The game had already been changed by this point, but a week ago, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Jeff Beck teamed up for an appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” I watched, riveted, and I was reminded that Fallon’s show has revolutionized what we’ve come to accept as the standard for live music on late-night television.
Beck and Wilson offered a hair-raising, sniffle-inducing medley of “Our Prayer” and the traditional “Danny Boy.” It was profoundly beautiful and, also, rather far from the mainstream idea of what late-night television should be doing when it comes to music. Look at Jay Leno, who will surrender his 11:30 p.m. slot to Fallon in 2014. Leno has popular artists show up, lets them play a tune, and that’s it. The musician is treated just like the movie star on Leno’s show – as someone who is there to hawk their latest product.
In this environment, mainstream music – contemporary pop, country, the stuff that sells – is really the primary concern. David Letterman has always stretched this conception – he was rather famously told that his plans for music on his show were “too alternative” for mainstream television. (See Bill Carter’s book “The War for Late Night.”) Letterman has always had Paul Schaeffer to lead the show’s excellent house band, and he’s done some very cool things, musically speaking, over the years. One of the most memorable took place when he devoted an entire episode to the terminally ill Warren Zevon, a brilliant songwriter of whom Letterman was a serious fan. This was touching, unexpected and brave, since Zevon is revered by his peers and by a devout cult audience but is hardly an artist who bothered the mainstream too often.
Conan O’Brien was hip to the idea of expanding late-night TV’s horizon when it came to music, too. He hired E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, who assembled a killer ensemble to provide a soundtrack for the show. O’Brien leaned more toward Letterman than Leno in his musical bookings, too, and having Weinberg on board surely brought some guests to the show who might have otherwise skipped it.
But Fallon? Fallon was different right out of the gate. He hired the Roots – the finest hip-hop/R&B/funk band in the world – as his house band, thereby proving himself incredibly hip. He would introduce a band as a knowledgeable fan – unlike Leno, who, if he actually cared about his musical guests, never seemed to let on to this fact.
Fallon and crew would do “theme weeks,” where artists would be honored with “tribute” performances by a hip selection of musicians. He proved himself to be both a talented musician and a talented mimic, dressing up like Neil Young to sing Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair Back and Forth” in character, with the help of Springsteen, in a hilariously self-deprecating performance. Fallon even had Phish on his show. No other late night spectacle was going after the jam-band audience with anything resembling conviction. (Having Dave Matthews on doesn’t count.)
Most recently, Elvis Costello released an album he made with the Roots – the fruition of a relationship whose genesis occurred when Costello was a guest on Fallon’s show. So Fallon’s influence on the world of music has officially become tangible. On Monday, Fallon will celebrate the release of Pearl Jam’s “Lightning Bolt” with a week of festivities dedicated to the band, including performances from Chris Cornell with the Avett Brothers, Fleet Foxes, PJ guitarist Mike McReady with country star Dierks Bentley and the Roots, and finally, two nights of Pearl Jam. All of this suggests that Fallon has the hipster quotient pretty much sewn up.
He has the Roots to thank for much of this. Anyone who knows music knows this Philadelphia band is more than legit. Its presence offers visible proof that this show gets it when it comes to music. The list of up-and-coming indie bands, about-to-break alternative rock acts and just plain weirdos populating the Fallon show roster drives this point home firmly.
Will any of this change when Fallon moves to Leno’s spot next year? We should all hope not. Fallon and the Roots have radicalized the live music performances we see on television. They’ve changed the game, upped the ante and laid down the gauntlet for anyone else who would like to be taken seriously in this field. For that, we owe ’em one.