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Arts and Entertainment

Yoko Ono and Plastic Ono Band - Orpheum Theater 10/1/10

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Photo by Elise Thompson/LAist

Photo by Elise Thompson/LAist
Ever since her Fluxus days, Yoko Ono’s art has often revolved around the challenging of her audience’s assumptions, specifically about the nature of art, social mores, gender roles, and the nature of celebrity. The live show she brought to the Orpheum last weekend continued this tradition, bringing together a collective of first-rate musicians and famous guests for a show that held enormous emotional impact. It was a surprisingly diverse (where else are you gonna get RZA, Iggy, Vincent Gallo and Carrie Fisher on the same bill?) and even accessible package for a woman whose music is often thought of as difficult and anti-rock.

But anyone expecting a Yoko show to be two hours of oi-yoi-yoi-yoi warbling hasn't heard her records, especially the new one, Between My Head And The Sky, which made up a good part of the set list. We heard a lot of different kinds of music, some of it simple, gentle and lovely. Some of it was tense and funky, some of it joyous and rocked-out. And, yes, some of it was dissonant, and she did break out the oi-yoi-yoi every so often. But the most discordant moments added texture, some of them loud and powerful, some quiet and fragile.

She's looking awfully potent at seventy-seven, singing with a lot of energy, dancing sweetly and showing real command of the stage. For someone who didn't do a lot of live performing, and seems stilted and uncomfortable in footage from the seventies, she's become a real pro at it late in life. The updated Plastic Ono Band is musical-directed by son Sean Ono Lennon, who alternates between bass, guitar and keyboard. Besides local hero Nels Cline on guitar - as usual, playing just impossibly well - the new group is made up of younger Asians; Cornelius, Yuka Honda, and Haroumi Hasonno are the ones listed in the program but at least two others were seen.

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The second set when the celebrity guests came out was just as good. Iggy Pop was a joy as usual, coming out to sing “Waiting For The D Train” in a nice dress shirt, then tearing it off and doing the boogaloo across center stage, over an unmistakable Mike Watt bass line. Watching Iggy & Yoko dancing and embracing at center stage was a moment that gave hope that growing old with vitality might just be possible. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA was a trip, rapping a full number with a big chorus while Yoko sang background figures. Carrie Fisher performed “What A Bastard” as a story-song. Best of all was the duo Tune-Yards who did a stirring version of “We're All Water”, possibly her most anthemic number (“We’re all water from different rivers/ Someday we’ll evaporate together”), with just bass, voice and percussion run through digital delays, looping back on themselves, setting up harmonies.

I can't even say anything bad about Vincent Gallo, whose presence normally grates upon my every sensibility. But he sang “I’m Going Away Smiling”quite well, and got the best laugh line of the night when Sean said "I thought that would be a good song for Vincent because he's so depressed." And, to my surprise, Perry Farrell had one of the best songs of the night with “The Sun Is Down”, a really good duet with Yoko. It was a very creative use of a singer I often find kind of annoying outside his own band.

This kind of disconnection from what I expect reminds me of a Taoist story that explains that people who look at an object and declare it useless, simply haven't found the right use for it and are foolish for trying to make it something it's not.

I think that's the problem some people have with Yoko. Never mind the ludicrous charge that she somehow broke up the Beatles, as if that were something for a person to do. No, I think rock people declare her to be useless because they see her up there with Lennon and Clapton. And she’s contributing something that doesn't sound like what they want to hear when they're in the mood for a little rock and roll music.

If you take her music out of that context, and look at it alongside people like Capt. Beefheart, PiL, and Sonic Youth, or composers like Stockhausen and Varese, there's nothing odd or offensive about it at all. But rock people don't intrinsically think of Beefheart or Varese as offensive because neither of those guys ever screwed up a perfectly good John Lennon record.

There is a moment, recorded to history, when John and Yoko are hosting the Mike Douglas Show, and Chuck Berry's doing "Memphis, Tennessee," and Yoko stops playing her drum to go "oi-yoi-yoi-yoi" into the mic and Chuck Berry gets a look on his face like "Damn!" (1:20 here). It’s pretty funny. I think even she would admit that at the time it was filmed, she hadn't yet found the right use for her unique talents either. But it’s gratifying to see she's found it now.

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