On Letterman: “MacArthur Park”

Why did the CBS Orchestra pack the Ed Sullivan Theater stage with 33 musicians and play a five and a half minute version of “MacArthur Park“? Because recently, Letterman was driving around with his son and the satellite radio played this song so many times in a row that the kid screamed “No more caaaaaake!!!”

So, to simultaneously please and annoy his son, Dave asked Paul if the band could do the song on the show. This video encapsulates so much of what I love about the Letterman show. That they could do something so silly and so complicated (and expensive) just because Dave thought it was a funny idea. And: that they have a band that can do damned near anything.

Here’s a coincidence for you: earlier on Monday, a friend of mine and I were talking about late-night talk shows and he praised The Roots as being every bit as good as The CBS Orchestra.

I didn’t disagree with him per se. But I had to raise the point that Late Show With David Letterman presents The CBS Orchestra with many, many more opportunities to show their range and talent than The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon creates for its band, and they’ve had 30 years in which to show off. The band doesn’t just play the show out to commercial and back again. They’re also the house band. Over the past thirty years, they’ve backed up every style and genre and generation of musical guest. I hope The Roots are given the same opportunities (because they’re a terrific band) but I doubt it. It’s a shame, because in their Late Night and Late Show incarnations, Paul Shaffer’s band has proven an immense range and depth of skills.

Here they are, backing up Sammy Davis Jr. as a jazz quartet:

And here they are backing up Mandy Patinkin, playing a Depression-era classic. Stick with it as it builds, all the way to the end:

Backing up Warren Zevon in his final public performance, a goddamn heartbreaking version of “Mutineer”:

Sorry, yes, that’s a huge downer. Hey! Here they are, rocking all the hell the way out with Bruce Springsteen:

Yes, good point…Paul Shaffer assembled his band around the needs of 60s and 70s rock, pop and funk, so that’s well within their wheelhouse. Fine. How about opera? How about a special Top Ten list in which they have to play ten opera pieces?

I wondered if the show might have decided to keep it simple and just hire in a small group of recital musicians with experience in this repertoire, and stuck them behind the scrim. The show often does that when there’s a Broadway performance…the show’s regular musicians are just a few blocks away, so it just makes sense. Well, not only does Renee Fleming seem to be getting her cues from the usual bandstand, but this non-official version includes a cutaway to the band, which shows that the CBS Orchestra is playing appropriate instruments. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Will Lee playing an upright bass on the show before.

Backing up Will Smith for an unexpected extended performance of the smooth hip-hop “Summertime”:

Could the band play classic Broadway if they had to? Sure thing:

Speaking of Kristen Chenoweth, I don’t think Paul Shaffer knew that she was going to sing during her interview, what she was going to sing, or that she was going to sing it in such an unusual key. Nonetheless:

And speaking of spontaneity. Dave was so pleased by The Orwells that he asked them to encore the song as they rolled credits. Well, their guitarist had ripped out his strings during the finale, and the rest of the band didn’t really do anything with the request…so the CBS Orchestra (on hearing the song once, likely) jumped in and performed the encore themselves:

But let’s finish off with something we rarely get to see: the band just playing. Here’s a clip of the music they play during the commercials. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the show in person four or five times over the years and I can attest that the band interstitials are easily as entertaining as the rest of the show. I hope that before Letterman ends his run, he does a whole show of just the band playing:

“Good heavens, Andy!” you would comment, if this blog allowed you to shame me in public comments. “You wasted a lot of time this morning building this list of clips, didn’t you?”

Nope! The Letterman show has had so many fantastic musical moments that I could pluck almost all of these out of an existing YouTube playlist. The others were easy to find because my favorite musical segments of the show stand out just as sharply for me as my favorite interview and comedy moments.

So add this to the list of things I’m dearly going to miss when Letterman retires: getting to hear this phenomenal band on a nightly basis. I’ve read that each of them are busy musicians outside the show, so I don’t suppose there’s much chance of them putting together a tour in 2015. But if they do…wow, that’s gotta be the easiest $77.50 I ever spent!