By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
London’s annual Meltdown Festival is one of the U.K.’s hippest events. A specially selected curator invites artists he or she wishes to showcase, typically the more adventurous, the better. This year, free-jazz innovator Ornette Coleman assembled a stellar lineup of genre-defining and defying acts — Patti Smith, James Blood Ulmer, the Roots, Baaba Maal and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, among them.
Some of the strongest response, however, was reserved for a 76-year-old performance artist whose blood-curdling singing has been testing audiences’ limits for decades. That would be Yoko Ono, who resurrected the name of the Plastic Ono Band for the group that backed her at Meltdown.
The ensemble included her son, Sean Lennon, guitarist Mark Ronson, singer Antony Hegarty, the Japanese experimental pop group Cornelius and Coleman himself, all of whom also appear on her latest album, “Between My Head and the Sky,” out today.
“I didn’t expect that kind of big applause and all that warm reception,” she said, speaking recently from New York.
Ono has spent most of her career taking wild risks, as she is with the new version of the Plastic Ono Band. She and John Lennon originally gave that moniker to the group that backed them in concert in Toronto in 1969, a performance that was noteworthy as Lennon’s public debut playing with anyone other than the Beatles.
Ono said she opted to revive the name now, because she was interested in exploding the borders that separate styles of music, a creative mission similar to the one that drove her nearly four decades ago.
“That time, I really felt totally out about the fact I’m going to change the world,” she said. “I was really intent on breaking the sound barrier. This one is breaking a lot of forms too. It’s a hodgepodge, like real life. It’s a very delicate way of expressing controversial aspects of music.”
The new collection is nothing if not eclectic. There’s the percolating dance pop of “The Sun Is Down!,” with its repeated minimalist lyric phrases paralleling a patchwork of vocalization snippets; the haunting late-night jazz balladry of “Memory of Footsteps”; and “Moving Mountains,” an instrumental experiment in ambient sounds and rhythm.
Ono’s lyrics for “Waiting for the D Train,” another track that serves as a reminder of the influence her early music had on late-’70s/early-’80s new wave, sound as meticulously crafted as a haiku:
Cueing for my bread
Passing many tunnels
In the cold winter morning
Looking for the end
Ono’s work consistently has focused on defying convention, and she often makes her audience an integral part of her performance art pieces. For her “Wish Tree” installation, which recently spent time in Pasadena, visitors attached thousands of handwritten messages to the branches of 21 crape myrtle trees set up in the courtyard of an outdoor shopping center.
Because she has been so fascinated with art for art’s sake, it’s intriguing to hear her say she also hopes her new music will do well on the charts.
“People joke about how it’s like soldiers getting a medal,” she said of scoring a hit. “But it’s good to have a medal. It encourages you.”
Her vocals, though, haven’t become any more accessible with this newest endeavor. Of her Meltdown performance, a critic for the Guardian wrote: “There are many reasons to wish the 76-year-old Ono well, including her underrated songwriting abilities, her long track-record of avant-garde mischief and her indefatigable good nature in the face of four decades of abuse from Beatles fans, but her vocal stylings are not among them.”
In an odd twist of fate, “Between My Head and the Sky” was recorded in the same studio where Ono and Lennon recorded 1980’s “Double Fantasy” album, released shortly before Lennon was gunned down by Mark David Chapman, a deranged fan. The name of the facility had changed, and Ono said she didn’t initially realize it was the same location. “It was very uncanny,” she said. “We did the basic tracks in six days — the same thing happened with ‘Double Fantasy.’ We had a week to do the basic tracks.”
Her son with Lennon, Sean, designed the album’s cover, a striking photo of Ono seated at a piano, in a top hat and dark glasses, with what appears to be a spray of lotus blossoms blurred in the foreground.
“John and I always thought of our own covers,” she said. “This time, Sean said, ‘I’m doing it,’ and he did it. He’s an artist too. I didn’t want to be that overwhelming Yoko Ono trying to control the scene.
“I’m a control freak, in a way, especially with my artwork and music. This time, I had to get to another level, a spiritual level of understanding. It’s out of love for my son. He’s a good one; he has his own ideas.”