Our Next Guests Are A Wonderful Rock & Roll Band: 20 Performances on Latter-Day Letterman Picked By a Later-Day Letterman Fan

635676571678420060-XXX-DAVIDLETTERMAN03-D01-dcb-001[1] 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.

Thanks, Dave.

Goodnight, everybody.

INTERVIEW: The New Pornographers (CAN), October 2010

This was a fun one. Carl “A.C.” Newman is a legend of indie rock in my eyes, and you’ll rarely find a band as consistently great as his main squeeze, The New Pornographers. This chat is another one of the best that I wrote this year – even now, I’m really happy with it. I love the album Carl was promoting, as well. It’s called Together and you could do far worse if it’s your first New Pornos album. 

– DJY, October 2014

***

Carl Newman is on the line from Woodstock. No, he hasn’t created some kind of awesome time machine – the man, his wife and, their dog all live in the small town of Woodstock in the state of New York. “Y’know the story, right?” asks Carl, as he delves into the heritage of his home.

“All the people that were gonna put on the concert were originally from Woodstock, but they couldn’t find a place here to do it. So they had to go to Bethel, which is about thirty miles away – but they still called the thing Woodstock.” Living in such an important area to rock history must mean that the Newman family always has a story to tell whenever someone asks where they live – and Carl is inclined to agree. “The funny thing is,” he says, “is we’ve accidentally met quite a few people of note just by living here.”

“For instance, one of my favourite stories is that my next door neighbour is this old folk singer called Happy Traum. A lot of people know him because he did some duets with Dylan, and knew him from the Greenwich Village days. He invited my wife and I over to thanksgiving dinner, and we were sitting with John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful. Even better, we went to his 4th of July celebration and Donald Fagen was there! We didn’t talk to him, though – we were afraid of him!”

It’s more than evident that Newman is a very lucky guy. Not only is his home life truly rock & roll, but his day job keeps moving from strength to strength. The New Pornographers, the band which Newman leads, have just released their fifth album, Together, another uplifting exercise in full-voiced indie rock. Though its title may seem somewhat plain, Newman is quick to insist there’s a lot more to it than one might think.

“The word showed up a few times in the songs we were writing,” he explains. “It made me think of when we first began, in 1998. One of the first cover songs we ever learned was a song called Together, by a band called The Illusions. It made me think that the word “together” was a throwback to our beginnings – in a sense, calling our record Together was like our way of calling it Get Back.

“On another level,” he continues, “I also like the idea of appropriating a really generic word. So often when you’re trying to name a song or an album, you’re always trying to think of something really clever – like, “let’s think of something someone’s never heard before!” I always liked it when bands took a really generic word and made it their own – like calling your band Kiss or Love. You make it your own just by being who you are.”

Before going in to work on Together, Newman also got into the studio as a solo artist to contribute to the benefit album Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox. Knox, a New Zealand musician, suffered a stroke last year and has undergone severe treatment. To raise funds to assist Knox and his family in these troubled times, a slew of indie rock royalty – Newman, John Darnielle, Jeff Mangum, the late Jay Reatard et al. – each contributed a version of one of Knox’s songs to a double album, with all proceeds going to Knox’s treatment.

“That was an honour,” says Newman when asked of his contribution. “He really truly is one of my favourite songwriters. People talk about how I’m influenced by Brian Wilson and Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach – and I love all those people, but when I sit down and write a song, I think I’m closer to Chris Knox. I just love the way that he just sits down and plays his guitar really hard. There’s nothing incredibly fancy about it. He just plays urgently and writes these amazing songs. I’m just a massive fan. I don’t know how he’s doing these days, but I really hope he’s doing well.”

Newman, along with the rest of the Pornographers, will get his chance to visit Knox’s native country this November when the band brings the tour in support of Together to Australasia. Although the band are looking forward to returning to Australia, Carl feels obligated to bring the best show he possibly can to the land of the long white cloud – particularly after the band’s last visit in support of 2007’s Challengers.

“The Auckland show we played last time was the drunkest I have ever been on stage,” admits Newman. “There were a couple of songs we should have been able to play in our sleep, like Mass Romantic from our first record [2000’s Mass Romantic ], and Chump Change from our second record [2003’s Electric Version ]… I think I played a verse twice or something, and the whole band was just looking at me, thinking “Holy shit!” When I walked off stage, my wife was there – she came with us on the last tour – and she’s usually the most supportive person in the world. That night, she just looked angry at me, just saying “that was terrible!” I felt so bad, man, I went and apologised to everyone in the band and promised them it would never happen again – and it hasn’t!”

So, if any Kiwis are reading, hear this promise from Carl: “I owe one to Auckland. I’m hoping they come back and let me prove that I can put on a better show!”

INTERVIEW: Ben Kweller (USA), September 2010

Let’s make something clear. I don’t care if you’re a metalhead, a dance nut, a hip-hop head… whatever you are. If you don’t like Ben Kweller, I’m calling shenanigans. The highest order of shenanigans. How could you say not to that adorable, forever-twentysomething face? Those insanely catchy songs? The joy that just thinking of Ben Kweller brings? Naturally, motherfucker brought the sunshine in this interview. Haven’t had the pleasure since, but I did finally get to see him live in 2012. He was really great. Of course he was.

– DJY, October 2014

***

It’s seemingly impossible to find Ben Kweller in an unhappy mood. The chipper singer-songwriter is in high spirits, on the line from his house. He even sounds upbeat about housework: “I did some yard work today!” he reports happily.

Kweller lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Liz, and two kids – Dorian, 4, and Judah, five months. The Kwellers made the move shortly after Dorian’s birth. “A lot of people still think I’m a New Yorker,” says Kweller, formerly of Brooklyn, “but I made the move after I recorded [last album] Changing Horses. It was actually recorded down here in Spoon’s studio – y’know the band Spoon? And after being here for like a month, we were like “man, let’s just move to Austin.” I grew up in Texas, and it’s nice being near my parents – I think it was a good change.”

Aside from raising both his family and his plants, Kweller has been working on a new record. At the time of the interview, its working title is Go Fly a Kite. “It’s basically code for ‘go fuck yourself,’” says Kweller with a snicker. He talks at length and with a great excitement about the album, which marks yet another change of direction from the down-beat Americana of Changing Horses. “It’s definitely a rock & roll record,” he comments. “A lot of electric guitars, piano and what have you. I’m really happy with it.” It also marks a musical change of having significantly less musicians than last time, whittling it down to just bassist Chris Morrissey and drummer Mark Stepro. “I did that one record where I played everything myself [2006’s Ben Kweller ] – and that was fun, and I might try it again sometime, but there’s really nothing like playing with other people. I think the thrill of music can be found in reacting to another person when you’re playing, seeing what they’re doing – y’know, just creating something as a group.”

The way Kweller discusses the lyrics of the record, Go Fly a Kite may also feature some of Ben’s darker work to date. “It’s kind of a grittier subject matter,” he says frankly when asked about the songwriting process. I had a big falling-out with one of my best friends. He had this new girlfriend that just came in and didn’t want him to do anything with the friends he already had and the people who loved him. She just wanted to push him away from everything. So there’s a few songs addressing all that – one called Gossip, and there’s another one called Jealous Girl.” In spite of all this, Ben is also quick to assure that “there’s still that Kweller optimism” when it comes down to it. Don’t let the bastards get you down, right, Ben?

It seems out of character for Kweller to be singing about such interpersonal dramas – he’s usually the type to sing sweet lines like “I’m in love with someone who’s as pretty as a flower” and “I’d do anything you want me to.” The twenty-nine-year-old may seem like one of rock’s biggest softies, but Kweller laughs good-naturedly at the suggestion, adding that he’s definitely “had his fights.” “I just have a different outlook on life,” he continues. “I try to stay positive and deal with the bullshit that comes my way, but always remember that tomorrow is a new day.”

It’s on this note that conversation switches to Kweller bringing his sunny disposition, as well as his two-piece band, to Australia for the first time in about eighteen months.”Oh yeah!” says Kweller with a smile so obvious it can be seen through a phone line. “Can’t wait for that. It’s always so much fun in Australia. I’m ready for my Vegemite in the morning!”

This tour will also see Kweller playing on the south coast of New South Wales for the first time ever, as a part of a three-day blues festival. Despite being a frequent visitor to Australia since the famous Bens tour in 2003 (alongside fellow ‘Bens’ – Lee and Folds), Kweller has never played many places beyond the capital cities. Exploring the country is always a treat for him, however – “I’ve been to a few outskirts,” he recalls. “I had a friend who lived in Geelong, so I’ve been to the suburbs; and I’ve been to the little beach-y towns. I seem to have a good time everywhere I go [in Australia] – the people are always so mellow. Kinda reminds me a bit of being in Texas, actually. The land looks the same, and the people have the right vibe.”