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Jon Brion / March 9, 11, 2007 / Chicago (Steppenwolf Theatre; the Hideout)
Jon Brion doesn't get out much, but he sure gets around. Composer, singer, songwriter, session musician, producer: Brion's name crops up at a pretty regular clip even if they guy rarely seems to leaveJon Brion doesn't get out much, but he sure gets around. Composer, singer, songwriter, session musician, producer: Brion's name crops up at a pretty regular clip even if they guy rarely seems to leave the studio and, even then, rarely plays live anywhere besides his regular spot at L.A.'s cozy club Largo.
Last summer, however, Brion ventured to Chicago for the Intonation Music Festival for his first live performance since a bout with tendonitis. The gig was a rousing success, so much so that Brion consented to a belated encore at Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, lured by the Intonation promoters plus the theatre's Traffic Jam program.
Not that it looked like it took much arm-twisting to get Brion back in the Windy City. The guy's expressed affection for Chicago seemed genuine as he took the stage at Steppenwolf for another one of his celebrated anything-goes performances. In fact, the first to go is always the set list, preemptively, leaving Brion to his own devices, both literally and figuratively, as he bounded around the space playing drums, guitar and keyboards, constructing countless cover songs and original compositions from scratch, looping the instruments one at a time until he'd conjured one mini masterpiece after another out of thin air.
AC/DC's "Back in Black," played at the piano like Fats Waller might have done? Check. Songs by Aimee Mann and Elliott Smith, the latter's "Happiness" an honest to goodness pin-drop tearjerker? Check. A mash-up of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and Nirvana's "Lithium?" No doubt. Brion peppered these detours and welcome distractions with his own songs, wonderful in their own right, and despite performing with a guitar amp audibly on its last legs, had a blast doing it. The Prince medley -- one-man-band renditions of "Pop Life," "Controversy," "Kiss," and a few more -- was just icing on the cake.
If tickets went fast for Brion's Steppenwolf set, they went even faster for his "semi-secret" performance at Chicago's Hideout, a small club not unlike Largo, where he played a second show Sunday night. The modus operandi remained much the same00- no set list, plenty of requests granted, non-stop playful indulgence tempered by an infectious love and encyclopedic knowledge of pop music. But Brion was in even stronger form. Well, at least his amp was -- it's hard to imagine Brion himself ever less than top notch, but the Hideout set still offered surprise after surprise for nearly three hours, with not a single song or even snippet overlapping with the Steppenwolf set.
Hideout highlights included David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" and Roxy Music's "More Than This." He played "Pipeline" in its entirety, overdubbing the surf classic twang by twang. His own "I Believe She's Lying" grew into an epic guitar rave-up, but Brion proved himself just as adept at doing downbeat, miraculously recalling every word of Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat." He invited two strangers from the crowd to help him play the Eels' "Not Ready yet," tackled Randy Newman's "Dayton, Ohio 1903," then blew minds by following a Bee Gees medley with a Brian Eno medley. Specifically, almost the whole second side of Eno's "Here Come the Warm Jets."
"Always leave them wanting more," goes the old adage, and even though Brion, sweaty and spent, gave everything he had, he still mustered up enough energy for a late night run through Thin Lizzy's "The Boys are Back in Town." On 8-string ukulele, of course, and with the crowd singing along at top volume.