Yoko Ono Grinds Guitars With Thurston Moore at Poland's Transatlantyk Festival

Taking center stage at the three-year-old film and music event: exuberant wails, moans and stutters paradoxically combined with soft-spoken guitar shredding.
Transatlantyk Materials

At 80, Yoko Ono seems to be busier than ever, and as her Aug. 7 joint concert with Thurston Moore showed: she's having a blast.

The two took the stage at Poznan, Poland's hip, three-year-old Transatlantyk Festival of film and music. "This is the first time I'm in Poznan," said the remarkably fit Ono, wearing a black outfit, blue hat, and sunglasses whose spotlight reflections made her look like a bug or an alien with a twinkle in its eye. "And I'm so glad! Hello!" Referring to the clip of her saying the same thing, which runs with movies at the fest, she added helpfully, "You heard me on the video, but this is me."

Ono has never been more herself. She is crushing 2013 with a retrospective art show touring the world as her stage shows rock it, and a forthcoming album, reissues of her catalog, and a career-capstone art book, Infinite Universe at Dawn. She opened the Poznan show with "It Happened," written in 1974 during her separation from John Lennon. But her octogenarian renascence gave the tune an upbeat new meaning: "It happened at the time of my life when I least expected," she sang in full voice, expertly working an echo effect, "Oh, it happened, and I know there's no return."

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Ono's weird trademark gutteral utterances, which Marianne Faithfull pronounced "horrifying" at 1968's Rock and Roll Circus show, have matured into a style that sells. (And Faithfull, whose voice also improved with age, performed in Ono's London Meltdown festival in June.) "Future now!" sang Ono, her descending glissandos sounding faintly like the "ah-ahs" in Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." Even her detractors must admit her future is right now.

Moore, 25 years her junior, was more subdued, but still chipper. He sang Sonic Youth's tune "Schizophrenia" well, and even better was his 2012 post-Sonic Youth tune "Frank O'Hara's Hit," about successive July days when life-changing events happened: poet O'Hara's death, Mick Jagger's birth, Bob Dylan's near-fatal crash and also the day he got "booed off the stage" for deserting folk to go electric -- and Moore's own July birthday. Moore, whose melancholy song evidently expresses his feelings about his life changes -- AARP eligibility, deserting his wife Kim Gordon and their band, finding another mate -- clearly got a contact high in Poznan by dueting with Ono (both ably supported by Poznan percussionist Adam Golebiewski.) His reflective, paradoxically soft-spoken guitar shredding nicely complemented Ono's paradoxically exuberant wails, moans and stutters.

They're a match made in rock heaven, a pair of art snobs. Moore's new band Chelsea Light Moving is named after the furniture-moving service of then-broke unknown composer/movers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Reich was one of the downtown New York rebels in Ono's early-'60s Fluxus art circle (cofounded by Beck's grandpa Al Hansen). Ono would set fire to her own work in concert, and her fame caught fire transatlantically, propelling her to London.

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Long accused of breaking up the Beatles, Ono actually saved Lennon's life. He went to her 1968 art show because he heard there'd be a woman there performing in a bag. Lennon once had what he termed perverted sex with a woman in a bag, an event celebrated in his song "Polythene Pam." "Where's the orgy?" he asked Ono. But Ono's bag performance was conceptual, not sexual. And when she did art about nakedness, it was innocent -- such as her name-making film Bottoms, screened before the Poznan show, comprising totally innocent closeups of male and female derrieres. The day he met her, Lennon hadn't slept in three days, death-spiraling on drugs. Ono reawakened him to his dreams.

Today, Ono is both cute and serious, her songs demanding that we simply defy bad news (such as the Tokyo firebombing she survived and Esquire's headline, "John Rennon's Excrusive Gloupie"). Dancing gently yet passionately beneath chandeliers glittering with her rock and roll stage lights, Ono eloquently expressed her childlike, sky-high progressive ideals in avant-garde yet poppy music. Some of her work was dark, accompanied by video of naked-doll bonfires, but light or dark, she always plays with a will to power that makes Napoleon look like Elliott Smith.

At the encore, Ono told Moore, "Just dig! Who cares?" She strapped on a guitar, walked over to Moore, and embraced him, their strings shrieking with feedback like fingernails on an electric keyboard. About half the audience gave them a standing ovation; the other half seemed deeply puzzled. "I don't think people in Poznan hear much music like this," said one young intellectual in the audience.

As the audience filed out, The Hollywood Reporter asked Varèse Sarabande Records executive Robert Townson, who presided over the label's triumphant 35th anniversary show on Aug. 4 with full orchestra on the same stage as Ono, whether he would offer Ono a record deal. He grinned quizzically and said, "I'll think about it."

Twitter: @THRMusic