As we sit here in the 11th hour of David Letterman’s run as host of the Late Show, there’s no shortage of things to look back on… his infamous Top 10 lists, comedy bits, monologues, etc. His 22-year run leading Late Show has produced enough material for a million YouTube deep dives.
That’s what I did, running through some of the show’s most iconic musical performances. Here are my favorites…
Beastie Boys – “Ch-Check It Out,” June 2004
The Boys were supporting their album To the 5 Boroughs, and their performance is 100 percent Beasties, assaulting the streets of Manhattan through a fish-eye lens. There’s matching outfits, endless energy and enthusiasm, and they bound onto the stage at the end with their trademark reckless abandon.
Oasis – “Live Forever,” March 1995
Dave really knows how to introduce a band:
“Our next guests are a great rock ‘n roll band from Manchester, England who’s CD… I have a copy of it here… is called Definitely Maybe, is the fastest-selling album in Britain’s history. And let me tell you something, that country has been selling CDs for centuries. Do me a favor, please welcome to the program, Oasis.”
Black Keys – “I Got Mine,” April 2008
Now that’s the Black Keys I remember. Dan Auerbach looking like a bum, Pat Carney banging away on the drums and, most importantly, it’s just the two of them. They’re a big-time rock band now, but they were just as powerful as a two-piece as they are now, augmented by touring musicians.
St. Paul and The Broken Bones – “Call Me,” January 2015
St. Paul and the Broken Bones were one of my favorite bands to come out of 2014. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was a fan.
“I want you to beat this to death, seriously,” Letterman said. “I want this to be like the first time.” He went on, “I’ll tell you something, the first time I heard this song, I was screaming ’til I cried… that’s what I want. Can you do that for me tonight? It won’t be your fault, but if I don’t get that, I’m gonna stop the show and do it over!”
Letterman proceeded to talk about them like they’re kids down the street playing in a garage band who he just happened to stumble upon. He beams like a true fan.
The performance is pretty great, too.
Rage Against the Machine – “Guerrilla Radio,” November 1999
Rage Against the Machine, nearly inciting a riot on 53rd Street and causing controversy by giving the finger on TV? Sounds like Rage Against the Machine.
Amy Winehouse – “Rehab,” March 2007
Winehouse — making her American television debut — looks like something from another planet, a dangerous combination of scary, sexy and sassy. She also looks incredibly fresh, and you can’t help but feel sadness watching it, knowing how things would pan out for her.
At The Drive-In – “One-Armed Scissor,” December 2000
Good God, I can only imagine what some of the audience must have thought about this. At The Drive-In had so much power, like a rocket ship blasting off or a bulldozer powered by 100 percent testosterone. It makes sense that the band wouldn’t last very long. No way what they were doing would be sustainable.
Al Green – “Tired of Being Alone” / ” Let’s Stay Together,” December 2014
“This is all you want my friends… Al Green.”
It is all I want.
Primus – “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” 1995
“Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” would go on to score a Grammy nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance. And the penguin suits they wore on Letterman? Funny story about those…
“…Yes, penguin suits. The members of Primus were such big Letterman fans, they figured they’d go all out and wear the costumes from their latest video. So after sound check they went down to the dressing room, and suited up in their big floppy penguin wear. “Well,” recalls singer Les Claypool, “this woman came down and looked at us, and she had the most bizarre expression on her face. She came back down with the main lady, who books the show, and she asked us, did we wear these suits all the time, I said no, we just did it for the show. She totally freaked out that we had done this thing without telling anybody. We went upstairs.”
Foo Fighters – “Everlong,” February 2000
Letterman called “Everlong” his favorite song and Foo Fighters his favorite band. So, for his first show back after quintuple bypass surgery, Dave Grohl and company delivered a blistering performance of the song, complete with Paul Shaffer on keys.
It was at this point that I realized my YouTube binging could go on for hours. It’s as if every stage of my interest in music was represented. Some performances I remember watching in real time, some I had only heard of. Some of the performances I had no idea even happened. But it was the scope and range of the performances that really stuck out for me; you could find anything from a recent performance by Action Bronson, to the Strokes when they were first hitting the scene, to an early appearance by Arcade Fire promoting their first album, to an early ’80s performance by James Brown, to a Jay Z and Eminem set on the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater, and even to Beck being joined by Borat.