Once known mostly as the woman who supposedly broke up the Beatles, Yoko Ono has since proven that she is a talented artist in her own right. Her superb work in multimedia has not eroded in the face of time, with her concepts retaining reinvention through originality. Primordial, unrestricted, and brilliant, Ono has also become a staple of avant-garde contemporary music, and in 2009, she revived the legendary Plastic Ono Band.
The Plastic Ono Band was originally formed by Ono and John Lennon in 1969, just before the dissolution of the Beatles. Lennon and Ono saw the band as a machine of peace and an outlet for creative freedom. The group varied its members, and over the course of its original existence included Eric Clapton, artist Klaus Voormann, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, and Keith Moon. For Lennon, the Plastic Ono Band was everything the Beatles were not.
It was also, in many ways, a renegade concept. The Plastic Ono Band’s first single, “Give Peace a Chance,” reflected the group’s free-spirited nature. The band was created as a malleable device, with Lennon and Ono crediting the name, or portions of it, to many of their musical efforts. A collaboration with Frank Zappa, for example, was billed as the Plastic Ono Mothers.
The newest incarnation of the band -- which Ono revived, 40 years after its conception, for last year's acclaimed Between My Head and the Sky -- features Sean Lennon, Cornelius, and Yuka Honda. It is an appropriately fresh take on the original band, bearing the original concepts in mind: freedom, creativity, and peace. On Feb. 16, Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and they invited an array of guests, including Eric Clapton, Thurston Moore, Bette Midler, and Paul Simon. All of the talk preceding the historic event was well-deserved. It was a masterpiece, a terrific amalgamation of art in one environment.
The event opened with a film memoir highlighting Ono’s history as an artist and her intimate memories with Lennon and their son Sean in the 1970s. The first musical act featured the new Plastic Ono Band, fronted by Ono. The group tore through songs spanning Ono’s career, including “Rising,” “Moving Mountains,” and “Walking on Thin Ice.” The accompanying experimental films served as a perfect complement to the music.
Opening the second act with “The Sun Is Down,” the Scissor Sisters propelled a wild amount of energy into the audience. Joining Sean Lennon for an endearing acoustic version of “Oh Yoko,” Gene Ween’s voice was the perfect timbre, blending with Sean’s vocals as one. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s electric walls of feedback perfectly set the mood for the Ono-led “Mulberry.” Masters of dissonance, they artfully contained the erratic tones that came from their amps into a beautiful avant-garde symphony. Bette Midler provided a lasting highlight with a brilliant, vintage arrangement of “Yes, I’m Your Angel” alongside a tuba, upright bass, and muted trumpet. The music was reminiscent of the 1930s big bands, and the Divine Miss M’s voice and stage presence were commanding.
The two acoustic duets by Paul Simon and his son Harper provided a nice contrast to the rest of the evening. Sean Lennon introduced his longtime friends, who apparently had never performed in public together. Paul Simon’s grace and attention to melody was smoothly accented in the relationship between his singing and guitar playing. The duo’s rendition of Yoko Ono’s “Silverhorse,” off of her 1981 album, Season of Glass, and John Lennon’s “Hold On” were priceless.
Throughout it all, Yoko Ono was a wonderful, giggling host, her positive demeanor making for a relaxed feel. The concert occurred just two days before her 77th birthday, and at one point the crowd joined in unison for an impromptu chorus of “Happy Birthday,” which she gleefully accepted. The audience had been given keychain flashlights, which were dutifully illuminated when Ono flashed a light of her own, a promotion of peace and happiness.
The true highlight came at the end of the second act, though, when original Plastic Ono Band members Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Jim Keltner joined Sean and Yoko for “Yer Blues,” “Death of Samantha” and lastly “Don’t Worry Kyoko.” As always, Clapton was on fire. His playing brought to mind his earlier collaborations with Lennon, including those with the Beatles and the Dirty Mac. Taking lead vocals on “Yer Blues,” Sean Lennon held up very well, recalling the desperation and emotion in his father’s voice on the original track.
The show ended with all of the musicians joining the stage for “Give Peace a Chance,” with new lyrics, written by Ono, being sung in addition to the original words. The unrehearsed nature of this performance, and the imperfections that arose because of that, were what made it perfect: The notion of coming together was there, and that’s what mattered. The audience joined in, too, and at that moment it felt as if everyone at BAM were part of the band. After all, they were. As John and Yoko once said, of course, “You are the Plastic Ono Band.”
Photo Credit: Kevin Mazur/Wire Image