Better Than: Getting harassed by Lou Reed’s manager.
There’s many perfectly valid reasons to find Sean Lennon deeply dubious. The main knock on the guy is that he uses the obscene wealth and ridiculous connections to date models, to hang around in feathered fedoras, and to release solo albums periodically that are too annoyingly well-crafted to dismiss entirely. The extent to which this rap is fair is highly debatable, of course. But let it be said that to spend time with Lennon is to find him charming. He was clearly in awe of the special guests who dropped by last night, and when he plays bass he does the exact same head-bopping dances as Flea, which immediately makes him a thousand times dorkier than he looks and thus more likeable. And more importantly, and to his immense credit, Lennon is willing to use his connections for a good cause. He mentioned from the stage that he and his mother put together tonight’s “Yoko Ono & Friends To Japan With Love” benefit show in a matter of days. (There was also a John Zorn curated affair at Columbia on Sunday that included Sonic Youth and Mike Patton.) The result was a packed, $100-a-head crowd at Le Poisson Rouge and a predictably impressive display of the power of one of the world’s greatest friend’s list.
Kicking things off was a reunion of Lennon’s one-time bandmates, Cibo Matto. Though it’s been a decade since Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori’s outfit broke up, the pair sounded in good form last night. “Sugar Water” is still a woozy-love rush, the “Who cares?/I don’t care!” refrain in “Beef Jerky” is still weirdly galvanizing. Augmented by a full band that included Honda’s husband/Wilco member/avant guitarist Nels Cline, “Birthday Cake” was just a beast of punk beats and blaring roller-skate organs last night. But while their music has aged well, given that this was a band best known for singing about food (or more accurately, using food as a metaphor for desire, friendship and the whole gamut of the human experience), some of their recipes (“extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and MSG!”) just sound downright irresponsible in 2011.
On the right night, Patti Smith can breathe fire and shame you for living a minute without unbridled passion. But tonight was more of an acoustic thing, which had its own charms. Dapper in a snug blazer, and backed by debonair bandleader Lenny Kaye–who, if legend is to be believed, once worked at a Bleeker street record store near Le Poisson Rouge–Smith selected a handful of hushed, elegiac meditations including Radio Ethiopia‘s “Pissing In A River” and Easter‘s “Ghost Dance,” which she dedicated to the people of Japan. (Chorus: “We shall live again/we shall live again.”) Even without her usual full-throttle intensity, Smith’s outsized cool-aunt charisma has a way of making an already small club even more intimate. As you would probably guess, the set ended with “People Have The Power,” which Smith touchingly dedicated to Yoko Ono for first inspiring her as a teenager for “all the work she’s done for the people.” (To the packed audience: “It looks like hell out there, but just think about how the people of Japan feel.”) In an increasingly cynical, callous world, many doubt that people, to say nothing of music, have much power. Smith’s great gift is that she can instinctively tap into the part of all of us that wants to believe otherwise.
Without question, Yoko Ono is the most terrifying vocalist I have ever seen. She makes most of the metal frontmen I’ve seen look like a bunch of pissed off children–Ono’s feral shrieks still have the power to make audiences feel disoriented and challenged. Dressed all in black and wearing those glasses she always wears, Ono and the current version of the Plastic Band (which featured Deerhoof drummer/LPR regular Greg Saunier sitting in for one song) kicked things off with “It Happened Today” and also ran through “Why,” establishing a template of bluesy shuffles pierced by echo-laden Ono attacks.
When she wasn’t intimidating us, Ono was a charming host. She prefaced the Krautrock-inspired avant-jam “Mind Train” with the introduction, “This next one was 16 minutes long, which John thought was great. But one time a famous songwriter came to visit us, and John played the song for him, and he had to sit there and be polite for 16 minutes! I felt so bad for him.” Antony Hegarty joined her for a truncated version of “Train,” and then, just to prove that Ono is more than just primal scream therapy rock, the pair also sang the bouncy piano-driven tune “I Love You Earth,” which Ono said she chose for the occasion because “the earth is angry, and we need to let it know that we love it.”
“That’s a punk lyric, right there,” Antony noted. And given the proceeding squalling, he was exactly right.
Then Lou Reed walked onstage, and Lennon made an “oh shit face.” Looking stone cold as ever, Reed briefly consulted with his old backing singer Antony before joining the pair for a lengthy feedback jam that was as intense and as it was impenetrable. Clearly, Reed was not in the mood to do anything hopeful or uplifting for the occasion. I’m sure you’re shocked. He then nonchalantly walked off stage, leaving Sean to ask, “Can you believe that just happened?”
For the finale, Cibo Matto and Antony joined Ono’s band for “Give Peace A Chance.” But first, Lennon had to hand out the lyric sheets and decide who got to sing which verse. (This took several minutes.) As for that last song? Look, I don’t care how many times you’ve heard “Give Peace A Chance.” A roomful of people, including Yoko freaking Ono, belting out that one will warm the heart of even the most jaded asshole. Okay, maybe not Reed, who was nowhere near the stage for the finale. But there’s only so many miracles you can hope for in one night.
Critical Bias: “Pale Blue Eyes” is one of my favorite songs ever. I’m still a little disappointed that Antony and his old boss Reed didn’t duet.
Overheard: Lots of Awwws when Antony and Ono hugged, as well as, “Damn, that motherfucker is tall.” (Okay, that was me.)
Notebook Dump: Between Cibo Matto, Sean Lennon and the Deerhoof guy’s Cornelius shirt, there was a strong late ’90s 120 Minutes vibe in the house.
P.S.: Special thanks to audience member Grace Kim for lending me a pen after I dropped mine. You’re the best, Grace!