Great Musical Performances with David Letterman

On Wednesday night, David Letterman ended 33 years in late night talk shows with a montage set to live music by the Foo Fighters. Any Late Show historians would recognize “Everlong” as the song Dave asked for when he came back from a hiatus following his quintuple bypass heart surgery. He wanted something “peppy,” and Foo Fighters delivered the pep. It was appropriate. See that original performance, which they interrupted their South American tour to do, below:

There was a time when late night talk shows, particularly the Tonight Show, was a kingmaker and validation for all entertainment: if you were a stand-up comedian that played the tail end of the show, you know you’d made it. If you were a band that got to be the musical guest, that was how you’d break through. That’s not the model anymore, and wanna tastemakers are everywhere (hello!) but it was a romantic notion that is, officially, non-existent. The times change! And with all the old guard officially being tucked away, I gotta believe that David Letterman was the last of that era. It was refreshing to see that a band could still make their name with just a balls-out performance, as Future Islands did last year:

Sure, Jimmy Fallon sings along with his guests and the Roots put on great shows when they integrate with bands, but they aren’t gatekeepers. What was interesting about Letterman was that he didn’t like everyone. Jay Leno was constantly cordial, Jimmy Fallon is everyone’s biggest fan, but Letterman was absolutely okay with letting an interview go sour. He did it with Madonna, with Joaquin Phoenix, with Harvey Pekar and countless others. So if he liked you, if he liked your band, it felt like getting the thumbs up from the king of self-loathing curmudgeons:

There was, of course, television debuts. Sonic Youth in 1992 (“Avant garde,” said Letterman. “quite lovely ladies and gentlemen,” said Paul.) or REM in 1983:

Sometimes people would use it as a stage for big statement performances with props and effects, or just really kill it with charisma:

Importance and legacy is something that takes a while to build up. It’s like interest in your savings account. So while Kimmel and Fallon and Colbert and Corden and TBS Conan may, eventually, become big moments for bands, for now we’re in a strange transitional period. SNL is probably the only stage that has that level of infamy and history. But there are more late night stages now more than ever, and it will be interesting to see if, in the modern age, anyone can create such a bright spotlight.

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