Review: Yoko Ono Residency at Cafe Oto (22, 23, 25 March)

Yoko Ono onstage at Cafe Oto on 25 March
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2014. All rights reserved

Yoko Ono residency at Cafe Oto
(22, 23 and 25 March 2014; nights 2 and 3 review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

A really special buzz gripped Cafe Oto, where Yoko Ono played three dates, announced at very short notice, two with Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley at the weekend, in a rare sighting of the Sonic Youth guitar/drums duo, and one with Nels Cline, guitarist extraordinaire and lynchpin of the current Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, and percussion maestro, Talvin Singh, for a Tuesday after-hours show.

The sense of occasion in the air did nothing to compromise the intimacy and atmosphere of the tiny Dalston venue; patient queues, a discreet security guard at the door, fairy lights decorating the room and more reserved seats than Cafe Oto has ever seen!

On Sunday the audience was greeted by the sound of twittering birdsong and the sight of a succession of bare bottoms from her notorious film No. 4 (1966), and, to preface Yoko’s entry, a short documentary, particularly moving when John Lennon’s bloodstained spectacles were shown before footage of Yoko accepting a Grammy for Double Fantasy.

On Tuesday, an excerpt was shown from Cut Piece, the 1964 performance where the artist invited the audience to cut away her clothing, before a small voice announced, ‘Hi, I’m Yoko’ as the petite, black-clad performer was ushered in.

The inspired composition of the trios was fully vindicated by their razor sharp interactions with the unstoppable and extraordinary octogenarian. Everybody was kept on their toes by Yoko’s iron-willed momentum, tempered with gentle, good-humoured communication, and the passion of her delivery. The concentrated, single sets of around 45 minutes were of indisputable five star quality.

The material visited on each performance overlapped, yet both trios created very different moods and settings for Yoko’s often harrowing lyrics and tortured vocals. The mixture of scorching electrics and space-drift lacunae which Moore and Shelley tapped, digging in to the Sonic Youth soundwall, was complemented by the sublime Indo-Japanese fusion that enveloped the room two nights later as Singh’s richly voiced Indian percussive palette inspired Cline to imbue his guitar with sliding sitar tones.

Gyrating more like a twenty-one year old, Yoko proved that she had lost none of the power to slice through to the emotional heart of the issue – whether deeply personal or globally relevant. The strength of her cathartic, unsettling, non-verbal vocalisations was balanced by a poetic lyrical streak that travels to areas both painful and naively whimsical.

Rising II‘s visceral opening lyrics (the 2001 version), ‘You stoned me, you drowned me, you chained and blinded me …’ carried Yoko’s optimism in their wake as she entreated, ‘Listen to your heart, trust to your intuition’, points at which Shelley intimated the lightest possible drum presence and Singh injected flicks of shimmering zither sweeps in two deeply resonant and moving interpretations.

Why, from her first Plastic Ono Band excursion (1970), stills buckles under its original weight and her searing vocals were as acidic as they were 45 years ago. Moore and Shelley ground out raw, axle-grinder strains as the foil to the desperation in Yoko’s Japanese Minyo singing-rooted wails. On the same number, Cline’s slide guitar escalated its frenetic, pained intensity as he and Singh rapidly constructed passages of uplifting fluidity. Singh’s precisely placed tabla strokes, thuds, and hand swipes to the cymbals flew with Cline’s intricate finger work and waves of reverberation. Riveting eye contact with Yoko was at the core of each three-way interaction.

Yoko Ono with Steve Shelley and Thurston Moore at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2014. All rights reserved

With an inspired minimalist stroke, the amplified ticking of Moore’s wristwatch placed against the guitar pickup dramatically punctuated the hushed poetry of Will I. ‘Will I miss … the ocean… the sunrise … the city lights … the jokes?’, the latter eliciting a subdued ripple of laughter.

In contrasting spirit, Cline answered each of the poem’s implicit questions with a sally of shuddering fretboard bon mots in Tuesday’s finale, but not before the spellbound audience was treated to a poem that ‘came to me yesterday’ … ‘like going to a different space’, which touched on a dream episode that involved Yoko losing touch with her mother.

The crowd at Cafe Oto before Yoko Ono’s Sunday performance.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2014. All rights reserved

On the build-up to Sunday’s endgame, Yoko’s sensuous strains and breathy voicings were supported by Moore placing snatches of feedback and grizzly drones alongside Shelley’s mallet touches and tiny bell tinkles, as Fly (1970), the film following a fly alighting on a the body of a woman (actress, Virginia Lust), was projected behind them. A fresh gloss was put on Don’t Worry, Kyoko (1971) by their buoyant, chugging rock and roll take before Yoko had her well-worn guitar strapped on for a duet with Thurston that had them prowling tentatively like animals – not without smiles – before their guitars crashed, literally, in a final, frenzied electric embrace.

‘I have a voice of a woman in winter.’ In these nine words, which Yoko Ono enunciated on both nights, she really did sum up a series of mesmerising performances that will go down among the most uniquely moving in Cafe Oto’s history.

Night 2: Sunday 23 March: Yoko Ono (vocals), Thurston Moore (guitar), Steve Shelley (drums)

Night 3: Tuesday 25 March: Yoko Ono (vocals), Nels Cline (guitar), Talvin Singh (percussion)

Categories: miscellaneous

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