by Hays Davis, Richmond.com

There’s a fact about Yoko Ono that has been obscured over the past few decades due largely to her life and work with her late husband. Early in her career, Ono became an acclaimed and influential artist in her own right through her development of fascinating conceptual and performance pieces.

Having established herself in New York City in the early 1960s, Ono undertook a boundless presentation of ideas. “Painting To Be Stepped On,” where participants joined in completing the artwork with their footprints, challenged the notion that artwork had to be placed on a wall for observation. Human suffering and loneliness were at the center of “Cut Piece,” performed in Tokyo, in which audience members took turns walking onstage to cut away pieces of a kneeling Yoko’s garment until she was naked.

Ono and John Lennon’s first contact was at a November, 1966 preview of an exhibition of the artist’s work. Reportedly unaware of Lennon’s association with the Beatles, she passed a card to him containing a one-word message: “Breathe.” By 1968 they were recording together, releasing the experimental “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins.”

It was in 1969, the year Yoko and John were married, that the Plastic Ono Band first appeared, performing at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival. Eric Clapton, bassist Klaus Voorman (who designed the cover art for the Beatles’ “Revolver” album) and drummer Alan White (later of Yes) joined John and Yoko for a set that was recorded and released as “Live Peace in Toronto 1969.”

The band name surfaced again the next year with the release of the solo albums “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band” and “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” with various performers in attendance for the recordings. As the couple moved on to other projects, however, aside from being referenced on John Lennon’s 1975 singles collection “Shaved Fish,” the Plastic Ono Band name lay dormant for more than thirty years.

Since Lennon’s death in 1980, Ono has remained creatively active, and a growing list of alternative artists have acknowledged her influence, with some recording covers of her work (the 2007 collection “Yes, I’m A Witch” gathered covers and remixes from DJ Spooky, Flaming Lips, Cat Power and others). She only saw her greatest commercial success fairly recently, achieving number one hits on Billboard’s Dance/Club Play Chart with “Walking On Thin Ice (Remixes)” in 2003 and then the following year with “Everyman…Everywoman…”

September saw the release of Ono’s latest album, “Between My Head And The Sky.” Recorded with son Sean Lennon, musician/producer Cornelius, and multi-instrumentalist Yuka Honda (formerly of Cibo Matto), along with other players, it was Sean who had the idea of looking to the past when considering what to call the group. “First of all, my son suggested, ‘It’s about time you put an album out,’” said Ono, speaking from New York City.

“Sean’s the one who said, ‘Please use ‘Plastic Ono Band,’ the name.’ And I said, ‘Why do we do that?’ Then I realized I was blocking it because John passed away and I just didn’t know about it, but then suddenly all this memory came back, like John was saying, ‘Well…call it Plastic Ono Band.’ And this is Sean saying it. Sean’s, of course, thinking about Dad. I said, ‘Okay. We’ll do it.’ And it worked out very well, I think.”

“Between My Head And The Sky” is a wildly vibrant showcase for Ono. She throws herself fully into a stylistically varied set, whether she’s singing over the gentle “Healing” or the torch-y “Memory Of Footsteps, or adding her trademark freeform vocals to the pounding rock of “Waiting For The D Train,” or speak-singing with the dance pulses of “The Sun Is Down.”

Yoko and the band mesh perfectly throughout the album, though Ono is succinct when discussing everyone’s involvement. “If you read the credits, it’s words and music by me. Not one word from them. They’re musicians, and they’re very good musicians. Sean was the music director. He was the producer, and did a great job of producing.”

If Ono seems particularly direct in regards to the album’s division of labor, it’s clear that she was moved by the recording experience, and her respect for the younger band members is apparent. “When I’m in a studio I get totally inspired by the music, the surrounding, the environment, the musicians,” said Ono, still palpably excited by the activity. “It all just comes out. It’s not correct to say that all my other albums were like that.”

“I hit very well with these young musicians. When I say, ‘Okay, well, let’s do this song this way, they just do it. It’s amazing. They can do anything.”

At this stage of her career, Yoko Ono seems to have little use for the notion of discerning whether a new creative concept of hers is accessible or obscure, mainstream or avant-garde.

“Well, mainstream, non-mainstream, that’s your word. I don’t consider it non-mainstream; it’s just me.”