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Jeff Moehlis: Yoko Ono and Friends Recycle the Plastic Ono Band
She is also a notable artist in her own right, having for decades brought an avant-garde — and not universally loved — approach to performance art, film and music.
It was Yoko’s music, which has been cited as being influential for the avant-rock and new-wave music sub-genres, that was celebrated in a two-night run over the weekend at the ornate Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. The second night is the subject of this review.
Billed as “We Are Plastic Ono Band,” the 77-year-old Yoko, her band and a collection of guests performed and reinterpreted old and new songs from her catalog, providing a challenging but ultimately rewarding experience for the audience that, unlike many people, was willing to give Yoko a chance.
Saturday’s show started with a video montage including home movies of the young Yoko playing piano, her as a 1960s performance artist doing “Cut Piece” in which audience members took turns cutting off pieces of her clothing, and, poignantly, her with Lennon. Most touching was footage of her accepting the Grammy Award for the Lennon/Yoko comeback album Double Fantasy shortly after Lennon was killed, with their son, Sean Ono Lennon, at her side.
Yoko then came out in the spotlight in front of the black curtain to a roar of applause, singing her song “It Happened” unaccompanied before the curtain was raised and the band, led by Sean (who will turn 35 on his father’s 70th birthday), kicked in with its loud, jammy, distorted avant-rock over which Yoko let loose with her trademark wailing. Yes, Yoko had arrived.
This was followed by “Between My Head and the Sky,” an avant-funk track off Yoko’s 2009 critically acclaimed album of the same name, then “Walking On Thin Ice,” the minor new-wave hit whose original recording concluded on the fateful night that Lennon was killed nearly 30 years ago.
Her next song was the more atmospheric “Rising,” which featured some echoed vocal gymnastics as it built up in intensity. This was followed by more trippy improvised wordless vocals over the band’s jamming on the new tracks “Moving Mountains” and the Indian-influenced “Calling.”
An updated, somewhat electronica version of the trancy “Mind Train” followed, a song originally on Yoko’s sadly neglected first solo album, 1971’s Fly. Afterward, Yoko joked that when she first recorded that song, the band just wouldn’t stop, perhaps explaining the original’s nearly 17-minute running time.
The first set ended with the new track “Higa Noboru,” with hypnotic, intricate repeating piano accompaniment by Sean, who displayed impressive musical talent on guitar, bass guitar and piano throughout the show.
After the intermission, things got decidedly weirder, with an eclectic group of musicians and actors paying tribute to Yoko and her songs.
The second set started with “Yes, I’m Your Angel” sung Broadway style — complete with dancing girls wearing wings — by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, best known as the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun. This was followed by “We’re All Water” done in a clever arrangement that utilized looped vocals and percussion by Tune-Yards, one of the show’s highlights. The former Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher, then sang the ambivalent and oddly amusing song “What a Bastard the World Is.”
Next up was “Mulberry,” in which Yoko was accompanied with an effective avant-noise freakout by Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth. The artiness of this was enhanced by footage from Yoko’s experimental 1970 film Fly, with zoomed shots of a fly exploring a woman’s naked body, including an uncomfortably long visit to a sensitive area of her torso.
Next up was a duet between Sean and his friend Harper Simon, son of Paul Simon, who cleverly quipped that so far the show didn’t have many “sing-along moments.” They harmonized to Lennon’s upbeat homage “Oh Yoko!” in front of the curtain.
When the curtain was raised again, Yoko was playing chess with rapper RZA, which they did for a few minutes in silence apart from a few people yelling out from the audience. Then the audience was treated to what would have to be called an avant-rap version of “See the Joy,” featuring RZA’s intense rapping of lyrics such as “Life is a struggle” and Yoko’s wordless vocalizations.
Actor/director/producer Vincent Gallo then performed a delicate version of Yoko’s new song “I’m Going Away Smiling,” which contrasted with the follow-up rocking performance of another new song, “Waiting for the D Train” with a dream-team consisting of Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell on vocals and the Minutemen’s Mike Watt on bass.
Then the world’s biggest pop star, Lady Gaga, came out. Wearing a super-sparkly bodysuit with see-through butt, a long blonde wig and insane high-toe-and-higher-heel shoes, Lady Gaga sang a spirited version of Yoko’s new dancy track “The Sun Is Down!” Lady Gaga then moved to the piano and belted out the bluesy “It’s Been Very Hard,” which ended with both Yoko and Lady Gaga laying and singing on the piano. Brilliant!
Amid much flashing of the lights handed out to everyone as they entered, the show closed with “Give Peace a Chance,” with new updated “Everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout” verses by some of the show’s guests. For example, Lady Gaga included “gays in the military,” a reference to her recent political cause calling for the repeal of our country’s outdated don’t ask, don’t tell policy.
Yoko’s music certainly isn’t for everyone, but it certainly is interesting and challenging — two things that, in my opinion, art should aspire to.
By the way, happy birthday John and Sean.
Click here for a few photos from the show.
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.
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