Photo by Larry Hirshowitz”Supertramp!” shouts someone in Largo's Friday-night audience. Sitting at the piano, Jon Brion starts tapping out “The Logical Song.” “Okay,” he leers, “but you have to sing it.” And they do, every bleepin' illogical word.
Thirty minutes later in the set, with the deathless tones of Jewel reading the audiobook version of her best-selling poetry wafting through the club's sound system, Brion wanders behind a conveniently empty drum kit, calls upright-bassist Glen Hollman to the stage and proceeds to provide suitably appropriate pseudo-jazz accompaniment. Sixty minutes earlier, Brion was singing ye olde Joe Cocker hit “You Are So Beautiful” over a trip-hop drum loop and a heapin' helpin' of white-noise guitar whizzums.
Somewhere in the hypnotic, splattered midst of all this guerrilla-pop theater, Brion tossed off faithful covers of Randy Newman's “Marie,” Billie Holiday's “Me, Myself and I” and '80s Britpop footnotes the Korgis' “Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime” — and a half-dozen of his own toppermost-of-the-poppermost tunes, some of which may wind up on the 35-year-old, multi-instrumentalist record producer's forthcoming solo album for Lava/Atlantic Records.
“I just got sick of going to see acts do the same 10 songs every night — with the exact same song introductions!” Brion laughs. He's been doing these Friday nights at Largo for about two and a half years now — maybe 120 shows — and about a third of every show has been pure improv, whether he's taking requests, getting people from the audience up onstage or just inventing songs on the spot.
“And a lot of the credit,” Brion says, “should go to Scott Fritz, who's sitting in the sound booth feeding me cues — tape loops, musical samples, spoken-word stuff.
“But the real credit belongs to [Largo owner] Mark Flanagan, who's truly one of L.A.'s great cultural assets — not just for allowing me to do these shows, or for giving Andy Prieboy a place to do his Axl Rose musical, but for helping me to cultivate an audience. I mean, it took about four months for the thing to really catch on.” Since then, it's been sold out every week.
Soon, cable music channel VH1 will be shooting a pilot based around Brion's weekly shenanigans. “We can't do it at the Largo, 'cause there isn't room for all the cameras,” Brion says. “But it'll be taped live in front of an audience. Obviously, because of all the improvisation, we're going to have to shoot for several hours and edit it down to an hourlong show. We'll have some guests, but it's not going to be where people just come on and play their hit single. If they do, we won't do it in the form that people are used to hearing it — like maybe we'll do a heavy metal song in a Fats Waller stride-piano arrangement.”
Brion's Largo residency has featured drop-in performances by everyone from eccentric pop-rockers (R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe, Neil Finn, Aimee Mann, Grant Lee Buffalo leader Grant Lee Phillips, exMen at Work vocalist Colin Hay) and eclectic singer-songwriters (Rickie Lee Jones, Elliott Smith, Victoria Williams, Ron Sexsmith, Mary Lou Lord, Michael Penn) to seasoned session cats (Tom Petty sideman Benmont Tench, first-call drummer Jim Keltner, Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello and the Attractions fame) and two of Brion's current record-production clients (Fiona Apple and Robyn Hitchcock). Not coincidentally, Brion — who's previously produced critically acclaimed albums for Aimee Mann and Rufus Wainwright — has played upward of two dozen different instruments on many of these same artists' records. The former Grays guitarist can also be heard on discs by the Wallflowers, Eels, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, John Hiatt, Taj Mahal, Eleni Mandell and the Mommyheads.
“All that guest stuff got a little out of hand,” Brion says. “People started writing — often erroneously — about who was going to show up, and all of a sudden there were all these Hollywood types standing at the bar, talking the whole way through the set, hoping to see . . . I don't know, Michael Stipe or somebody. Star spotting. I had to quit having guests for a few months to get things back to normal. I'd have to get up there and tell people, 'Look, if you came here to see some big rock stars tonight, you can get your money back at the door.'
“But the main thing I've learned from doing these shows is that the audience is much more musically sophisticated than anyone in the record business thinks. There've been nights when the audience is singing along, and half the people are doing all the weird background vocals in all the right spots — in perfect harmony, too — and it sounds just incredible onstage. Too bad I'm the only one who gets to really hear it.”