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POP BEAT

Something new joins the mix

Singer-songwriter- producer-arranger and longtime Largo denizen Jon Brion takes his material to Spaceland.

November 16, 2002|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

"Hi, I'm Bobby Bare Jr."

Jon Brion has never met the rock musician who's introducing himself at the back bar at Spaceland, but when Bare, who is opening for Brion tonight, asks if he can use a piece of equipment Brion has left on the stage, he treats him like an old friend.

"Anything you want, just grab anything -- guitars, amps," says Brion, who's just finished his sound check at the Silver Lake rock club. A few hours later, Bare is wrapping up his set, and there's L.A. pop sophisticate Brion on the stage with the singer and his rowdy, rough-hewn Nashville band, roaring through a raucous, ingenious splicing of the Who's "Baba O'Riley" and the Cars' "My Best Friend's Girl."

Obviously, Brion's gift for musical mingling has survived his transition from the Largo, the club across town where his long-running Friday residency regularly attracts illustrious guest partners (Elvis Costello, Michael Stipe, Elliott Smith, et al) and has established the singer as a unique performer.

The Largo shows, Brion says, represent a self-imposed challenge to make the solo singer-songwriter experience something unique and unpredictable. Operating without the net of a set list, he invents songs on the spot and responds to requests. He spins from something avant-garde to a cheesy pop hit, and he supplements his guitar and piano with the sounds of antique Edison cylinder players and music boxes, schoolroom phonographs and electronic loopers that allow him to overdub layers of his playing and singing.

After appearing there with obsessive regularity over six years, Brion has become a magnet for pop aficionados and the focus of the Largo's circle of performers, which includes singer-songwriters David Garza and Grant-Lee Phillips.

But Brion is also a familiar name beyond that circle. He's produced records for such A-list artists as his old friend Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright, David Byrne and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. Brion also enjoys dropping in on friends' recording sessions to add a tambourine part or a guitar lick (among his first jobs after moving to L.A. from Boston 11 years ago was session guitarist).

Tapping his orchestral side, Brion arranged and conducted the strings on the new Tom Petty album, and he's also scored three of director Paul Thomas Anderson's movies, including "Magnolia" (which earned him a Grammy nomination) and the new "Punch-Drunk Love."

It's an exhilarating pace for a pop-preoccupied guy like Brion, but one thing has tended to get lost in the shuffle -- his own music. His one album, "Meaningless," was distributed only through his Web site after Atlantic-affiliated Lava Records dropped him for being too problematic, promotionally speaking (i.e., radio probably won't go near it).

Brion has finally pumped himself up to deal with it.

"I do know I have to slant it more toward my writing and performing," he says. "It isn't balanced right now.... But I don't want people to look at it as the vanity project of a producer. It shouldn't be looked at as having less merit because of these other things I do. I do feel like I'm fighting that a little bit."

Brion, an enthusiastic talker who hops from topic to topic with little prompting, is sipping a Coke as he readies the second week of his residency at Spaceland, which takes place every Wednesday this month. Brion has assembled a three-piece rock band to back him in a loud set of mostly original material, launching himself into a new career phase as he approaches 40.

"I've always found it slightly preposterous, the 'You need to hear my music' thing, and I might not be doing it if it wasn't for a few people I care about going, 'OK, it's beginning to bug me that people don't know what you do.... You have more to offer than the people out there doing it for the wrong reasons.'

"They laid out clear enough cases to why I should do it where it made sense to me. Just doing it for the sake of promoting myself was never enough incentive. But a few people I really respected made me feel like there's some value in this.... It was really touching."

Brion, who has begun production on another Apple album and is also recording material of his own, isn't playing it completely straight at his Spaceland nights. He opened the initial show with a "mini Largo set," and next Wednesday he'll precede the rock with a string quartet playing "distorted Gershwin and Ellington."

It's all part of the Brion imperative: Mix it up.

"That's one of the good things about my career," he says. "For years I was told I really had to do one thing and for years I refused, and now it's panned out that I'm known for doing a bunch of things, so it's worked out OK.

"I think if there's anything useful I do, it's giving evidence that you actually can do what you want with your life."

*

Jon Brion

Where: Spaceland, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., L.A.

When: Every Wednesday in November, 9 p.m.

Price: $5

Contact: (213) 833-2843

Also

Where: The Largo, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.

When: Every Friday, 9:30 p.m.

Price: $10

Contact: (323) 852-1073

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