Jason Lytle, troubadour! That’s what it came down to Friday night at San Francisco’s Independent: just the man, his acoustic guitar, an electric piano, his trademark wobbly vocals—and a back catalog of songs to pick from that is second to no one in the new millennium. Anyone with at least a working knowledge of Grandaddy, Lytle’s former band, should have instantly recognized the person hunched over his guitar, pouring out his heart, even if they didn’t recall his name.
Eschewing his customary trucker cap for an Elliott Smith-like knit job, and accompanied occasionally by a droning keyboard loop or a pre-recorded, bare-bones arrangement of an old song, Lytle wowed a near full house there to see Liam Finn perform his onstage magic. The former Modesto, Calif., resident, now happily tucked away in Bozeman, Mont., opened his set with “El Caminos In The West,” a churning standout tune from Grandaddy’s landmark 2003 album Sumday with the telling catch phrase “Always so far away from home.”
Like a scrappy middleweight contender who knew he had the champ in trouble early, Lytle followed up with a devastating left/right combination: the two best songs from his 2009 solo debut, Yours Truly, The Commuter. “Last thing I heard I was left for dead/I could give two shits about what they said/I may be limping but I’m coming home,” from Commuter‘s title track, left no doubt about Lytle’s borderline cranky attitude and his joy at returning to his old Bay Area stomping grounds. “Brand New Sun” with its Jeff Lynne-like descending keyboard run, played on acoustic guitar tonight, told you all you needed to know about Lytle’s appreciation of his newfound surroundings: “We should rest a while, you’re like a tired child/It’s been a lot of miles/I might fall down, and my back is bad/And you might fall down on a sleeping bag/So you should hold my hand while everything blows away/And we’ll run to a brand new sun.”
If that perfect opening threesome didn’t make it clear enough where he’s been and where he is now, Lytle borrowed a sentiment from Brian Wilson halfway through his 50-minute set, with a heartfelt rendition of “In My Room” that left no doubt. “I miss my couch,” muttered the man who never seemed happy on tour with Grandaddy. Lytle told me later that everyone always assumed it was Brian Wilson’s California dream that stoked his fire. Not so. “For me, the California genius has always been Merle Haggard,” he said. “I’ll stay in Bakersfield when I get tired of L.A.”
With its simple, Beethoven-like piano intro, “I Am Lost (And The Moment Cannot Last”) pretty much conveyed Lytle’s fragile state of mind, reconfirmed on the sidewalk outside the club afterward while he loaded his gear into a black Toyota mini-van for the 11-hour drive to Portland, Ore., his next stop on a short West Coast tour.
“You know how much I hate touring,” said Lytle as he pushed a skateboard from one of his Modesto buddies into the vehicle’s back seat for safekeeping. “I’d drink too much and then worry too much about getting everything right for the next show. But I’ve done a few shows like this in Bozeman. I think I like the solo performance thing. I can change tempos whenever I want.”
As has been the custom in our many talks and interviews over the past dozen years, I felt like Lytle’s big brother, bucking him up for another run at the brass ring with his pending second solo outing for Anti- next year. I had planned to open with a joke, something breezy like, “Hey, Howe Gelb’s other protege, Matt Ward, is recording with Zooey Deschanel and he’s on Conan with Jim James and Conor Oberst. What happened to you?” But I didn’t have the heart. I told him something else, instead. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “You know, nobody has written better songs than you have over the past 15 years. Nobody. These people may not recognize your name, but they loved your stuff tonight.” Lytle staggered slightly back into his vehicle and replied with a crooked smile, “You’re really making me feel good. Thanks.”