At the end of their four-song set on March 27th at Columbia University's Miller Theater in New York, Sonic Youth played "Shaking Hell" from their 1983 album, Confusion Is Sex – a song about transgressive fantasies with a title that eerily captured the urgency of the night, a benefit for disaster relief in Japan. The first of five Concerts for Japan organized and curated by composer-saxophonist John Zorn, the sold-out Miller Theater show was headlined by Yoko Ono and the latest version of her Plastic Ono Band and included performances by guitarist Marc Ribot, ex-Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton with pianist Uri Caine, Zorn's Aleph Trio and a reunion of the Japanese art-pop duo Cibo Matto. The event raised over $33,000 from ticket sales, with all parties donating services, space and gear.
Fresh from an exhilirating rock & roll-bar show at SXSW in Austin, Ono reprised three items from that gig, with no shortage of vocal wattage. Starting with "It Happened," sung in wracked a capella, she jubilantly battled with her son Sean – scraping and slashing his guitar, in the spitting art-attack image of his father – during "Why," from 1970's Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, alternating between machine-gun gurgling and clean cutting cries while showing off club-land dance moves to the band's trance-boogie roll. Ono then answered that question with the title march from 1995's Rising, marking her band's slow steady climb with agitated barks, acute wails and exhales of relief, in rapidly successive bursts – a portrait, on this evening, of a nation's pain and resilience by a woman who first knew both as a child in wartime Japan.
Sonic Youth's performance was a rare small-hall blast of their pneumatic charge and glass-curtain harmonics. Cibo Matto – the duo of singer Miho Hatori and keyboard player Yuka Honda – picked up their party work where they left off in 2001, shuffling hip hop, bossa nova and free rock, with a band that included Sean Lennon on thunder-fuzz bass. The rest of the evening was a playfully idiosyncratic tour of Zorn's friendships and assocations. Patton sang eccentric balladry; Ribot, with pianist-singer Akiko Yano, bent and plucked at the conventions of romantic standard; and the trio Mephista performed miniatures of percussion, laptop electronics and plucked-string piano, empathic blurs of free impulse and compositional intent.
Zorn, who played a too-short set of full-bodied mourning and swinging assurance on alto with his trio, has scheduled two Concerts for Japan on April 8th at the Abron Arts Center in New York and two on April 9th at the Japan Society, the latter date featuring appearances by Philip Glass, the Japanese pianist-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and Zorn's trio with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. For details, visit savejapanbenefits.org.