Both of those suggestions were ignored, but when a request clicked, Brion wasted no time launching into a spontaneous and often complexly orchestrated arrangement. After a compulsory chant for Led Zeppelin, Brion sat at his grand piano and reconstructed “Good Times, Bad Times” as a bluesy jazz romp, still full of emphatic thunder yet far more tempered, finishing the song with a ragtime interpretation of Jimmy Page’s rapidly tip-toeing guitar solo. After a shout for the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” Brion reworked the rollicking original into a somber acoustic ballad with intricate voicings and virtuosic flourishes—a thumb-picked bass note moved freely as Brion’s other fingers plucked chords on the top strings of his guitar.
Brion’s own compositions were nearly as far flung as his covers. His own recorded work, as well as his vocal tracks from soundtracks like Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Stepbrothers, tend to settle into something resembling powerpop, albeit with countless twists and exhilaratingly strange developments. In performance they took on different qualities. Several were performed as stripped-down piano constructions, like “Over Our Head,” full of lush sustain and swooping impressionistic melodies doubled on a synthesizer, or “Ruin My Day,” with big block chords clamoring below gentle Celesta plinks. Others—like the grungy, droning “She’s At It Again”—showed Brion’s muscle.
His ability to move freely between instruments and stylistic genres has certainly propelled his production career; he’s collaborated with the likes of The Crystal Method, Keane, and Kanye West. But despite the range of music he covered, Brion’s performance had a distinct cohesiveness to it. And despite playing others’ works and acknowledging their impact on his own with outrageous video cameos, Brion rarely seemed referential or focused on vaulting up his heroes’ already iconic status. During the last song before two encores, Brion played a cover of Beck’s “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometimes,” which appeared on the Sunshine soundtrack. Performing the piece in its original state as a dark, slow and swirling meditation with a tripped-out guitar solo, Brion wasn’t content to be alone on stage. Looping and remixing videos on the fly while performing, as he had done earlier in the night with a vintage Theremin performance and a Charles Ives symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein, resulted in him being joined by Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. Each guitarist seemingly tried to outdo the other two—even though Guy’s licks came from a decades-old instructional guitar video and Clapton’s scorching fretwork was captured in the heart of his late-’60s mustached period. Brion then moved to the piano, where another video of an orchestral string passage was repeated and looped by him, the string players slowly lowering their volume into a solemn but bright passage that descended into an actually-performed-by-Brion, Brahmsian finale. Brion had invited his influences into his own fruitful mind, not content to live in their shadows.
Critical bias: I was initially disappointed when I heard Brion was performing solo without any guests, but watching him construct lush and twisted compositions instead made me melancholic over the fact that there weren’t more people like him around.
Overheard: “Please come visit more.” His response: “I plan on it.”
Random notebook dump: Brion’s returning to LPR on Sunday.