I’ve never been one to question Jon Brion’s musical prowess. In addition to completing a self-released solo CD, he’s produced such artists as Elliott Smith, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann and Rufus Wainwright, all of whom asked Jon to make the most of their songs. And if you haven’t heard any of those artists’ work, you’ve likely still heard Brion–at the movie theater. He’s done the soundtracks for Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I Heart Huckabees. Hip Hop star Kanye West was so impressed by Jon’s soundtrack work that he sought Jon to produce part of his latest album. And when Jon’s not making music, he’s talking about it. To me it seems as though Jon has always been in a musical bubble, floating high above the pedestals of the other musicians I admire, far, far away from me.
But last night I saw him up close and personal, and with a personality aimed to entertain and a humbleness as if he were one of the audience members, too. When he wasn’t banging on drums or striking keys or programming a synthesizer or strumming a guitar or plucking bass notes or singing, he was cracking jokes, telling stories, impersonating Bruce Springsteen or inviting audience members up on stage–either to sing, play an instrument or request a song. There were moments in which the show seemed a small step away from Open Mic Night with Jon Brion.
But it was controlled, and Jon was, as expected of any perfectionist, very precise. He has to be. When you’re playing five different instruments in the same song, looping one on top of the others, there’s no room for error. Hit that bass drum one extra time and you’ve changed the time signature. Hit a wrong note on the Piano and you’ll be going out of key every four measures until the song is over. A one-man-band bears all the responsibility for what happens on stage. Perhaps that’s why Jon likes it; he certainly thrived on it.
I’d heard of Brion’s live antics long before I saw them in 2007’s final hours, but I didn’t grasp the extent of his on-stage creativity until seeing it. After a Beatles cover and some audience requests, Jon was playing musical mad libs–combining genres, artists and individual songs (all chosen by the audience, mind you), into a single musical performances. The setlist is unknown until after the show–even to Jon. And in a sense, that’s how it has to be for Jon to be Jon. If he had a setlist before the show, is there any chance we’d have had that Bohemian Rhapsody sing-along?
Having listened to every recorded piece of Jon’s music that I’ve been able to get my hands on, I went in knowing of Jon’s gilt-edged musical talent. But what I didn’t know was how personable, energetic, funny and clever he is as a performer. The combination of these qualities created what was resoundingly the most spectacular performance I’ve ever seen. Never before have I gone into an event with such high expectations, and never before have those expectations been so far surpassed.