It was a tumultuous year for late night laffs, with Jimmy Fallon joining the fray, Conan taking over Tonight only to find awful Leno sink the NBC ship at 10PM, and Letterman enjoying career-high ratings despite (or because of?) a sex scandal. It was, however, a solid year for late night music booking. We regularly saw bands leap from our backyards and comments section to network television, and indexed highlights for you the mornings after. Here’s a look back at a dozen memorable late night TV jams in reverse chronological order. It kicks off with last week’s surprise in which a Stroke and some ex-SNLers revisited a yuletide classic.
Julian Casablancas, Jimmy Fallon, Horatio Sanz & The Roots – “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” (Jimmy Fallon) 12/21/09
If it was any other song, the mere fact that a Stroke was performing with the Roots would be enough to make this worth watching. But it wound up something more, both an updated trip down memory lane and a semi-reunion of the Christmas-sweatered “I Wish It Was Christmas” principals (see: Jimmy Fallon and a svelte Horatio Sanz). Plus, it allowed Julian to look cool and natural and make up for this.
Weezer – “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” (David Letterman) 10/29/09
Rivers and band continue taking turns that leave some longtime fans in the cold, but their killer performance of the Raditude standout “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” with the Late Show band cast the new Weezer in the best light possible, showing that after all these years they’re top notch performers who are still capable of churning out a straight-up stellar pop song.
The Flaming Lips – “Watching The Planets” (Conan O’Brien) 10/13/09
Sadly NBC has scraped this from the YouTube and Hulu archives, but kudos to the Lips for holding nothing back in the single freakiest Tonight Show performance in recent memory, throwing NBC’s late-night viewers into a four-minute ’60s psych rock stupor. (Consider it the precursor to Wayne “holding nothing back” in the fullest.)
Dirty Projectors – “When The World Comes To An End” (Jimmy Fallon) 9/28/09
Always looking forward, Brooklyn-scene chairman of the board Dave Longstreth took an opportunity to plug his 2009 triumph and instead brought a bit of the suite he penned for Björk, Mount Wittenburg Orca, to Late Night. The dizzying vocals from Amber, Angel, and Haley made a lifelong fan out of Questlove (“I would follow y’all to the ends of the earth“), who months later would join the DPs on the Bowery stage for a tour-closing “Stillness Is The Move.” (And later still, Questo would invite Haley and Amber to join the Roots with Mos Def and Black Star for the Fallon show’s Black Star reunion.) Any performance capable of all that certainly belongs on a list like this.
St. Vincent – “Marrow” (David Letterman) 6/24/09
Annie spared no instrumental part in corralling a sizable backing band to recreate the Disney-swirling, staccato-sax jagged beauty of “Marrow” in Letterman’s studio. No one track does more to touch on all of St. Vincent’s pulse points; that this blend of her muscular and vulnerable sides went down so smoothly in a live televised setting, though, is what strikes the hardest. Watch it below, Ted Leo.
Grizzly Bear – “Ready, Able” (David Letterman) 6/16/09
Grizzly Bear set off a hypestorm with a pair of late night performances last year, so it’s fitting that one of their performances from this one lands on the list too. After being bumped last minute from their original date, Grizzly Bear returned to the Ed Sullivan Theatre set to impress with the ACME string quartet and Ed Droste’s voice in its finest form for a swooning (and defining) take on the Veckatimest standout.
White Rabbits – “Percussion Gun” (David Letterman) 5/18/09
A lot of you couldn’t believe this one was left off certain lists of the year’s top songs. For those that didn’t agree, watch this and change your mind.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Zero” (David Letterman) 4/14/09
Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ visit to Letterman in 2009 came in the early stages of their synth-pop makeover, which meant Karen was relatively stoic, making sure to nail every note of the Blitz! anthem at the expense of her trademark scenery-chewing shenanigans. And it turns out Ms. O’s an irresistible focal point even while playing with the power of her voice and presence alone. By the time YYYs toured this stuff, the yoga moves and power kicks were back in the mix, and she was again sitting alone at the top of the shortlist for this generation’s bona fide rock stars. O-verdose:
Phoenix (Saturday Night Live) 4/3/09
Phoenix’s almost suspiciously pitch-perfect three-song set at Saturday Night Live was the Wolgang coming out party, stealing the show from host Seth Rogen and no doubt helping them on their road to playing every late night talk show possible. Also helping: every song on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
Cursive – “From The Hips” (David Letterman) 3/13/09
This was the network television debut for the longtime Omaha rockers, and all those years of waiting unleashed on the Ed Sullivan Theatre in a titanic explosion from Cursive’s hips, charming the pants off the studio audience and one David Letterman. The song is a paean to primitive instinct, and this performance is its four-minute embodiment. “Don’t want to mumble what I’m trying to say, I want to scream it from my foaming mouth”? Check. “We’re at our best when it’s from our hips”? Check. Have you watched this before? Check it, please.
Antony & The Johnsons – “Aeon” (David Letterman) 2/18/09
Last and the very opposite of least comes this show-stopper from Mr. Hegarty and his Johnsons. The Crying Light was a conceptual triumph that took Antony on a sold-out world tour with intermittent stops at local talk shows, none more visceral than this take on “Aeon” for Mr. Letterman. Backed by a rhythm and string section recreating Nico Muhly’s gorgeous compositional contributions, Antony loses himself in this fluttering ode to Aeon, interjecting “uhhs” to punctuate lyrics, bobbing and throbbing at the piano like some Ray Charles-on-Arthur Russel hybrid minstrel. Paul Shaffer never lied; he took the power back.
Finally, no offense to Craig Ferguson, whose often terrific Late Late Show didn’t make the list this year. It’s gotta be hard for any band to compete with those cold opens…