So, it’s come to this. Pop culture as a collective is saying goodbye to a legendary talk-show host in the form of David Letterman. I’ve seen countless tributes pouring in on my timeline – celebrities and regular folk alike all have a Letterman story. I suppose I should share mine, although it doesn’t have the same weight to it as ones from my friends in their thirties and forties that quite literally grew up with the show.
I come into the picture in the 2000s. By this point, Letterman is an establishment. Appearing on that show means that you’re someone – if only for that moment. This much is especially true of the show’s musical guests, which were often the only reason I would tune in. One YouTube came into the picture, I’d often spend hours at a time down a rabbit hole with only the search term “live on letterman” to guide me. There was always such an interesting mix of artists – some well-established, some just coming through the ranks. To me, if you’d been on Letterman, you’d made it. That was your stage, your chance, your moment.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to share some of my personal favourite Letterman musical-guest moments. Please note that this is by no means a definitive best-of – I’ve picked exclusively from the last 15 years; and there is no Future Islands on account of there having been everything that one could possibly say about that performance already out there in the ether. These are just some performances that I’ve been enthralled with over the years for very different reasons. So, let’s take it away.
TV on the Radio – Wolf Like Me (2006)
I still get the exact same electricity running through me nearly ten years after this performance first happened. I shared this with EVERYONE – even people I knew that didn’t like music. There was something monumental about this rendition – it took what was already bound to be one of the greatest songs of the decade and somehow made it even greater. Can’t you just hear how David Andrew Sitek makes his guitar squeal. How Jaleel Bunton punches through those drum parts. Kyp Malone practically jumps out of his suit at one point. This made me want to be in a rock band – my rock band at the time made this cover a staple of our set. It all started – my Letterman obsession, my TVotR obsession, the whole shebang – here.
An Horse – Camp Out (2009)
We cut to the end of the decade, and it’s one of the more obscure Australian acts to have appeared on the show – a Brisbane indie band who were championed by acts like Death Cab and Tegan & Sara. It didn’t turn them into arena filling sensations, but performances like this proved that achieving something on that side of the world was still a possibility. The vibe that you got from watching Courtney Barnett on Fallon or Ellen? That’s what we were feeling when An Horse pressed the flesh with Dave.
Beastie Boys – Ch-Check It Out (2004)
I’ve tried to shy away from the obvious performances in this list, but you just can’t go past the creativity and the energy of this one. It felt like a music video brought to life, and the mile-wide grin on Dave’s face at its conclusion makes it all worth it. This dropped right in a revival of Beastie obsession for me, so it was perfect timing. Fuck, I miss MCA.
Arcade Fire – Rebellion (Lies) (2005)
There’s such an urgency to this era of Arcade Fire that Dave almost doesn’t get their name out before the begin an all-instrument avalanche. This is a kitchen-sink type of Arcade Fire – one of them is even running around the place whacking a floor tom for the fuck of it. Centred in its universe is Win, who is far from the unleashed rockstar he would become in the Reflektor era. Here, he barely moves. He’s the last to arrive at this party and the first to leave – which somehow makes him more of an intriguing prospect.
Grinderman – Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars) (2007)
After years of concert halls and opera houses, Nick Cave wanted to fuck some shit up again like in the old days. Grinderman let him reclaim the mania of The Birthday Party yet keep the suit. It worked – and it resulted in one of the wildest performances on the show. Warren Ellis is playing some kind of electric mandolin while randomly smashing a hi-hat with a hammer. Cave is on the prowl, laying down organ parts and quite literally buzzing away. It’s impossible to look away.
Sparta – Breaking the Broken (2004)
At a time where fear-mongering was at a high and the American political climate was one of uncertainty for any that considered themselves creative, Sparta appeared on Letterman. Sprayed onto their shirts was the word VOTE – and, after putting everything into a performance of what I consider to be their best-ever song, it was quite clear which way they wanted you to do as such. Spoiler alert: They were not successful. At that point in time, though, it didn’t matter. It felt like anything was possible.
Beck – Nausesa (2006)
Nevermind that this is a thoroughly jamming version of one of Beck’s most underrated singles – Borat turns up! MY WIFE! Also worth pointing out that, by a complete luck of the draw, this performance shares a drummer with the very next one in the form of one Matt Sherrod.
R.E.M. – Imitation of Life (2001)
R.E.M. were legacy guests on Letterman. In 1983, they appeared for the first time and performed two songs; both of which have become seminal singles of the era. They went on to appear four more times on the show, with this being their last before they split up a decade later. The contrasts between 1983 R.E.M. and 2001 R.E.M. are centred around Michael Stipe – once an enigmatic, mumbling long-haired twenty-something; now an extrovert and a true frontman in every sense. It was the band coming full circle.
Tom Waits – Make it Rain (2004)
You must understand that I hated Tom Waits when I first discovered him. Hated him. Thought his voice was fucked and that he looked like he’d been run over. Of course, that’s exactly the same reason that I love him now. I look back on this performance that once made me squirm and see one that is all class. The addition of two-thirds of the Blues Explosion laying it down certainly helps matters.
Feist – 1234 (2007)
She may hate this song now, and may well never play it again. There was a time, though, where we all fell in love with it. For many, that came with this performance, which enlisted an all-star choir of people from The National, Grizzly Bear, The New Pornographers, Mates of State and Broken Social Scene. It’s all horns, ba-da-bas and pure unadulterated joy. You can’t help but smile when you see this one. Plus, how on-point are those handclaps?
Liam Finn – Second Chance (2007)
Two offspring of Australasian rock legends combine forces here, Liam being the stock of Neil Finn and his counterpart being one of Jimmy Barnes’ daughters. The similarities, of course, stop there – this is a psychedelically-tinged slice of indie-rock that goes into overdrive once Finn sets up his loop station and goes fucking WILD on the drums. Even a slight fuck-up makes this imperfectly perfect.
Red Fang – Blood Like Cream (2014)
I don’t know – are Red Fang considered a “metal” band? Like, are they metally enough for the Metal Club? Whatever the case, it’s always a surprise and a joy when stuff like this makes it onto network television. They hit this one out of the park, and even Paul Shaffer himself gets in on the fun by adding in some spooky organ drones. Bonus points for Dave’s sick burn at the end: “I’ll talk to your drummer about growing a beard.”
Neko Case – This Tornado Loves You (2009)
There’s this idea that if a song can still sound good through AM speakers, it’s bound to be a good song. This performance of the opening track from Case’s Middle Cyclone sounds like a masterpiece in 480p, so make of that what you will. The triple-guitar layering works beautifully alongside the four backing vocalists, which include Kelly Hogan and Lucy Wainwright Roche. Stunning, understated and a true credit to Case as a performer and bandleader.
Mastodon – Curl of the Burl (2011)
When Mastodon first came on Letterman in 2009, Dave introduced them by saying “I’m not gonna lie to you… I’m frightened” before cutting to a close-up of Brent Hinds’ face tattoo. It was a funny bit, but it was also reflective of a wider preconception about metal and the people involved in it. Seemingly, Dave got over his initial fright once he saw how awesome they were – the band were invited back two more times. This is my favourite of the three, if only for Bill having the words “HI MOM” taped onto his guitar.
LE1F – Wut (2014)
Potentially the first gay rapper to ever perform live on network television? Potentially the only? This fantastic performance from the bold and brassy LE1F was a huge moment for both LGBT and POC visibility, not to mention a massive step up in a live setting. While the MC and DJ set-up certainly works for LE1F, a full band (featuring Dev Hynes on bass) and two back-up dancers works even better.
Morningwood – Jetsetter (2006)
In 2006, I was obsessed with a band called Morningwood. I believe I was one of two whole people in all of Australia that even knew who they were. They may have been a blip on the radar to many, or simply cool by association (lead singer Chantal Claret is married to Little Jimmy Urine of Mindless Self Indulgence). On this night, though, they were the talk of the town – particularly after Claret did her now-famous Matrix dance during the guitar break. Power-pop for life.
The Orwells – Who Needs You (2014)
The performance that divided the internet right down the middle. Was it a mess? Was it staged? Were they high? Was it rock & roll? Was it all premeditated? The answer, naturally, is that it’s exactly what you see. It’s what you make of it. It’s like the Vines’ infamous performance in 2002. Whatever the case, Paul Shaffer lost his fucking mind over it. You can see why.
Tokyo Police Club – Nature of the Experiment (2007)
22 didn’t seem all that far away at 17. When I realised how old Tokyo Police Club were, and I saw them on Letterman, I felt that maybe I’d know where I was going at that age. Naturally, I didn’t; and neither did they – they’ve scarcely been heard from since this peak point of exposure. It’s worth revisiting, though, both for the drummer going hard on just a bass/snare/hi-hat set-up and the entire CBS Orchestra joining in on a tambourine flash-mob. The kids were alright, weren’t they?
The National – Afraid of Everyone (2010)
The National make everything special in their own understated way, including their TV appearances. Here, they played a non-single (not to mention one of my favourite National songs) and brought out a horns section, a pump organ and a casual cameo from Sufjan Stevens. It builds up into something unbelievable – this, to me, is the definitive version of this song.
U2 – Beautiful Day (2009)
Here’s something you should know: From the ages of 8 to 24 (the age I currently) am, I was a huge U2 fan. I still am. Yep, even through some average albums and the whole debacle last year. There’s something about this band that always puts me in the exact right mood. I can’t imagine my life without a song like “Beautiful Day,” as pathetic as that seems. It’s a light in the dark for me; a crack of sunshine let into the shadows. It’s impossible for me to be unhappy when it’s on. So when U2 performed it as a part of U2 Week on the show, in which they did a song every night, I fell in love with it all over again.
On this night, Bono is determined to get the crowd up on their feet. You think it’ll happen in the first chorus. They’re still down. Second chorus. The clapping along is louder, but they’re still down. It takes until the second bridge for them to finally lift – but it’s worth the pay off. I smile like an idiot everytime I see that bit. It’s so daggy, but it reminds me exactly of what “Beautiful Day” does for me.