With all that stuff going on, TV gets forgotten, and it’s easy to miss your favorite late night shows. Thank god for YouTube, right?
We’re huge fans of the Late Night Musical Performance, here at Vimbly. There’s something so charming about the awkwardness of a band trying to rock out in front of a mostly ignorant crowd, with a 20 foot gap in between the stage and the front row. It takes a truly inspired performance to transcend the inherent weirdness of the custom — but when it works, it really works.
We decided to put together a list of the absolute best late night performances available on YouTube. To keep the list from being 500 videos long, we restricted ourselves with a few rules :
Rule 1: Late Night American talk shows only. This rules out the Beatles’ earth-shattering Ed Sullivan performance, Elvis Costello’s legendary false-start on Saturday Night Live, and many incredible performances from the UK show Live at Jool’s Holland (looking at you, At the Drive-In)
Rule 2: For convenience’s sake, the performance must be available on YouTube. This has lead to a bias towards recent performances.
Rule 3: The Youtube videos must be of reasonably high quality. Sorry, Pulp.
Rule 4: For the most part, we’ve tried to avoid Legacy Acts. Late Night Performances document a particular time in musical history. The Who appearing on Letterman in 2005 doesn’t really do that. (There are a few noted exceptions to this)
Without further ado, here are our 7 favorite late night performances:
My Morning Jacket – One Big Holiday (Conan)
One of the most charming aspects of late night musical performances is watching a host be genuinely won over by an act. These folks sit at the desk 5 days a week, 40-odd weeks a year — and can be a pretty tough crowd. But check out Conan’s reaction to Louisville rockers My Morning Jacket’s stunning 2002 performance.
Not that anyone would have been on the fence after witnessing that, but Conan just confirms the fact that MMJ delivered one of the best Late Night Performances ever. We don’t always go in for the hard-driving guitar rock — modern music’s movement away from that, towards more diverse sounds, has generally been a good thing — but when done well, it hits hard. And My Morning Jacket does hard-driving guitar rock VERY well.
One Big Holiday comes from the band’s third release, It Still Moves. My Morning Jacket had been slowly drawing attention for a few years, with a slightly less rocking, more country-tinged sound. This Conan performance marks the beginning of a stratospheric ascent to heights — including headlining Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve — that few fans of the early work could have predicted.
Warren Zevon – Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner (Letterman)
The biggest shame of Warren Zevon’s career, apart from his too-soon death at 56, is that for many people “Werewolves of London” is the whole story. Beneath the ubiquity of that accidental novelty hit, there’s an extensive discography of incredible, witty music — and far too few people realize it.
Fortunately for all of us, Dave Letterman is an ardent Zevon supporter; after Zevon’s announcement of terminal lung cancer in 2002 (and refusal to stop recording or performing until the very end), the singer-songwriter was invited on the show, the only guest of that night. Dave called it one of the hardest shows in his career.
By request, Zevon played “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” one of the best songs from Excitable Boy, perhaps his greatest album. The performance is incredible. He died a year later. He’ll probably always be best known for Werewolves of London, but for anyone that’s interested, he’s left behind an incredible body of work.
Future Islands – Seasons (Letterman)
Often, late night performances serve as a victory lap for semi-obscure bands who, after years of sweating it on the road, have built up enough of a regional reputation to justify a shot at a national audience. If these performances go well, they can serve as an extra boost for a band entering new a trajectory in its career. My Morning Jacket on Conan is a good example of that; Future Islands on Letterman is even better.
After 6 years of slogging it out, playing small clubs and serving as the opening act, their spring 2014 performance on Letterman saw Future Islands receive more attention in one day than in the rest of their existence combined.
But if this was just the story of one charismatic oddball, the performance wouldn’t have caught on like it did. Behind Herring’s incredible showmanship, Seasons (Waiting On You) is just a really, really good song. It’s catchy, it’s soulful, it’s got a great throwback vibe to 60’s R&B while incorporating 80’s synths. And it doesn’t hurt that it comes from the guy you’d least expect.
Letterman’s “When Harry Met Sally”-echoing response says it all. “Oh buddy! I’ll take all of that you got!” Indeed.
D’Angelo – Chicken Grease (Chris Rock)
By now, anyone with even a passing interest in R&B knows the story of D’Angelo: Multi-instrumentalist and songwriting genius becomes famous for one of sexiest music videos of all time, is subsequently stricken with body-image issues and an eating disorder, and disappears for a decade, only occasionally resurfacing in the news for drug arrests and DUIs. A recent redemption act has been added — D’s gotten it together, headlining festivals and tours and releasing the critically acclaimed album Black Messiah in 2014 — but for the better part of 15 years, it seemed like he was lost to us.
Black Messiah was an unexpected return to excellence for D’Angelo, a personal and political statement from an artist that many thought would never produce significant work again. Fifteen years earlier, D’Angelo reached his first creative peak, with the dense, spiritual Voodoo. This performance, on the Chris Rock show brings us way, way back, to when D was on the cusp of super-stardom — Voodoo hadn’t yet been released, and “Untitled [How Does It Feel]” was a few months away from sending the soul singer into his 10 year long crater. This performance shows an artist (and a band), operating at the highest level, fusing joy, energy, technical perfection, and spirituality to make an unprecedentedly vibrant late-night performance.
Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham – Landslide (Letterman)
We’ve already talked about how a late night musical performance can serve as a coronation for a band whose popularity is still growing. But what about the Late Night Performances by acts that have reached the top of the mountain, and are now on the other side? For the most part, we’ve tried to avoid these bands — note the lack of Bruce, U2, The Who, Rolling Stones, etc. — because they don’t really document the current state of popular music; but sometimes, on rare occasions, these veteran performances can come off just as triumphantly as those by the upstarts.
The past two decades have obviously done a number on Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. The members of Fleetwood Mac broke up, got back together, fell in and out of love, and had well-documented drug problems. The two band members on stage here look a little worse for wear, but with all their natural genius, and a song as good as Landslide, they deliver one heck of a moving performance.
And yes, “reached the top of the mountain” is a play on the lyrics of Landslide.
St. Vincent – Cruel (Letterman)
Very few artists pull off the combination of cool and creepy like St. Vincent. She has a David Lynch-like ability to take beautiful, ornate sounds, and twist them to expose the raw belly beneath. This Letterman performance shows Annie Clark at her most palatable, but it still contains a few notes of her signature coldness. The angelic string opening gets interrupted by throbbing cyber-disco, the lyrics have a haunting darkness (“They could take or leave you,/so they took you/and they left you”), and that guitar will drive you wild.
Her shredding has been Annie Clark’s not-so-secret weapon for some time now. She takes the guitar tones of transgressive 80’s acts like Husker Du and Big Black, piles them on top of her dreamy, dancey synth tunes, to create this sense of incongruity.
Frank Ocean – Bad Religion (Fallon)
2012 was the year of Frank Ocean. He was everywhere: mostly for his incredible music, but it didn’t hurt that his coming out stood in stark contrast to the traditionally virulent heterosexuality of R+B. Ocean quickly became the posterboy for a new era of music stars, less interested in confining themselves to labels and boxes, and more about questioning the emotions and choices that cause people to put themselves in those boxes in the first place.
“Bad Religion”, performed with a full orchestra (that includes the Roots), finds Ocean conflating sexuality and religion, faith and devotion, and wondering how much pain a person should endure in the pursuit of love. It’s a slow burner, so measured that when it momentarily picks up 2 minutes in (Taxi Driver, I swear I’ve got three lives balanced on my head like steak knives), it’s briefly reminiscent of a club banger, the type of song Ocean could make in his sleep if he wasn’t concerned with creating beautiful, transcendent music.