Yoko Ono still does that Yoko Ono thing. You know the one. The one that requires italics, or caps lock, or maybe both. She crouches slightly, one balled-up fist on her hip, her face narrowed to an insouciant gunfighter’s squint, a face reflecting not exactly joy, not exactly rage, not exactly anguish, not exactly feral abandon, but some bizarre, inimitable fusion thereof. And then she opens her mouth, and hoo, Lord, out it comes: AHHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. EEEIEEIIIIEEEIIIEE. UHUHHUHUHHUHUHH.
And so forth. That sound, that force, that apocalyptic yodel. The human Auto-Tune antidote. Fifteen seconds is hilarious, 30 somewhat profound, 90 oddly transcendent. Anything beyond that, frankly, is pretty grating. But it is undeniably, inexhaustibly hers. There is way more to Yoko than that, of course. But there is still, definitely, that.
So let us celebrate. Last Tuesday night’s We Are Plastic Ono Band fete at BAM was a both a surreal, star-studded partial reunion of the fantastically polarizing art-rock band she first convened in the late ’60s, and a showcase for the very much active latter-day iteration that cut a super-weird, strangely alluring new record, Between My Head and the Sky, six months ago. This was a tribute that made very clear it wasn’t a eulogy, looking back while charging boldly forward. A brief career-retrospective video set the scene—the performance art, the activism, the apocalyptic yodeling, the fawning quotes from cohorts and contemporaries (Ann Magnuson: “No wonder the coolest guy in the world fell in love with her!”), the indeed simultaneously heartwarming and -rending scenes of marital bliss with John Lennon—but when the curtain rises, it’s all present tense. Behold Yoko herself, in the flesh, prancing regally about the stage, lithe and vivacious, clad in all black with dark glasses and a jaunty little hat, like a feminine, septuagenarian, Japanese, diminutive Slash.
Your bandleader this evening is her son, Sean Lennon, an eerie visual and vocal echo of his father—”It’s kind of creepy when he sings,” notes a friend who’d also attended the previous night’s dress-rehearsal show, and verily Sean will later rip into the death-haunted Beatles jam “Yer Blues” with discomfiting aplomb. For Act 1, he commands a core band of experimental-pop heavyweights, including Yuka Honda (she of Cibo Matto) and Keigo Oyamada (a/k/a Cornelius), himself tossing in a little piano but mostly switching off between guitar and bass, depending on how cool the bassline is.
They mix in a few oldies (most notably frigid, ominous dance-floor semi-classic “Walking on Thin Ice”) with Between My Head and the Sky‘s various psychedelic jams, the title track (cool bassline!) a slick blast of cracked funk, “Moving Mountains” a seedy den of pastoral, yodel-heavy freak-folk ecstasy. Expert flourishes of cello (courtesy Erik Friedlander) and trumpet (Michael Leonhart) mingle with all the electronic bleeps and burps. Yoko glides through all of it, precocious but supremely confident, her lyrics warm and direct and unapologetically new-agey: “I flew up into the universe/I can see you/I love you for what you are.”
Throughout, she maintains a torrent of loopy banter with both the crowd and Sean himself. “He’s the music director,” she tells us after blazing through “Thin Ice.” “He’s always saying, ‘It’s great, it’s great,’ to make me feel better.” (Sean’s reply: “I’m not lying, Mom. That was pretty good.”) This goofy, familial vibe nicely sets the table for Act II, when the surreal parade of guest stars begins in earnest, an odd bout of Yoko karaoke with a loose, sweet, occasionally half-assed feel, like we’ve abandoned BAM’s luxe digs and are now chilling in some wood-paneled rec room at the Dakota, indulging in a hastily assembled talent show. Jake Shears and Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters strut through the mutant-disco incantation “The Sun Is Down.” Justin Bond tears theatrically into the passive-aggressive romantic-firefight torch song “What a Bastard the World Is.” Paul Simon and his son, Harper (notably lacking in Sean and Yoko’s natural onstage chemistry), take up acoustic guitars and wobble through a waywardly Simonized conflation of her “Silverhorse” and John’s “Hold On.” And Gene Ween (!!) does his own acoustic duet with Sean, blasting sweetly through none other than “Oh Yoko!,” straining for the high notes, which only makes the whole thing more adorable and bewildering.
Oh, plus Bette Midler shows up and burns it down, turning “Yes, I’m Your Angel”—Yoko’s gift to John for his much-dreaded 40th birthday—into a kicky cabaret farce, her booming TRA-LA-LA-LA-LA‘s commanding their own italics-and-caps-lock action. And this just after Yoko joins Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon for “Mulberries,” a free-form, guitar-shredding tantrum of shrieking feedback and copious yodeling. Yoko explains the song’s genesis: As a child in Japan during World War II, she’d attempted to feed her family by picking mulberries, holding up the hem of her dress to carry as many as she could while enraptured by the beauty of the sky—the mind that can translate such a strange, sad, gorgeous scene into a violent, atonal, Sonic Youth–assisted dirge deserves respect, study, celebration.
We conclude with the original Plastic Ono Band semi-reunion, featuring Jim Keltner on drums, a smiley Klaus Voormann on bass, and a befuddled-looking Eric Clapton, rumbling through “Yer Blues” and early Ono ringers “Death of Samantha” and “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow),” Sean initially trying to trade surly guitar solos with Clapton but eventually, wisely laying off. We serenade Yoko with “Happy Birthday,” en masse. (77!) In return, she gives us songwriting advice (be general, not specific) and a brief pep talk: “You have a long life ahead of you. And it’s gonna be beautiful, if we just keep hugging each other and loving each other. It’s good for your health, you know.”
And then, of course, there’s the inevitable encore of “Give Peace a Chance,” all the special guests piled back onstage at once, a ludicrous scene indeed: Kim grabbing Thurston’s hands to pull their shared mic down to her height, Jake and Ana bobbling their cue, Bette cheerfully refusing to do a verse by herself, Yoko yapping to a bewildered-looking Paul Simon about something or another as the song winds down. A suitably bizarre way to end a deliriously strange evening. We love her for what she is.