Tobias Jesso Jr. crafts an entertaining gong show in Vancouver

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      At the Rickshaw Theatre on Saturday, October 3

      This being the third time Tobias Jesso Jr. has played B.C. since the March release of his damned impressive debut album, Goon, you’d think that Vancouver would be dangerously close to getting too much of a good thing. That may have been the case, had the North Van–bred piano man stuck by the playbook and delivered an album run-through as if on autopilot. But while he walked out onto the Rickshaw Theatre stage last Saturday wearing a leather aviator jacket, he went fabulously off-course with one of the most entertaining gong shows the venue has seen in recent times.

      It all started off-stage, with five members of Los Angeles’ Duk, Jesso’s current backup band, marching out from the lobby and into the crowd to deliver an on-the-floor run-through of Balkan-cum-Dixieland instrumentals. Max Whipple’s rippling accordion work flexed the former influence, while both trumpeter JJ Kirkpatrick and alto saxophonist Colin Kupka’s wide-cheeked blasts of brass gave the East Van venue a French Quarter feel.

      After meeting up with Jesso on-stage, the band leader saluting his hometown crowd by hoisting up a tawny highball, they lunged into the self-loathing “Crocodile Tears”. But while he delivered some genuinely tear-jerking ballads (“Can We Still be Friends” and “Without You” both being high points), Jesso was in a playful mood. While the musicianship was impeccable, the vibe was about as loose as a pair of Dockers. A mid-set round of tequila shots for him and the band no doubt contributed to the relaxed atmosphere, but the show often consisted of extended breaks of banter.

      With his parents, an old boss, his “first girlfriend”, and others in the crowd, a back-and-forth pattern of chitter-chatter developed between each song. Some tried to relate with the guy by shouting out his old Lynn Valley stomping grounds.

      “I was chubby when I was in Lynn Valley, that’s a pretty insecure moment to just throw at me,” Jesso said self-deprecatingly.

      Elsewhere, the biographical approach helped explain pieces like “Hollywood”, a song inspired by Jesso’s first failed attempt at making it as a California session player. He found his voice after coming back to Canada and hibernating in his parents’ basement behind a piano.

      But while he showed off his relatively newfound skills, the keyboardist wasn’t content to just sit and play standard versions of his material. As if running an improv night, he called on the crowd to request a song of his, and then suggest a new style of music to play it in. Jesso seemed almost instantly aghast at a too-smooth, bossa-nova-remodelled “Just a Dream”, noting “That’s lame, guys”.

      Duk took a breather at one point, but Jesso managed to rope his childhood friend and onetime boss at Crown Mountain Movers into the show. Their rapport was both ridiculous and earnest, with Jesso first beatboxing for his friend before serenading him with a lovely run-through of “True Love”. Eventually, he asked his friend for some backup on the drums.

      While calling it arrhythmic is an understatement, it was adorable. True love, indeed.

      Jesso brought the band back and, opting to go out as raucously as he began, decided to bookend the set with another round of “Crocodile Tears”. Though the repeat was questionable, you couldn’t complain once various members of Duk started popping off firecracker solos.

      While the pacing was spotty, Jesso kept his word and delivered a unique, non-album experience. Here’s hoping his next homecoming is just as much of a gloriously messy celebration.