The Best Late-Night Musical Performances of January: Sturgill Simpson, Seventeen, and More

Last month also featured solemn tributes, visions of the future, barroom singing, string sections, and multiple Jacob Colliers.
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 1392A -- Pictured in this screengrab: Musical guest Pa Salieu performs on January 21, 2021 -- (Photo by: NBC)
Pa Salieu on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon"

Like nearly everything else, late-night musical performances don’t look the way they did a year ago. It’s not just that musicians in these contexts are playing to mostly vacant studios or places with a single-digit number of audience members.

It’s that a growing number of artists and bands with spots on network talk shows are slowly figuring out a new form that exists somewhere between concert and music video. Of course, that’s a line that was pushed well before last spring. (Take Spike Jonze’s live-to-tape video for Karen O & Danger Mouse’s “Woman” or Travis Scott’s euphoric “goosebumps” on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”) But what used to be a rare occurence has inched a lot closer towards the norm. With packed studios still a possibility in the distance, this new way of bringing music to these shows is giving musical acts and the shows they appear on a little more freedom.

Since music is a key part of what fuels so many of these network late-night talk shows, we thought we’d start a monthly recap of all the best that the past few weeks had to offer. For this installment, we’ve gathered a list of 10 of our favorite performances from January, presented in chronological order:

Sturgill Simpson, “Life of Sin” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”

Sturgill effectively kicked off 2021 as the guest on Fallon’s first Monday show of the calendar year, and he did it with a straightforward burst of energy. The set may be stripped down, but he’s throwing vocal haymakers as only he can in this freewheeling ode to doing whatever feels good. And it’s not just him who’s giving a much-needed jolt: Sierra Hull doing some harmonizing and shredding on the mandolin helps put this one over the top as an early-month gem.

Jamila Woods, “SULA (Paperback” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”

“On a difficult night, we thought we’d end with a beautiful song.” That’s how Colbert introduced this performance, mere hours after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Woods’ performance, as part of a simple floral tableau, has both the solemnity and affirmation that made it an ideal counterbalance to the horrific events of the day. Even when removed from that context, there’s still a great power in the song — inspired by the Toni Morrison novel — that also comes through in its “Hardcover” version.

Seventeen, “Home;Run” on “The Late Late Show with James Corden”

This ascendant K-pop answers that burning question: What would happen if the behind-the-scenes staff of a late night show all dropped their clipboards and headsets and broke into a strikingly detailed dance routine? Transplanting to this “backstage” environment is an impressive way of adapting a lot of the choreography for the music video (without having to bring over any subplot about stolen diamonds in the process). The bookending story flourish ends up being a real Rorsharch test to see if being stuck at Television City in an infinite loop is your greatest dream or your worst nightmare.

Future Islands, “Plastic Beach” on “Late Night with Seth Meyers”

Putting Future Islands on a “best of late night” list is like having Mike Trout’s name on a list of MVP finalists. It’s just going to happen. There’s always a tension in knowing that there’s an arc to their live performances, that where you start is not exactly where you end up. The Samuel T. Herring turn isn’t quite as stark here, but the up-and-down waves of the song’s melody, coupled with the swirling camera moves, make for just the kind of spirit you need in a post-midnight slot.

Jacob Collier ft. Mahalia, “All I Need” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”

The live/pre-taped hybrid format is a no-brainer for Collier, who’s quickly made a name for himself over the last half-decade by becoming a prolific self-accompanist. Tackling a handful of different instruments and a (presumably nightmarish for any audio tech) lengthy list of harmonies, it’s fun to see a tiny regiment of Colliers all playing at the same time. (For a sampling of what this all looks like with just a single person on stage, check out his “Late Late Show” appearance from a few weeks later.)

Pillow Queens, “Liffey” on “The Late Late Show with James Corden”

The empty-studio-as-warehouse vibe is becoming a go-to for some of these performances (Finneas managed to flip it and turn an empty warehouse into a studio). But few groups can fill that space with a sharpened shoegaze-adjacent sound quite the way this quartet from Ireland can. Those opening harmonies hint at a much different song than the one that unfolds after. There’s a distinct pulse and drive to this song that will end up crackling even more whenever they get the chance to play in front of a captive live studio audience at some point in the future.

Infinity Song, “Mad Love” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”

There’s a tiny sense of triumph in seeing a group this big get the chance to perform together. Live performances blending a string section and the number of intertwined voices are a challenge under any circumstances — to have a blend sound this good outside a studio setting is a real treat. (Same goes for The Soul Rebels who, along with Big Freedia and Tarriona “Tank” Ball, tossed a booming horn section into the mix.) The build on this performance in particular is gorgeous and gradual in the way that you’re not entirely aware of how much it’s changed until it ends up at its finishing point.

Peter CottonTale, Chance the Rapper and Cynthia Erivo featuring the Chicago Children’s Choir, Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras and Kofi Lost, “Together” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”

As different shows tried to figure out how to mark Inauguration Day, no single segment captured the feeling of the moment better than this all-star collaboration. An electrifying blend of spoken word, choir, symphony, and rap, it also represents the idea that the actions of the future will affect people of all ages. Erivo returns to the show just over five years after giving the show arguably its greatest moment to date and Chance gives the song a turbo boost near the end. A key element of what really makes this stand out is the stage design, complete with a backing wall that helps all these words have their power in the seeing, not just the hearing.

Pa Salieu, “Frontline” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”

Whether it comes from the performance itself or the staging, there’s something exciting about watching someone make an area feel so much bigger than it actually is. There’s the opening scale model and the market front (haven’t we all just wanted to chuck produce off-camera while we’re singing?) and the ending light towers that make this self-contained filming space feel like four different locations swirled into one. Add in the slight sound dips when Salieu gets on the car or takes off his jacket at the end and you have an ideal mix of orchestrated and spontaneous.

Fontaines DC, “A Hero’s Death” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”

If nothing else, it’s fun to see Fontaines D.C. on a late night show after their standout music video for this song from last year starred Aidan Gillen as a TV presenter in a spiral. In practice, this is one of the best marriages of style and song, all set in a bar somewhere in that odd middle ground between packed and ghostly. The camera hovers around the spaced-out band members (and the random other patrons) as understated as lead singer Grian Chatten’s vocal styles. The moment it clicks what’s playing on the giant screen next to the bar elevates the overall performance that much more.

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