Live Review: Jason Lytle, San Francisco, CA, June 8 And 9, 2009

jasonlytle300In spite of the fact that Cafe du Nord began selling tickets a month ago for an appearance by “Jason Little” before someone noticed the gaffe, the 153-capacity Castro district club was jammed to the gills tonight for former Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle. It’s tough enough to shed the Grandaddy brand, cultured over the past 10 years, without a typo adding an element of doubt to Lytle’s first San Francisco appearance since the May release of his solo debut, Yours Truly, The Commuter (Anti-).

A clean-shaven Lytle and red-bearded sidekick (and former Grandaddy drummer) Aaron Burtch strode through the crowd to join bassist Rob Murdock and guitarist Rusty Miller onstage without anyone taking much notice. “I can’t fuckin’ wake up,” muttered a sluggish Lytle a couple of tunes into the set. The stupor was caused by a combination of red wine and an over-the-counter decongestant, explained the man who touted Breathe Right nasal strips during his stint as guest editor of MAGNET’s website. “That was one of the best things about moving to Montana: Most of my allergies went away,” Lytle told me recently.

An early sinus-clearing, mariachi-trumpet-punctuated passage seemed to shake Lytle from his lethargy, much like the eye-opening, home-made salsa/recycled crankcase oil dished up by a Mexican restaurant near his former Ceres, Calif., home once did. Lilting piano interludes between songs reinforced Lytle’s occasional obsession with Beethoven (he frequently uses Bernard Rose’s 1994 Ludwig Van flick Immortal Beloved as a motivational tool). You can close your eyes and almost see little Jason picking out “The Moonlight Sonata” on the family piano when the quartet caresses “I Am Lost (And The Moment Cannot Last).”

But it’s still Jeff Lynne, the underappreciated genius behind Electric Light Orchestra, who colors Lytle’s bittersweet, vintage synthesizer-infused sense of melody—maybe now more than ever. “Ghost Of My Old Dog,” an unexpectedly stirring tribute to long-gone family pets, is enough to make you gasp when you realize what he’s singing about. There’s also a new, happier side of the man who once feared his protracted labors on Grandaddy’s 2003 album Sumday would literally kill him. “You should hold my hand while everything blows away/And we’ll run to a brand new sun,” sings Lytle in his cracked-eggshell voice on Commuter‘s best tune, “Brand New Sun.”

Lest you think he’s gone soft, there’s still that cranky Lytle we all know and love, barking out the first lines of Commuter‘s title track: “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.” Lytle and Co. may not have played much Grandaddy material tonight (I was looking forward to new versions of “Now It’s On” and “I’m On Standby”), but they couldn’t get away without trotting out the instantly recognizable, commercial-worthy “A.M. 180,” much to the crowd’s delight. “Now go out and buy an Enya record,” urged Lytle to the throng as he left the stage.

“I don’t believe you have to be tortured and miserable to stay hungry and productive,” Lytle told me as he was about to relocate to Bozeman in 2006. “The songs are going to get a lot simpler from now on. They’re going to resemble haikus more than anything else.” He hasn’t come close to paring his tunes down to three lines that can be uttered in one breath, but Lytle has always been a master at boiling his work down to the essential elements. The fanatical reception lavished on him tonight only reinforces the belief that Lytle has written some the most appealing songs of anyone over the past 15 years, even if some people haven’t made the connection yet between Lytle and his former life in Grandaddy.

As anyone who loves the guy’s music would agree, one night of Jason Lytle is just not enough. So I returned to San Francisco the following evening to see him open for Neko Case at the Warfield Theatre. Good thing, too, because the 35-minute Warfield set was almost completely different from the one at Cafe du Nord. With a much better view of the stage from the Warfield’s floor, I could plainly see that Lytle played a synthetic type of acoustic piano  on “I Am Lost” and “This Song Is The Mute Button.” “Brand New Sun,” with Lytle wordlessly singing some of the original synthesizer lines, made it into both sets, as did “Rollin’ Home Alone,” an achingly beautiful piece. The real treat of the second night was introduced by Lytle as “one of our guilty pleasures.” As Murdock split, the trio lit the place up with “Today I Started Loving You Again,” a Merle Haggard honky-tonker. “We’re not even a country band. I don’t know, what kind of band are we?” asked Lytle to no one in particular. A pretty versatile one that’s just scratched the surface of what it’s capable of, I’d say.

—Jud Cost

“Brand New Sun” (download):