By Gustavo Turner
Last night the Echoplex presented a sophisticated pop bill headlined by Liam Finn and Eliza-Jane, the children of down-under stars Neil Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House) and Jimmy Barnes. The first opening band was perennial local power-poppers The 88s, who charmed the sparse crowd with their ELO-infused high harmonies. Sandwiched between these two acts the audience was treated to a rare solo set by the almost legendary Jason Lytle, formerly the ringleader of much-respected Modesto neo-ruralists Grandaddy.
Lytle took the stage alone with his guitar, keyboards and some pre-recorded backing tracks and effects. It didn't matter that he didn't have his erstwhile "weird arrangements" or a coterie of bearded bandmates: Lytle can conjure up whole atmospheres by opening his mouth and unleashing those quivering tones that immediately evoke longing and heartbreak.
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Wearing a mushroom-like ski cap and an 80s puffy vest from the Marty McFly collection, Lytle showcased material from his recently released solo debut, Yours Truly, the Commuter (Anti-), a collection of songs reflecting the inner and outward trips the singer has undertaken since his relocation to Montana after the demise of Grandaddy. Alone ("but not lonely," he clarified) onstage, Lytle mesmerized his fans -- many women, a lot of couples -- with his confidently lo-fi, in-my-bedroom melodies.
Lytle's delivery still has strong kinship with that of Jonathan Donahue in Mercury Rev's Deserter Songs or Wayne Coyne's in The Soft Bulletin, but the general effect of his fragile solo set evoked the vibe of his late tourmate Elliott Smith. Lines like "If you would have rung my phone/ I would have said I hate being alone" (from the poignant Grandaddy B-side "What Can't Be Erased") had to be lightened by self-effacing intersong patter about lunching on Cobb salad and white wine ("Whoa -- someone's watching her figure!," Lytle quipped), and not being able to get into MoCA.
Before handing over the stage to Finn and Eliza-Jane, of whom he declared himself a big fan, Lytle surprised the crowd with a really interesting take on The Sophtware Slump's "Chartsengrafs." Powered by a scuzzy rockabilly shuffle from his effect box, the song gained a weird, almost malevolent dimension that revealed Lytle's strangeness like nothing else in his largely romantic set -- the kind of left-field move that endeared Grandaddy to professionals of the outre like Bowie. (David Lynch: if you're reading this, you really need this new live version of "Chartsengrafs" for your next soundtrack.)