During the career-spanning video montage that opened Tuesday night’s We Are Plastic Ono Band concert celebration of Yoko Ono at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a quote flashed on the screen: “There’s a reason the coolest guy in the world fell in love with her.”
And if the evening’s star-studded renditions of Ono’s songs wasn’t likely to win over those who aren’t already down with twisted avant-garde funk, resolutely childlike pop, and the guest of honor’s trademark warbling, wobbling, and shrieking vocalizing, the constant cries of “We Love You, Yoko” coming from audience suggested that those who are went home happy.
The concert was split into two halves. The first featured Ono, wearing sunglasses, a top hat, tight black pants, and a very low-cut black blouse, fronting an eight-piece band led by her son Sean Lennon, who spent the night switching between bass, piano, and guitar.
Mention Ono’s vocals to the casual music fan and you might hear a joke about cats in heat. Such comments, for better or worse, are basically accurate. On newer songs like the lurching “Moving Mountains” and roiling “Between My Head and the Sky,” Ono’s mewling and caterwauling were at their fiercest, as the 76-year-old (she turns 77 on February 18, a fact the crowd acknowledged with a mid-set “Happy Birthday”) wordlessly wailed, ululated, and straight-up screamed while two-stepping and strutting across the stage.
Listened to with any cynicism at all, this stuff sounds like a shrill put-on. This is singing? But if you can accept the sounds for what they are — pure unfettered expressions of emotion — then they start to make sense, conceptually anyway.
Ono’s more straightforward songs bypassed any need for ontological leaps. The bopping, New Wave-wish “Walking On Thin Ice” and plaintive “It Happened,” both originally released in 1981, showed that her back catalogue features its share of pop gems studded amongst the more notorious sonic explorations.
With a few coruscating exceptions, it was those less difficult pages of Ono’s songbook that were the focus of the second half of the night, as a bizarre mish-mash of friends and fans took turns paying musical tribute. I would have paid to know what Bette Midler, who mugged her way through a cartoonish cabaret jazz version of “Yes, I’m Your Angel,” and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, whose rendition of “Mulberry” saw them accompany some Yokodeling with their own abrasive bass and guitar feedback, had to talk about backstage once they got past “Isn’t Yoko great?”
The guests that kept things simple delivered the most affecting performances. Paul Simon and his singer-songwriter son Harper shone on a sparkling acoustic guitar and voice run-through of the hymnlike “Silverhorse,” which the duo then segued into John Lennon’s “Hold On.”
The latter’s “Oh Yoko!” from Imagine was given an endearingly ragged airing by his son and Gene Ween of goof-rockers Ween, both of whom struggled charmingly to hit the song’s high notes, an obstacle that Jake Shears and Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters had no problem avoiding (sometimes to a distressing degree) on Ono’s electro-poppy “The Sun Is Down.”
It was another John song that drew the night’s biggest cheers, as after Simon and Son left the stage (they’d been performing at the lip, in front of the drawn curtain), the curtain was raised to reveal Eric Clapton, in town for two nights at Madison Square Garden with fellow guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck later in the week, as he grinded out the nasty blues riff of the Beatles “Yer Blues” backed by Sean on guitar and longtime Ono associates Klaus Voorman on bass and Jim Keltner on drums.
Clapton stuck around too add some smoky sting to a slyly grooving”Death of Samantha,” from Ono’s 1973 album Approximately Infinite Universe, and some raunchy slide to “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” the original version of which he guested on more than forty years ago. This time, though, he cast bemused glances at the Lennon-Onos, who were busy getting their free-form on while he played anchor, repeating the same low-string riff over and over to the song’s conclusion.
As these things often do, the night concluded with an All Star jam. Sean invited all the performers onto the stage for a “Give Peace A Chance” sing-a-long. Like so much of what came before, this final performance was baggy, self-indulgent, maybe better in theory than practice, and in its sheer and utter lack of irony and sarcasm, something close to irresistible.