After more than 40 years in the public eye, Yoko Ono remains an indomitable spirit and irrepressible button-pusher.
The weekend’s two-night installment of the “We Are Plastic Ono Band” tour at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theatre–weirdly, a concert and a tribute rolled into one–played to both traits. A week before what would have been her late husband John Lennon’s 70th birthday, the 77-year-old nodded to her own history, engaged in ear-splitting excursions into the avant-garde and brought the house down with duets with Iggy Pop (the first night) and Lady Gaga (the second).
While they did not short-shrift the abiding themes of peace, feminism and self-realization in Ono’s art and music, the concerts, under the direction of her son Sean Lennon, were all about spectacle. Revelatory lurched into ridiculous in the blink of a set change, and for all the musical muscle on board, there were potent reminders that as a singer, Ono is a pretty good performance artist.
A documentary movie began each night, followed by an hour-plus set from this incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band, an intermission, and then a parade of guests, some performing with Ono and some solo, that included Perry Farrell, RZA, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Carrie Fisher, Vincent Gallo, Joseph-Gordon-Levitt and show-stealing experimental folkies Tune-Yards.
The high anxiety of “Waiting for the D Train” (off Ono’s 2009 album Between My Head and the Sky) turned vein-busting on Friday night with a shirtless Iggy Pop bumping with Ono and matching her screech for screech. Wherever that registered on the Richter scale–maybe a notch above where Moore and Gordon’s caustic guitarscapes took Ono’s baying on “Mulberry”–it was a tremor compared to Lady Gaga’s two-song turn on Saturday.
Gaga, clad in a black, bejeweled bodysuit with its rump dangerously sheer, vamped with Ono during the vaguely disco-funk “The Sun Is Down,” carrying it with her big pipes. Then the pop provocateur moved to the piano for the finale, belting while her elder number bleated. Ono climbed atop the piano and laid down, and at the end Gaga joined her.
Even outside of the self-congratulatory documentary that started the evening, the moment was one of the evenings’ many nods to Ono’s history. She performed a memorable show in Tokyo in the 1960s lying atop a piano played by John Cage. On Saturday, her duet with Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA (who powered through his song “See the Joy”) began with the pair hovering over a chess board with all-white pieces, a manifestation of her 1966 artwork “Play It By Trust” (aka “White Chess Set”). There were “Wish Trees” (a 1996 project) in the lobby, and each fan upon entry was given an “Onochord” flashlight so they could participate in its “I Love You” code.
The frontwoman/guest of honor could not have been more charming, although perhaps a bit more rehearsed. Often displaying the wonderment of a child, Ono sashayed to and fro during her set, seeking cues from her son, who, in turn, was giving them to a crack backing band that included, at one time or another, members of Cornelius, Yuka Honda, Nels Cline, Mike Watt and Money Mark. They rocked one moment (“It’s Been Very Hard”) and the next created meticulous soundscapes (“Moving Mountains”) for Ono’s emotive, sometimes improvised, vocals. Performance art, meet Phish Fest.
After intermission, though, the evening took on the feel of a variety show where anything goes. Gordon-Levitt, with two dancers wearing wings, did an outlandish song-and-dance take on “I’m Your Angel;.” Gallo gave a morose reading of “Sun Is Up.” Lennon and Harper Simon did a tender acoustic version of John’s “Oh Yoko!” Fisher belted out a stately “What a Bastard the World Is.” And Farrell felt his way through “The Sun Is Down” the first night and “D Train” the second.
The most telling guest turn came from Oakland duo Tune-Yards, whose art-folk could trace its lineage to Ono’s improvisational vocal language. Merrill Garbus’ imaginative looping, perambulatory beats and haunting vocals made “We’re All Water” absolutely compelling.
At the end, each night’s performers gathered onstage for a sing-along to “Give Peace a Chance,” with guests chipping in verses they wrote for the occasion. It was one of those “We Are the World” moments–as well as a novel way to respect history and change it at the same time.