Amid All That Experience, Innocence
By JON PARELES
Published: February 17, 2010
In some ways Yoko Ono is still an amateur. At "We Are Plastic Ono
Band," mixing concert and tribute at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on
Tuesday night, her voice could be shaky and her stage patter giggly
and unplanned. She looked genuinely surprised when the audience
interrupted her and sang "Happy Birthday." (She turns 77 on Feb. 18.)
She's also untamed. She can still let loose the bleats, wails, yips,
howls and shrieks that alienated Beatles fans in the 1960s and
inspired avant-rockers soon afterward.
Ms. Ono's well-preserved air of naïveté and the license it gives
her to say things simply and primally has been her artistic gift
since the '60s, first as a conceptual artist and then, with John
Lennon's impetus, as a rocker and songwriter. She reveals things with
purposeful guilelessness: physically in her '60s performance art and
films, and emotionally in songs like "It Happened," which she sang
unaccompanied to start the concert: "I know there's no return." Now
her main collaborator is her son, Sean Ono Lennon, who organized the
show and led the band.
"We Are Plastic Ono Band" brought together, for the first time in
decades, members of the informal group John Lennon assembled in 1969:
Eric Clapton on guitar, Jim Keltner on drums and Klaus Voorman on
bass. Guests, including Paul Simon, Bette Midler and members of Sonic
Youth, also performed songs by Ms. Ono and by John Lennon.
But Ms. Ono was never overshadowed. For the first half of the concert
she performed songs from her 2009 album, "Between My Head and the
Sky" (Chimera) and some older ones, like "Walking on Thin Ice." The
band vamped through hard rock, funk and psychedelic drone, closely
following her voice. Singing melodies, Ms. Ono sounded high and
fragile, as deliberately exposed as the lyrics. And her wordless
sounds were by no means random. They were ghostly, furious, dreamy,
caustic, urgent, exultant, orgasmic. Between the abstractions were
tidings of peace-and-love optimism, of loss and loneliness, and of
uncertainty. She ended her set with "Higa Noboru," a ballad set to
impressionistic piano chords: "I hear the fish calling from the
ocean/I hear the birds warning from the sky," she recited.
Guest singers claimed Ms. Ono's songs for their own genres. Ana
Matronic and Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters rode a disco beat in
"The Sun Is Down," dancing across the stage in glittery shoes. The
cabaret singer Justin Bond, in high heels, reveled in the drama of
the bitterly ambivalent breakup song "What a Bastard the World Is."
Mr. Simon and Harper Simon, his son, fingerpicked acoustic guitars in
the fond "Silverhorse" and John Lennon's "Hold On." Ms. Midler gave
Ms. Ono's whimsical birthday song, "Yes, I'm Your Angel," a winking
New Orleans insouciance, lingering over the tra-la-las. Thurston
Moore and Kim Gordon, the married couple in Sonic Youth, joined Ms.
Ono to perform the arrhythmic noise of "Mulberry," making guitars
clank and screech to mirror her voice.
The reunited Plastic Ono Band was still proudly unrehearsed, crunchy
and sinewy. Mr. Clapton sent slow-blues phrases curling around Ms.
Ono's voice in the elegiac "Death of Samantha," and the band turned
the blues-rock stomp of "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for
Her Hand in the Snow)" into a full-fledged maelstrom. Naturally Ms.
Ono ended the concert with "Give Peace a Chance," the 1969 song that
introduced the Plastic Ono Band, adding updated lyrics, flashing V
signs and leading a singalong.
Sean Ono Lennon said onstage that he had tried to get Mr. Clapton to
show him the slide-guitar part for "Don't Worry Kyoko." But in 1969,
he was told, the Plastic Ono Band and Mr. Clapton were "having so
much fun that he has no idea what they were doing." Ms. Ono spoke up.
"I knew what I was doing," she said not so naïve after all.