Plastic Ono Band @ Brooklyn Academy of Music (2/16/10)
Yoko Ono. No name in the annals of rock and roll inspires more of a reaction. Forever associated with John Lennon, her attempts to forge her own musical identity have understandably fallen short. However, her concurrent reputation as an avant-garde artist, including but not limited to music, has only strengthened over time. Thus it seemed appropriate that she would perform with the Plastic Ono Band in the heart of the hipster scene she has, either consciously or subconsciously, undoubtedly had a hand in creating. Her performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was surprisingly ordered and overwhelmingly cozy. The exciting list of participants had been announced earlier, so no surprises could possibly be expected (though I held out hope that either Paul or Ringo might pop out on stage at some point). A program listed the entire performance schedule and order of musician appearance, removing some of the normal concert spontaneity. Thankfully, the rest of the atmosphere more than compensated. Tightly-packed fans ranged from our age on the low end to aging hippies on the high end, but the enthusiasm was evenly spread, if not evenly displayed. Loud yelps and claps from the elders were constant throughout, though they tended to be concentrated around any mention of the elder Lennon. By far the most enthusiastic was a fat, balding man who spent the evening “dancing” in the aisle and yelling out every 10 seconds or so. His presence was entertaining (from a distance).
The show started with a movie montage depicting Yoko’s life starting from childhood, depicting her art creations and performances while inevitably intertwining images of John. I was surprised that his death was even alluded to, but a long clip from the 1981 Grammy Awards showed Yoko accepting the award for Best Album, given to “Double Fantasy”. In hindsight, her refusal to gloss over the tragedy she suffered seems to define her view of life: you can’t ignore your experiences, but you can use them to go forward and reach your goals. Is there any better ad for “Give Peace a Chance” than Lennon’s brutal murder? The shock from that moment in the video lingered while more clips played, bringing us up to the present day. Finally, the spotlight shone against the curtain as Ono entered stage left, dressed in a black pantsuit and a fedora. The cheers were loud but not raucous, more out of respect than infatuation. She said a few words before kicking into an acappella version of her song “It Happened”. Having only ever heard her shrieking or mumbling, I was shocked at the beauty of her voice, surprised that she would willingly suppress her natural talent to direct peoples’ focus on her other endeavors. It reminded me of what someone said about Sinead O’Conner, and how she sacrificed her beauty by shaving her head in order to put the focus on her music. Regardless, her solo spotlight was short-lived, as the curtain raised to reveal the Plastic Ono Band, led by her son Sean (who organized the concert). The standard instrument players were all Japanese, save for the horn player, and they worked their way through relatively standard versions of Ono’s songs. Her noted eclecticism was lacking, tuned down in favor of some impressive playing from the band, Sean Lennon especially. Throughout the evening he switched seamlessly from guitar to bass and piano, even drums at one point. The music was interesting, but it was Ono who stole the show. Two days shy of 77 (!), she still somehow managed to own every inch of that stage, dancing and sliding around like a cabaret dancer.
After about an hour, the band left the stage for a brief intermission. Occasional heads popped in and out of the door leading backstage, so we got a sneak peak at some of the performers. When the lights again went down, it was time for the guests to make their presence known. Sean Lennon introduced each group and gave the back story on how he chose who would sing what. All would be performing Yoko’s (and in some cases John’s) songs, so each had the opportunity to make them their own. An energetic but bland performance by the Scissor Sisters was followed by Justin Bond, the drag artist, fittingly singing “What A Bastard the World Is”. But the second half of the show only got going when Sean, after going out of order (God forbid!) and introducing Sonic Youth, accompanied Gene Ween on “Oh! Yoko”, which got the entire crowd singing along. Next (in the proper order) came Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, one of the bands most influenced by Ono’s performance art, and apparently one of her biggest torch-bearers. The sight of the giant Moore and fashionable Gordon next to Ono was one of the show’s memorable images, as they thwacked and distorted their guitars along to Yoko’s screeching while performing her song “Mulberry”, which she told the crowd was inspired by a childhood memory. As demonstrated by the next performer, segues were not allowed, as could be expected. Of everyone on the guest list, it was Bette Midler who seemed the most out of place. Incredibly, she nearly stole the show by arranging and performing a big-band, showtune-style version of “Yes, I’m Your Angel”, written as a 40th birthday present to John. I’m surprised to say I enjoyed her song the most out of everyone who played. After Midler came the big guns. First, the Lennons’ former neighbor in the Dakota Hotel, Paul Simon, dueted with his son Harper on “Silverhorse” and “Hold On”. Though Sean introduced Harper as one of his oldest friends, it had to be hard for him to watch the Simons perform in a way that could never happen for the Lennons.
Finally, the remaining members of the original Plastic Ono Band, Eric Clapton and Klaus Voorman, joined Sean, Yoko, and former Lennon band member Jim Keltner for three numbers. Clapton was obviously the main focus, but he ignored the spotlight, eschewing a mike and barely joining in the on-stage banter. He didn’t seem completely infatuated to be there like some of the other guests, but his playing sure didn’t suffer. His wailing on “Yer Blues” took the place of Lennon’s original screeching vocals, which Sean was unable to replicate. That piece was followed by two Ono songs, the last of which (“Don’t Worry Kyoto”) was originally performed in a slip-shod manner at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival. Sean admitted that he didn’t play slide guitar, which made his performance even more appropriate, even as he let Clapton dominate the sound. Though Yoko didn’t command the stage as before, her vocals were a perfect fit next to the loud, sloppy sound pumping out behind her. With the crowd energized by this recreation of history, we serenaded Yoko with an impromptu “Happy Birthday”, which inspired her biggest smile of the night. As the evening’s performers filed back on-stage for the inevitable encore of “Give Peace A Chance”, Yoko talked about her continued quest for peace. The ultimate crowd (and crowded) sing-along may have been invoking John Lennon, but the true spirit was Yoko Ono. This night was all about her.
- It Happened
- Waiting for the D Train / Why (with Mark Ronson)
- Between My Head and the Sky
- Walking on Thin Ice
- Moving Mountains
- Mind Train / Ask the Elephant
- Higa Noburu
- The Sun Is Down! (with Scissor Sisters)
- What a Bastard the World Is (with Justin Bond & The Hungry March Band)
- Oh Yoko! (Duet between Gene Ween and Sean Lennon) (John Lennon cover)
- Mulberry (with Sonic Youth)
- Yes, I’m Your Angel (with Bette Midler) (John Lennon & Yoko Ono cover)
- Silverhorse/Hold On (with Paul Simon and Harper Simon)
- Yer Blues (with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, Jim Keltner)
- Death of Samantha (with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, Jim Keltner)
- Don’t Worry Kyoko (with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, Jim Keltner)
- Give Peace a Chance