- 10 Apr 20
It's a very special event when someone seizes the moment and delivers the kind of performance you’ll never forget, via the medium of a Late-Night Talk Show. So what are the very best performances, across the world, of the past five years? Read on to find out!
A Late-Night Talk Show. What exactly is it for? I think maybe I have an answer to that conundrum. The answer.
The streets are empty now, and silent. That fertile space between our ears however, has never been more ripe for harvest: good and bad. The words “now more than ever” are taking a hell of a beating. Using them adds a certain gravitas to whatever you’re about to say: NMTE we need to be socially distant. NMTE we need an Oasis reunion. NMTE we need shitloads of booze in the fridge. And, if the media that suffocates our inboxes is anything to go by, now more than ever, we need lists.
Now. More than ever. It’s as if Christmas and New Year hooked up and had a kid, and that kid is the COVID-19 list of pretty much every goddamn thing imaginable. I get it, though. We need arbitrary lists of unimportant things to sustain us during these all-too-serious times. Not ‘to-do’ lists. No, we need frivolous arguments over who was the most talented left-back in the history of the Premier League (Francis Benali).
We need to rank Colin Farrell movies, and Friday Night Lights episodes. We need to, because otherwise, we are just sitting ducks who, in the words of Josh Ritter, are waiting for the whiskey to whisk us away, and the ashtray to lead us astray. WE NEED LISTS. How else do you think Brian Keenan and Jon McCarthy passed four years chained to a radiator in the south suburbs of Beirut?
The problem with lists of course, is the possibilities are infinite. How, I asked myself, are we supposed to know where to start? Which is when it dawned on me. This is what a Late-Night Talk Show is for. To have a list done. But not just any old list. A special list. I am starting to breathe more easily now.
Below, you will find the best live Late-Night Talk Show musical performances of the last ten years, ranked number 5 to 1.
You’re not convinced. You’re in the mood to be contrary. Why, you ask with emphasis, this particular list?
There is something different about the late-night talk show band appearance. It’s as if we the audience can sense the performers realisation – no doubt hyped by booking agents and record labels – that this is big. No amount of Tiny Desk Concerts on NPR can give you the exposure afforded by one balls-out performance on David Letterman. That then is the single term of reference: leaving it all out there, and seizing the motherfuckin' moment.
5. Father John Misty: 'Only Son of a Ladies Man', on David Letterman.
“I swear that man was womankind's first husband
They all died in a line to save him
I'm a steady hand, I'm a Dodger's fan
I'm a leading brand, I'm one night stand
I'm a ladies man”
This was Josh Tillman as we had not quite seen him before. The one-time Fleet Foxes drummer, full-time Father John Misty was much more familiar to us looking like an out-of-work (by choice, of course) Brooklyn Barista; all cardigans and scuffed hipster boots. Here, on Letterman, he emerged a matinee idol. This performance of his track Only Son of a Ladies Man is a musical manifestation of Kavanagh's wink-and-elbow language of delight; a cracking song delivered with a booming vocal, swagger, some legit moves, jazz hands, and a bass player who definitely knows something the rest of us don’t. Don’t just watch this once.
4. Big Thief: 'Not', on Stephan Colbert
Big Thief had a year last year. Two acclaimed albums, littered with songs that populated many end of year best-of lists. Yet, despite the critical applause, they are still far from the mainstream. This performance on Colbert’s Late Show – not exactly a bastion of great musical cameos – would’ve undoubtedly made those at home, half-asleep with Bud Lites in their lap, sit up and take notice. There is anger here. And defiance. And a lunatic drummer. And cracking lyrics delivered by a firebrand front woman Adrianne Lenker, who seems intent on etching these four minutes and 19 seconds into your brain. All juxtaposed against the professerly setting of Colbert's set. Let this be your intro to one of the bands of the now.
3. Sigrid: 'Strangers', on Graham Norton.
Some classic critiquing tropes to trot out here, so best get them out of the way early; pared back. minimalist simplicity. Blue jeans. White t-shirt. Great pop song and an even greater pop-star. All very Scandinavian. Oh, the precociousness of youth. Well, if Colbert’s show was the last place you expected to see a crowd of indie misfits burn a memorable hole in your head, Graham Norton's stage was made for Sigrid on this night in 2018, and the Norwegian singer songwriter, then just 21, delivered like an old pro. Perfect song. Perfect direction. Perfect routine and perfect personality for the moment. Even if this weren't your cup of tea, it would shame any and every cynical bone in your body, and likely make you feel young again. This was like watching Simone Biles jump across your living room. Sigrid will no doubt have a long and successful career, but never quite nail a moment as profoundly as this.
2. Future Islands: 'Seasons', on David Letterman
Speaking of old pros. There was little to prepare us for what was to come. Maybe it’s a man thing. Maybe it’s the inevitability of middle age, but, as veteran Future Islands front man Sam Herring waited in the green room of David Letterman’s show in 2014, you’d wonder did his agent text him: “You’ve got 5 minutes chief, DONT FUCK THIS UP!”. Whatever. The simplest thing to do as the singer of a journeyman band a dozen years on the go and getting their network television debut, would’ve been to play it safe. And, as Herring appeared on stage dressed like an off-duty Yorkshire vicar, or your friends dad who’s also your geography teacher, expectations of those watching would've been relatively low. But, gloriously eschewing conventional wisdom, Herring swung for the fences in a performance that defies description. He made a good song great, and in an immortal routine that gets better with every watch, would make each and everyone of us want to be better men. “I’ll take all of that you got!” roared Letterman afterwards. In the unlikely event you’ve never seen this, watch it, then watch it again. It’s very energy would stop a deadly virus at your door.
1. Sinead O’Connor: 'Nothing Compares 2 U', on the Late Late Show.
Recency bias? Maybe. Patriotism? Perhaps. But, those who saw it will likely never forget it. I nearly fell out with my friend over this. He liked it, he said, but the vocal was off. Her voice, not what it used to be. Thirty years after she released it. Thirty fuckin years. Michael Collins was dead at 32. Thirty years is a lifetime. When Sinead O'Connor came on to the Late Late stage, wearing a red hijab talking about how she was “as Muslim all my life” , we, as a collective judgmental nation, no doubt unpacked our prepared tut-tutts as we had done with Sinead O’Connor her entire public life. “Sinead is broken,” we’d say, choosing to ignore the words of Eugene O’Neal, that “man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” That night, it was O’Connor’s voice and presence and personality that was the glue. And maybe, as a result, we all mended.
“I know that living with you baby was sometimes hard, but i’m willing to give it another try,” she sang. Maybe, just maybe, O’Connor was speaking to us. Maybe after 30 years of us using and abusing her talent, it was us she was forgiving. Maybe. My friend was right, of course. Her performance was not perfect. Just like us all. And within that subtle imperfection was all the poetry we needed. What we could agree upon – my friend and I – was the best part; it was't even her voice, or the music, but those last few seconds when she looked into the soul of each and every one of us, eyeballed the camera, smiled and waved. In that moment, she did indeed achieve the unachievable: perfection.