Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Rowdy crowd can't keep manic pop genius from wowing

Anyone else spend New Year’s Eve three stories underground with a certifiable mad man and his cast of dangerously volatile characters? No? Whilst you froze your ass off on some curb as packed cab after packed cab whizzed by, several hundred revelers welcomed 2008 with the madcap genius of Los Angeles-based composer and producer Jon Brion. It’s tough to describe Brion’s unique capacity for awesomeness to the average guy or girl who is unfamiliar with his work, which has been mainly behind the boards for artists like Spoon and Kanye West or on major film soundtracks like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Break-Up. What doesn’t translate from his resume is that very few artists can deliver a live set like Brion, whose encyclopedic knowledge of popular music - from Mozart to the Misfits - and virtuoso-like skills on multiple instruments is on full display as flits from the drum set to the piano to the guitar and back again, accommodating random crowd requests without hesitation.

While it’s impressive in any capacity, Monday night’s New Year’s Eve event at Millennium Park’s Harris Theater proved that audience intimacy is as important a band member for Brion as is his looping machine. The cavernous theater seemed to amplify the incessant crowd chatter, which was only encouraged by the open bar and only (briefly) quelled by Brion’s reluctant singalong song choices. Nowhere to be found was the usual display of spontaneous genius that cozy venues like the Hideout can accommodate, where Brion responded to a request for Brian Eno last March by launching into a one-man band version of the entire Here Come The Warm Jets album. Nevertheless, the raucous audience at the Harris gladly offered up off-key accompaniment to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” and Brion had to resort to using a dry erase board to keep track of the barrage of requests.

Despite the pitfalls of a half-full auditorium and a ready-to-party crowd, Brion’s sheer breathtaking talent pulled a winning evening out of the chaos. Spoon’s Britt Daniel joined Brion onstage to treat the early arrivals to a quick three-song set before heading to the Metro and his own band’s show, while Wilco’s John Stirrat and Pat Sansone added backing muscle to several songs including a hilarious Bruce Springsteen parody. It may have been easier to get a drink or a midnight smooch elsewhere on New Year’s Eve, but it’s a lock that no one else was listening to America’s finest pop music composer lead a crack band from Buddy Holly straight into Nirvana and out to Neil Young.

--Elizabeth Kannenberg