There was a time when admitting you actually liked Yoko Ono was an invitation to ridicule or worse. It was hard enough in the 70s to find other kids who liked Captain Beefheart, but HER? That (insert sexist and/or racist insult of your choice) who (supposedly) broke up the Beatles? How can you take that screeching seriously when you could be listening to GOOD rock music like...Ten Years After or the Steve Miller Band? So, as a 15 year old, I wore out my copies of Fly and Approximately Infinite Universe, but couldn't share them with anyone, because in the 70s, nobody got it. So, many decades later, it was a rewarding sight to see Oakland's sumptuous Fox Theater packed with people of all ages who had come to check out one of this year's Noise Pop Festival's most prestigious bills, headlined by a charming 70-something woman who happens to have put out one of the best albums of 2009.
We arrived in the middle of an opening set by Deerhoof (my third time seeing them, Davis's first) just as they were powering through a cover of "Pinhead" by the Ramones. Deerhoof, I must admit, were a band it took me a while to warm to when I first saw them, with their odd mixture of sugary cuteness and prog-rock chops. But after a long, creative career filled with nutty humor, otherworldly melodies and mad precision, it's impossible to deny their absolute mastery at what they do. Watching Satomi Matsuzaki and her bandmates bounce back and forth in perfectly synchronized pogo/bunnyhops while drummer Greg Saunier flings his whole body at his drumkit is a live rock experience like no other. They seemed to pull a lot of songs from their classic Milk Man album as well as new material and a few more astonishing covers: "Hitch-Hike" by LiliPut and, as an encore, an uncanny rendition of Canned Heat's "Going Up The Country" with Satomi on drums.
At the end of the set, we discovered that we had been given the wrong seats and, rather than high up in the balcony, we were supposed to be down on the main floor, only a few rows from the front. What a difference. Davis went up to ask if we could give Yoko a copy of What Is Truth? so she can hear the Content Providers' cover of "Kite Song". (One of my favorite songs at 15 that none of my peers could appreciate then) She was told to wait after the set was done and one of the road crew would accept it and pass it on. We did this later, after the show, and sure enough, a roadie happily took it. Hope you enjoy it, Yoko.
We settled in while a montage of Yoko Ono's life played on the screen, from cute little kid to mischievous performance artist to collaborator with unbelievably famous guy to grieving widow to elder stateswoman of philosophy, activism, and New York art. When it ended, various band members came on: the three members of ingenious Japanese band Cornelius, ex-Cibo Matto musical director Yuka Honda, and, a dead ringer for both of his parents at the same time, Sean Lennon, followed by the lady herself, who was immediately engulfed in rapturous cheers.
An eerie, hushed acapella verse of "Walking On Thin Ice" B-side "It Happened" led right into the grinding, exuberant "Waiting For The D-Train", as loud, clattering and thrilling as riding a New York subway for the first time. Smiling sweetly and letting out her unique yodel/warble/cry while the band rocked ferociously, Yoko looked and sounded joyful. The world had finally caught up with her, but she wasn't replicating her past; it was fresh.
Constantly switching instruments and musical styles, the new Plastic Ono Band added all their diverse talents to a surprise-filled set of new and old material. "Walking On Thin Ice" sounded as it should, with Sean pumping out the disco bass line; "Will I" replaced the ticking clock accompaniment of the recorded version with a web of delicate acoustic fingerpicking; "Calling", one of the best songs on the new album, was hypnotic, psychedelic and exciting.
Sean introduced "one of my favorite songs by my mom", "Death Of Samantha", by recalling their recent New York show where they were joined by former Ono collaborators Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann, and admitting it was a bit intimidating to share the stage with said old rock stars. (Wonder if anyone from Elephant's Memory, who did such a great job on Approximately Infinite Universe, was there.) But when the song began, Sean's piercing lead guitar made it clear he could easily leave boring old Clapton in the dust. A brilliant angst-ridden torch song with the repeated lyric "People say I'm coooool......yeah, I'm a cooooool chick, baby", it's a mystery why "Death Of Samantha" is not on regular rotation on "classic rock" stations everywhere.
Yoko reminisced about the making of the Fly album and how excited John Lennon was when the track "Mindtrain" was recorded while everybody else blanched at the idea of a 17-minute track. That night's version was a bit more condensed, but captured the essence of the original with its crunching train rhythms and Yoko gleefully repeating "Dub dub! Dub dub!" ad infinitum. If John had been here, he'd have been grinning ear to ear.
The set went through everything from abstract sound improvisations to smooth electronic pop to aggressive guitar music, all wedded to Yoko Ono's quirky voice and childlike Zen wisdom. And then there were the encores.
First, Deerhoof joined in for "Don't Worry Kyoko". Then a whole gang of guest artists, including the excellent Petra Haden, joined in for a spontaneous "Give Peace A Chance", prefaced by Yoko's explanation of how those seemingly random verses were originally written: by taking today's paper (and it has to be today's, that's the rule) and pulling out key words and sticking them in after "Everybody's talking about....." Giving various guests different sheets of paper and cueing them when it was "their" verse, it ended up being kind of a shambles, but it didn't matter much, because all that really matters is that chorus, right? "All we are saying..." So people, are we ready to give it a chance yet? Or are we still waiting for that D-train?