Harry Nilsson Tribute

Bordello, Jan. 15

“Happy Birthday, Harry,” one of the band's singers said into his mic before a bandmate whispers in his ear. “What? Oh. It's not his birthday.” No, it was 14 years ago today that Harry Nilsson's heart gave out.

It's appropriate though that tonight's celebration of his music takes place on the anniversary of his death, not his birth. Nilsson had a wicked, dark sense of humor, and felt that fun should never take a backseat to hard work – a philosophy that meshed well with the casualness of the performances.

Fifteen different bands and singers played 2 to 3 songs each, ranging from Quazar & The Bamboozled's sprawling, joyful chaos to Frank Stallone's surprising appearance with an acoustic guitar and several anecdotes about his friendship with Nilsson.

No, really – Frank Stallone.

This is what I learned from Stallone between his songs: Nilsson and he were both on RCA and Harry produced his album Hearts and Souls. They were next door neighbors and friends, and Stallone once ran into George Harrison while walking the dog from Rocky, named Butkus. Stallone played three songs from Nilsson's early record, Aerial Pandemonium Ballet, including a rather fine “Don't Leave Me,” but with a lot more macho swagger than in the original.

The rest of the night was an excellent overview of L.A.'s independent music scene in all its forms. Tara Busch started the show, playing “One” before most people had shown up, which is a shame.

Frankel played a lovely “Dayton, Ohio, 1903,” a Randy Newman song, that Nilsson covered on Nilsson Sings Newman, as well as “1941,” which you can watch above (sorry it's dark).

Sara Melson had a song taken out from under her by Stallone (how many people can say that?), but recovered with a couple of movie tracks, “Everybody's Talkin'” and “I Will Take you There,” from the mostly forgettable Skidoo.

Le Switch knocked out a revved-up version of “Mr. Richland's Favorite Song” before descending into an unfortunate “Many Rivers To Cross,” a John Lennon-produced track in which Nilsson trashed his vocal cords, marking the end of his career as a hitmaker.

Air guitar maestro Dan Crane mimed snorting lines of coke and did an amazing air-drum solo for “Jump into the Fire.”

Musically, the highlight were the two sets by the Webb Brothers going straight into Ferraby Lionheart.

“Don't Forget Me,” done by the Webbs is the perfect mix of Nilsson's trademark sentiment and bite, which they nailed.

When we're older

And full of cancer

It doesn't matter now

Come on get happy

'Cause nothing lasts forever

But I will always love you

Ferraby Lionheart chose “You & Me,” another Newman song, but one of Nilsson's sweetest vocals, which Ferraby matched stunningly.

Quazar & The Bamboozled were pared down to a relatively small group of only 8 or 9 people tonight, with Quazar spending much of the night lounging around in a bathrobe, in true Harry-style. They nailed two of Nilsson's cleverest: “Coconut,” and the “fuck you”-laden “You're Breaking My Heart,” to the joy of the entire room.

Final act of the night, Creekbird, had a lot to live up to after that, but with just a ukulele and a couple nicely hit high notes, he turned in great stripped down versions of “Me and my Arrow” and “Bath.”

It seemed to be Nilsson's greatest fear that he'd be forgotten, and for several years before and after his death, he certainly wasn't much known or talked about, with his records out of print, and relegated to a couple tracks occasionally popping up on oldies stations. But it was heart-warming to see the Bordello packed tonight, full of people singing along to Harry's songs, and band after band paying tribute to his music and voice. Not forgotten, not even close.

LA Weekly