Bette Walks Away With The Show…

Time Out New York
Plastic Ono Band welcomes a boldfaced legion at BAM
Posted in The Volume by Jay Ruttenberg on February 17th, 2010 at 5:19 pm

There is an instance during most successful performances, small or large, when it becomes evident that the people onstage have fallen in sync with those in the audience. At We Are Plastic Ono Band, the Yoko Ono extravaganza presented last night at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, the moment was more conspicuous than usual: Late in the night, after Ono mentioned that she will turn 77 on Thursday, her audience began singing that atonal avant-garde classic: “Happy Birthday to You.” It began in a murmur from the cheap seats, then spread like a ballpark’s wave until Ono could only step back from the microphone and blush. Participation has been the central element of Ono’s art for decades–but she is, after all, Japanese, and this was simply too much. Suddenly, one of New York’s most resilient black-clad artists was reduced to a bashful granny being ambushed at a restaurant by singing waiters. The artist’s longtime vision materialized before her completely unprompted: Her audience had enlisted itself in the Plastic Ono Band.

The night was divided into two distinct acts: a set in which Ono fronted the whip-smart 2010 edition of her namesake group, followed by a Yoko tribute concert, with sporadic participation from the artist. The second set transformed the night into a glittery occasion, but Ono’s initial performance most triumphed. As assembled by Sean Lennon, the largely Japanese Plastic Ono Band is contemporary and groovy, comfortable with hard-driving rockers, arty disco and balladry. The revelation is Ono herself: She performs infrequently and, until this week, had resisted big-tent New York appearances. “I was scared, I suppose,” Ono said when I asked her about her stage absence in an interview for last week’s magazine. Yet she maintains a natural, riveting stage presence. And her trademark yowl remains one of the most distinct in the land: by turns animalistic and orgasmic (even while performing with her son), fleshy yet inhuman.

“I’m famous for not having a good voice,” Ono mentioned during the interview.

“Oh, come on,” I said.

“Yeah, yeah,” she shrugged. “But you know what I mean.”

And of course, I knew what she meant; I just have never understood it. Why did fans of the Beatles, so celebrated for their ingenuity, bristle when confronted by Ono? And does Ono herself appreciate how much the world has finally come around? Witness the concert’s second half. Not by mere coincidence were the guest stars drawn from all parts of the pop spectrum: folk (Paul Simon), dance (Scissor Sisters), dissonant noise (Sonic Youth), bent cabaret and performance art (Justin Bond), Broadway (Bette Midler), mischievous indie rock (Gene Ween) and, yes, classic rock (Eric Clapton).

Discounting Ono herself, it was the night’s wild card, Bette Midler, who walked away with the show, performing “Yes, I’m Your Angel.” Even on Double Fantasy, the song is atypical Ono–lighthearted, overtly poppy and unabashedly pretty. Backed by a band that included tuba and double-bass, Midler got a laugh with her opening–“Hello, boys”–and delivered the number with the light touch of a professional, as if she was performing a comic standard by Cole Porter. (An audience member uploaded her performance to YouTube here.)

For the most part, the guests performed one song apiece. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore joined Ono, abusing their guitars as she sang “Mulberry.” The vocalists from Scissor Sisters covered “The Sun Is Down,” from last year’s Plastic Ono record Between My Head and the Sky, as if it were a beloved old dance hit. Paul Simon duetted with his son, Harper, who grew up down the hall from Sean Lennon. And Justin Bond, always great, sang “What a Bastard the World Is”–adding a needed dash of irreverence as the show’s sole performer to send up its star. (In short: Bond follows Ono on Twitter and, although he often does not understand her tweets, attempts to do everything she commands. Just imagine a world where O magazine was dedicated to Ono, not Oprah!)

The set closed on a throwback: a near-recreation of the old Plastic Ono Band, here featuring Ono and Sean Lennon joined by drummer Jim Keltner (few have noticed, but Ringo Starr no longer exactly plays drums), John Lennon crony Klaus Voormann, and Eric Clapton–a perfectly dreadful musician long admired by subscribers to Guitar World magazine and fans of Michelob beer commercials.

The concert concluded not with old Slowhand–thank Clapton!–but rather a folkie-style sing-along of what may be the Plastic Ono Band’s most iconic number, “Give Peace a Chance.” The song’s chorus is less famous than “Happy Birthday to You”–if only slightly–but the audience sang along once more, with even greater glee and fervor, this time on its feet. Once again, Ono’s mission came to glorious fruition: We Are Plastic Ono Band, indeed.

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