I did not know what to expect from tonight’s lineup. Essentially it was Plastic Ono Band and various sub-voltrons thereof. I was afraid the gig would be hermetic and insular. People playing for their friends. This could not have been further from the truth. This was an incredibly welcoming show. It was like the audience were in the Plastic Ono Band’s living room, and the members of the household were taking turns playing songs.
First up were the son and his girlfriend, a.k.a. Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, who play as The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. They were accompanied by brass instrumentalist C. J. Camerieri, who has played with Sufjan Stevens, Antony and the Johnsons, David Byrne, multiple Wainwrights, and a bunch of other musicians you like. They look and sound like a band that would be playing in the corner of a cocktail party in a film by Pedro Almodovar. Musically they have a lot in common with Brazilian popular music of the ’60s and ’70s and European chanson. There was even a wheezy accordion.
I suppose it is impossible for me to go much further without addressing the elephantom in the room. I will admit that while I was waiting for The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger to begin, I was worried that I would not be able to appreciate the band on its own terms, that I would start comparing the son to the departed father. But while I was waiting I ran into a relation of an old friend of mine I had not seen in years. We did not know each other, but I knew who she was and so I introduced myself. Through my friend we could relate to each other. It was a seed of introduction. I realized I did not have to worry, really. Here was the son of a man whose music has followed me throughout my life. I knew those songs very well, I could use that as an introduction and move on from there. And so I did.
As so often with songs written by lovers, this is great music to make out too. The melodies were lovely and the musicianship was of high quality, as it would be throughout the night. Camerieri played a variety of brass instruments with skill befitting a Juilliard-trained trumpeter. Since most songs did not feature drumming, Kemp Muhl’s bass did double duty, keeping beat and providing a counter-melody. Her voice complimented Sean’s very well. Sean is a very accomplished guitarist, even going so far as engaging in some acoustic heroics from time to time. Incidentally, throughout the night the audience was graced by guitar heroics befitting a heavy metal show. In fact, I doubt Saturday’s metal showcase will compare.
Before I move on to the next act, I want to mention one very cool aspect of The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger show. Throughout the whole show Sean sat behind a drum set, which he barely touched, only occasionally striking a cymbal. Then, in the last song, he picked up drumsticks and played his heart out. Leaving those unstuck drums conspicuously center-stage created an odd sort of dramatic tension. If someone brandishes a gun in the first act of a play, the audience knows that eventually it will go off. The suspense is in not knowing how or why. That drum set functioned the same way. The crowd in the Norðurljós auditorium knew that the drums would go off, but not how or when. When the beat started, it was relief and release.
Fig is made up of Nels Cline, lead guitarist of Wilco, and Yuko Honda, most famously of Cibo Matto, but a veteran of many projects. Like the previous act, they are a couple. Fig achieved something effortlessly that almost no musician anywhere is capable of, they made noodling sound interesting. That is not to say that was all Fig brought, but it defined their sound. As I said, it was never not interesting. Cline also busted out the occasional guitar heroics, and watching Honda use various gadgets to construct looping beats and electronic soundscapes. Most visibly she used a Tenori-on. Its glowing shapes are the abiding visual memories of seeing Fig.
Like everyone else tonight, Cline and Honda impressed with their musicianship. They both had a great number of gadgets to manipulate, but they navigated them all, that word again, effortlessly. Effortlessness was the defining feature of Fig’s performance. They started their show by announcing that they were going to combine three songs into one, and to be honest I would be hard pressed to say with one hundred percent certainty where one song began and another ended. They flowed together. I used the word noodling to describe them, and that perhaps is not quite the right word. Cline and Honda are clearly very used to playing together and watching them play felt a bit like stumbling into their rehearsal space, seeing them play for the joy of playing. It was a privilege to watch.
Consortium Musicum was Sean Lennon’s other band of the night, this time playing with Deerhoof drummer Gregg Saunier. They played the rock equivalent of free jazz, improvising furiously, heroically even. It is a kind of music that is hard to describe. At its best it takes the audience on a guided mental journey, carrying the listeners along with them on a squall of loud rock and frantic beat-making. This time around, through no fault of their own, the music took second place, at least in my own consciousness.
The third member of the band was not on stage. Martha Colburn makes films that are a combination of puppetry, collage and Stan Brakhage-like abstractions. In some ways her film dominated the show. It was beautifully political, incorporating various recent events, from the Iraq War to the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street. It is striking that this was the first overt political statement I had noticed at this year’s Airwaves. While Mayor Bloomberg prepares to clear Liberty Plaza Park of anti-Wall Street protesters and the Western World teeters on the brink of a financial catastrophy, few musicians seem overtly interested in being political. That is a shame. Colburn turned her critical camera eye on society and provided one of the most pleasingly aesthetic moments of the festival so far. Politics and art are not antithetical to each other. And it does not hurt if you deliver that message to the accompaniment of furious drumming and guitar heroics.
Mi-Gu, like pretty much every band tonight, are a duo. Drummer Yuko Araki also sings and she is complimented by the guitar playing of Hirotaka Shimizu. Like Consortium Musicum, they played to the accompaniment of visuals, though they did not overpower the music quite as much as Colburn’s film. It started with images of the Moon, then was followed by surrealistic claymation (cars with mandibles, hands with faces, that sort of thing) and finished with line drawings and circles. It fit the music of Mi-Gu very well. Araki laid down a driving beat which Shimizu answered with repeating melodic figures and, you guessed it, guitar heroics. It was very atmospheric music, but the steady rhythm that flowed through everything kept the show moving.
Before the last song Araki did something heart-meltingly adorable. She read a short speech she had written in her notebook. Musicians are usually supposed to appear spontaneous in their stage banter, but the message of thanks she delivered was all the more touching since she had clearly made an effort. After that they played their last song and the reflections from Shimizu’s pick-up and Araki’s cymbals danced together on the screen at the back of the stage.
After the various members of the band had gotten to show just how intimidatingly skillful they all were, it was time for them all to combine into the supreme Voltron that is Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band. The amount of pure skill that has been gathered throughout history under that moniker is somewhat mindboggling, having at one point or another contained such luminaries as Keith Moon, Billy Preston and Eric Clapton. Nonetheless, it is dominated by one figure, Yoko Ono. When she arrived on stage it was a bit like when Bob Dylan shows up at the end of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, and a movie that has been nominally and principally about The Band suddenly turns into The Bob Dylan Show. Ono has a similar level of presence. Even though she shared the stage with eight other musicians, she was always the focal point, the centre of attention.
Partly it was because of her skill as a performer. She has developed through the years a very personal vocal style. Her voice is an instrument among instruments. She does not just sing, she weaves her voice into the rhythms of the music. Not that she is not capable of singing in a more regular style, which she did often throughout the night. And partly is because of her fame. Yoko Ono is certainly the most famous person ever to play Iceland Airwaves. Her fame goes beyond any normal kind of celebrity and enters into myth. She has become an archetype. If we hear someone described as “a yoko ono” we know that it means a woman who breaks up a partnership, be it musical or otherwise. Like most every myth about women, both ancient and modern, this one is deeply sexist. It also does a great disservice to one of the 20th Century’s most important artists, reducing her to an unflattering caricature.
When I was a kid my parents dragged me to many museums and gallery openings. Like all children in that kind of situation, I was sometimes a bit bored. Sometimes more than a bit. One shining counter-example was Ono’s 1991 show at the Kjarvalsstaðir art museum. Her art engaged its onlookers, even children, to a wonderful degree. It was art that not only encouraged you to touch it, but to climb over and crawl through it. It was fun. I liked fun art at ten and I still do.
A biographical documentary roughly ten minutes long about Ono was shown before the Plastic Ono Band took to the stage, starting with home movies from her childhood and extending right through her whole life. Then she came on stage, wearing all black and sang a ballad. Then the band filed on stage, all wearing t-shirts that said “imagine peace” in capital letters, and Ono removed her outermost garment, revealing a vest embroidered with metals. It was time to rock. And rock happened. Others before me have pointed out that Yoko Ono’s music in the ’70s sounds a lot like Can, often before Can sounded like Can, and there were definitely moments during the show which reminded me of the German band. Plastic Ono Band maintained a funky groove throughout most of the night, Walking on Thin Ice was a particular highlight, though really it was all great. The show never flagged, even though the band members changed instruments constantly. Occasionally the groove would cease while a different kind of song was played. I was especially happy to hear Mulberry, off Blueprint for a Sunrise. Ono started by telling a story from her childhood during World War II and then launched into the song.
Towards the end of the show, Sean introduced a special guest. Tune-Yards, who play tomorrow night, were to come on stage to perform a cover of a Yoko Ono song. That turned out to be We’re All Water, one of Ono’s finest compositions. Since the performance exists on YouTube I will refrain from describing it at length. Let me just say that it was as wonderful as it was unexpected.