A Jon Brion concert is sort of like life. Brion, who appears weekly in front of sold-out houses at Largo in Hollywood, at times seems like a horrible live performer—it can be uncomfortable to watch him meander on stage, unsure of what he is doing from moment to moment. But at times, he seems like a brilliant live performer—he may create lush compositions on the spot or rouse the audience into a passionate sing-along frenzy. At times, he can come across as piercingly self-indulgent—playing seemingly endless, ear-splitting distorted guitar tunes or improvising arrangements way past the point of no return. But at times, he can be remarkably generous—letting audience members come up on stage to play drums for long stretches or dismissing atrocious technical difficulties with grace. When he performs his own work, he can be stingy with the songs that the audience knows and loves, but can display sharp originality and musical layers with the songs that he does choose to play. When he performs covers, they can be shameful attempts at instantaneous audience sympathy and participation, but can also be an ingenious way to strength the artist-audience connection on multiple levels. His shows can be too damn long, but you're nostalgic for them once you're out the door.
Donovan and I saw Jon Brion at Largo tonight, and we both agree that it was a highly gratifying experience and perfect evidence that Brion deserves to be the cultural institution that he is. He and Benmont Tench (keyboardist and founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and frequent Brion onstage collaborator) have an encyclopedic knowledge of music, which is why they can churn out cover songs from musicians as diverse as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Monkees, Nirvana, and Soft Cell and give them all a nearly anthemic arrangement.
Horrible, brilliant, indulgent, generous, stingy, original, shameful, ingenious, long, and nostalgic—Jon Brion and life. If you can navigate through Largo's primitive and stress-inducing ticketing system, go.