Just before the final song of Yoko Ono’s first performance in four decades with founding members of the Plastic Ono Band, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on February 16th, her son Sean told a short story: At soundcheck that day, Sean remarked to guitarist Eric Clapton that he had never played slide guitar before and wanted to know how Eric and Sean’s father, John, played slide on the early, chaotic Plastic Ono Band records. Clapton replied that, at the time, he had no idea what he was doing.
Yoko turned to the BAM crowd with a coquettish grin. “I knew what I was doing,” she cracked. Then she leaped into the white-noise boogie of “Don’t Worry, Kyoko” from 1969’s Live Peace in Toronto with rusted shrieks and air-raid-siren whoops as Sean and Clapton played twin grinding slide guitars over a steady thundering rhythm section: original Plastic Ono bassist Klaus Voorman and drummer Jim Keltner, who played on John and Ono’s 1972 album Sometime in New York City.
Coming two days before her 77th birthday, “We Are Plastic Ono Band” was a two-set revue of Ono’s musical life, with the first half focused on her new album, Between My Head and the Sky. The second part featured friends and disciples performing songs from her previous records, as far apart in temper and touch as “Mulberry” — a wordless memoir of Ono’s World War II childhood in Japan, in raw ecstatic yelps to the free-guitar discord of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon — to Bette Midler’s canny rearrangement of “Yes I’m Your Angel” from Double Fantasy into a saucy sister of “Makin’ Whoopee.” You could almost hear the clinking of martini glasses amid the brass and penthouse-party piano.
The connective momentum in Ono’s art is her declarative instruction and participatory assurance, from the early-Sixties action works shown in a biographical film at the start of the night — Cut Piece; the ceiling painting with a microscopic “Yes” at the center — to recent songs in the first set like the victory mantra “Rising” and “Higa Noboru,” a ballad from the current album. “I write/I light/My message/On an invisible wall/Of prison cell hell,” she sang in the latter, in a tender but direct voice to Sean’s firm piano work. And inside the extreme confrontation of records like 1970’s Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and 1971’s Fly was always a love of surging rhythm. At BAM, her new Plastic Ono Band — led by Sean, now 34, and including drummer Yuko Araki and Yuka Honda on keyboards — updated the railroad racket of Ono’s 1972 single “Mind Train” with percolating dancefloor electronics. Ono shimmeyed to the beat as she wailed.
Performance artist Justin Bond turned “What a Bastard the World Is” from 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe into a blur of gender: a man dressed like a 1920s ingenue, singing a song of feminist outrage, in a hard deep tenor dotted with girl-ish flutter. Paul Simon and his son Harper, made a short poignant medley of “Silverhorse” from 1981’s Season of Glass, the album Ono made after John Lennon’s death, and his “Hold On,” from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band record. Played like a pair of traditional English folk ballads, with familial harmonies and two acoustic guitars, the songs captured, without melodrama, the weight of Ono’s loss and her faith in unbroken connection.
The three-song set with Sean, Clapton, Voorman and Keltner was hardly as ragged as that ’69 Live Peace show. But it was good rough fun — Voorman was beaming all through “Yer Blues,” the only Beatles song of the night â€” and Clapton soloed in the Approximately Infinite Universe blues “Death of Samantha” with sharp tortuous cries, like the song was an old Mississippi Delta lament.
The evening ended with Ono and Sean leading a full-cast singalong to “Give Peace a Chance.” But the audience gave its own encore too: a spontaneous rendition, for Ono, of “Happy Birthday.” Her “Yes” piece had come to life.