5:45, 30 Players and One Majestic Performance: David Letterman Explains the Musical Universe

The Late Show with David LettermanEvery once in a while, a kind of majestic performance of an equally majestic song will play out on one of the late night talk shows. Last night’s blast of majesty happened on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater at the end of the David Letterman show, in the typical spot usually inhabited by the musical flavor of the moment–some band shrouded in long hair, barely facing the audience, emoting some hit song that the kids are currently digging.

But last night on the vaunted stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater, approximately 30 players, armed with their cherished string instruments, horns, tympani, and keyboards gathered to amaze and delight and astound the audience with their reverent, energized rendering of Jimmy Webb’s 1968 masterpiece, “MacArthur Park.” Accompanying Paul Schaffer and the ace CBS orchestra, Webb, transfixed by the magical aura in the room, played the harpsichord lines that propel the song into the first and subsequent verses. And, anticipating one of those moments that can not be repeated, the audience settled in.

Letterman used the segment that followed the opening monologue to relate a funny story about driving around town with his son Harry and hearing Richard Harris and Donna Summer sing “MacArthur Park” on “the satellite radio,” at which point Harry screamed “That’s enough cake!” Letterman subsequently asked Shaffer if the song could be done on the show; Shaffer replied that he could get it together.

And boy, did he. After dedicating the performance to Harry, Letterman settled in and Shaffer put the wheels in motion. The sound of the glorious, punctuated harpsichord and the start of bassist Will Lee’s intoning of the first, leading lines –“Spring was never waiting for us girl, it ran one step ahead, as we followed in the dance” happened, the whole orchestra following under and around, the concentration on the faces of the string players assured.

“MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet, green icing flowing down,” Lee sang, plucking his bass guitar knowingly, punctuating the affair. “Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don’t think that I can take it ’cause it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe again, oh no.” The “no” is extended, as it should be, breathing heavily, assuredly, and finally trailing off in a quick, knowing whisk.

The instrumental section, in which the strings and horns and traditional rock instrumentation become one in a musical wind tunnel, energizes the players as they carry forward the melody, the weight of each note, the ample joy that flows through Webb’s masterful melody. Felicia Collins, wailing with a rocking guitar solo, was more than outstanding. Our collective spines start tingling at first light with just a touch of flavor and then, suddenly in gear, it all roars to a crescendo as Lee begins to sing the last verse, now having climbed up the back of a colorful cake, a purely ingenious touch that mirrors the somewhat psychedelic, hippie vibe of the song. The string players join some of the others in a long, protracted smile, which only serves to heighten the love in the room, the magic of song as it swirls around you and takes you to a higher place.

And then, the song completed in what Letterman announces was a pocket of time lasting five minutes and forty-five seconds, the host makes his way over to the stage, overtaken by musicians overtaken themselves with joy, shakes Shaffer and Webb’s hands, and the hand of a string player who rises from her seat, perhaps somewhat fearful that her legs will give way because that’s what happens when the music is in you and doesn’t let go. Letterman suggests, overjoyed, that the band play the song again, and for just a split-second or so, the suggestion seems like a good one, but the show is over and it’s time to go.

Moments like this happen rarely and usually without fanfare. News of this moment, once it hit the Internet, spread like wildfire, which is all at once triumphant and a bit odd, because so many people seem to think so little of “MacArthur Park.” Because it’s a bit weird, perhaps? Because the record is over seven minutes long? Who knows? The record is a classic slice of 1960’s songwriting and record making prowess, and this performance is perfection because it pushes all of the right buttons and–you can see it on everyone’s faces–it is the moment, a great moment, elevated by the strong consideration of all 30 of the players on the stage. And to have Webb there, moving from one keyboard to another in a flawless switcheroo as Shaffer deposits himself at the front of the collective, just makes it even  a better experience.

This performance is like Harry Houdini somehow slipping out of a tightly-closed straitjacket in full view of an audience. How did they do that, exactly? How did 30 people combine to deliver such a piece of musical magic? It’s one of those things that defies an answer. We would guess that when 30 or 50 or 500 people are in the right space, and happily sharing that space, magical things can and do happen. And, as if, this night it did. What a scene!

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