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Photo by Mary Couzens
Southbank Centre’s annual Meltdown is typically, full of surprises, and this 20th Anniversary festival, curated by artist/activist/musician/songwriter Yoko Ono was no exception, beginning with her Plastic Ono Band’s opening night gig. Ono’s Bottoms (’66) churned on a huge screen as we entered the auditorium, generating recognition, then varying reactions from giggles through eye averting. Afterward, a short film designed to set the mood, featuring rarely seen footage of Ono and late husband John Lennon, sputtered, causing home movies to seem more at home in their natural environment than above the oversized stage of Royal Festival Hall. No matter, as Yoko Ono is recognised as Lennon’s now legendary love and artistic co-creator, 1968-80.
I’d been belatedly listening to Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band’s 2009 album, Between My Head and the Sky in the lead up to their Meltdown concert with a mixture of wonder and appreciation at its originality and diversity. Live, the band trumped their recording, revving up rhythms and grooves, with natural chat between Ono and (and Lennon’s) musician son Sean adding to the charm. Though we’re all familiar with Ono’s trademark proto-punk, frenzied whoops of yore, on Between My Head…, she also exudes raw emotion in a manner that is not only appealing, but oddly freeing. ‘I’m Going Away Smiling,’ a ballad to Lennon sung by Antony Hegarty with Ono at his 2009 Meltdown is confirmation that she writes songs and sings them, from the heart. Other selections here included ‘Don’t Worry Kyoto,’ a plea to Ono’s daughter, snatched away by her ex-husband at a tender age, only reunited with her in 1995, at the age of 30. Seemingly, with urging from Sean, (‘it’s your hit Mom!’), Ono executed some definitively outsider warbling on ‘Walking on Thin Ice,’ which packed dance-floors back in 1980. Unexpectedly sing a long song ‘I’m a Bitch’, Ono’s ’74 answer to bad press and attitude from Beatles fans, belted out by Peaches, with Ono joining in was introduced with comments about ‘when you guys hated me.’ Though in the second row, behind us, several women intermittently yelled, ‘We Love you Yoko,’ to which Ono reciprocated. To say Ono’s performance here was joyous would be an understatement, for it was nothing short of triumphant, and, at times, very moving. I’ve always been puzzled by the fact that males can talk sing, or even utter in a guttural way and it’s seen as characterful, as long as the message of the song comes across. Female ‘60’s singers of that ilk, apart from Marianne Faithful, an old friend of Ono’s also performing at her Meltdown, whose rock n roll past lends a crystal tinge to any latent brassiness in delivery and proto-punk poetess Patti Smith, who honed her bite on rhythmic, passionately spoken word a la ‘Piss Factory,’ another Ono Meltdown performer, were then advised to stick to their day jobs. I personally can vouch for the fact that Smith, to this day cuts powerful performances, rife with presence. Here, Ono sidestepped any earlier sidekick allegations, cutting a powerfully inspiring figure of her own, both personally and, musically. So much so, that by show’s end, fans rushed to the area in front of the stage to dance along with this alternatingly sunny and memory shadowed ‘you don’t look it’ octogenarian. Thanks for the friendly, funky kick in the pants reminder that we must get up and dance while we still can Yoko! I’m all for endless dancing myself…!
Double Fantasy Live, the closing concert to Ono’s extraordinary Meltdown assumed an air of remembrance, with a black and white drawing on the oversized screen above the stage morphing into the black and white cover photo kiss shared by Yoko Ono and John Lennon, immortalised forever, as surely as Rodin’s ‘Kiss.’
Double Fantasy Live at Royal Festival Hall - June 23, 2013
Photo by John Couzens
Pete Molinari in a hat reminiscent of Chico Marx, breathed as much life into Lennon’s words as anyone living could ever hope to on the album’s opening song, ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ as his warm delivery and sense of presence in the words overrode the fact that he wasn’t copying Lennon’s vocal, as if anyone could. Lennon’s ironic ‘50’s inspired rock n roll delivery was absent here, though Molinari retained a sense of the song’s meaning throughout. I’d read the programme notes written by Ono about Lennon’s final days with appreciation before the show started, but I had yet to note all the vocalists names before the lights went down, though its’ unlikely I would have known who Molinari was, as this was my unintroduced introduction to him. In hindsight, utilising the above stage screen to state names of artists and songs may have helped those in the dark about either or both.
‘Kiss, Kiss, Kiss’ was covered with appropriately I don’t care attitude by a glammed up Peaches, who arched her sequined eyebrows with every word and nuance, ruffling her feather boa and kicking her glittery legs with a grinding shimmy. Later, Peaches was part of a fluttery foursome on ‘Yes I’m Your Angel’, Ono’s whimsical way of cheering Lennon on his 40th birthday, performed with appropriately tongue in cheek music hall singing, posturing and antics along with Camille O’ Sullivan, Lene Lovich and Bishi. Lovich, as engagingly kooky as ever, was on form, as was belting pop diva Bishi. O’ Sullivan who I’d seen before, had earlier, given a gutsy performance of Lennon’s, ‘I’m Losing You’, tearing in and bringing the blues at the song’s core up from the floor. Double Fantasy original guitarist Earl Slick, on hand for this very special show electrifyingly growled along. Fairly early on in the programme, I let go of which song was being song by whom, when, allowing the feeling of the music to wash over me, as this was definitely one of those once in a lifetime experiences that must be seen and appreciated.
In relation to rock, Ono’s Meltdown, with the exception of proto-punk powerhouse, Iggy Pop and his hard rocking Stooges, focused on strong female performers, and in my humble estimation, the women on the bill of this variegated concert, for the most part, outshone their male counterparts. That said, it’s a tribute to John Lennon and the potency of his musical legacy and, our collectively fond memories of him that during a brief screening of one of Ono’s personal movies, with Lennon sporting a heavy beard and whimsically homey air performing ‘Dear Yoko’, via home computer camera, the audience assumed a sense of rapt attention, breaking into spontaneous applause and cheering at its conclusion.
Party promoting singer/songwriter Boy George, cheerily sang a buoyant version of Lennon’s ‘Cleanup Time’ before joining Bishi for an upbeat duet. Near the end of the show, it was George who finally drew the audience to their feet by reminding them that they shouldn’t act ‘glued down.’ In a sense, his encouragement reminded us to celebrate this rare occasion, rather than mournful. This idea of a celebration of life was intermittently boosted by Sense of Sound Choir, from Liverpool, a group in which each singer is encouraged to ‘sing as they sing,’ as they enhanced songs’ depth and colour.
Given the amount of animosity aimed at Ono for many years, which, for the most part, wasn’t quelled out of respect in the aftermath of Lennon’s untimely passing, it’s interesting to see how the crowd not only accepts, but seems to love her now. But time has a way of putting things into perspective and if not healing wounds, at least shedding light on former projections on them. If Beatles and Lennon fans have finally shaken off some of the conditioning commercial media has continually thrust upon them over the years in relation to Ono, then Lennon and Ono’s love and peace message has won out in a sense at last, at least for those who so admired John and his music and also appreciate Yoko now too.
Delivery of the songs on this programme, sticking to album order, varied between apt, fun, moving and out of character, the last thankfully, being the least case scenario. Ironically, or not, most of the definitive highlights of the evening were provided by ‘old’ female rockers: Patti Smith on a singularly moving version of Lennon’s ‘Beautiful Boy’, which she prefaced by sharing with the audience that late husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, of the MC5 had ‘written a lullaby to their son’ and she felt ‘certain both fathers are watching over their sons.’ It is the sense of intimacy Smith shares with her audiences and listeners that so endear her to them. Perhaps her reason for not appearing at the end of the show was due to the fact that her brief appearance was nearly met with a standing ovation. Another undoubted highlight was a surprise appearance by punk diva Siouxsie Sioux in a harlequin like black and white bodysuit, warbling her most warped on ‘Walking on Thin Ice’, accompanied by none other than Ono herself, looking feisty as ever, but emotionally wistful.
Siouxsie Sioux and Yoko Ono performing at Double Fantasy Live - June 23, 2013
Photo by John Couzens
According to the hand-out, that was the last song Lennon ever worked on, listening to it intently over and over at home the weekend before his untimely passing. But Lennon will never really leave our collective consciousness, as long as there is music, and Ono is so blazingly alive to carry on his legacy and that of the ballad of John and Yoko.