But we were only guessing. So hundreds of us descended on Liberty Lunch on Saturday night to see whether Sean Lennon could deliver. The dubious and the optimistic packed the cavernous space that is Liberty Lunch, and when the junior Lennon-Ono walked onto the stage for his big-venue debut, a Les Paul strapped to his lean 23-year-old frame, every eye in the house turned his way. Relentless industry schmoozers stopped schmoozing. Drunk rock fans went sober. Journalists dropped their cigarettes underfoot and moved in closer. Raw curiosity washed through the room like a flash flood. Damn it, man! That's John Lennon and Yoko Ono's kid. Can he play?
Well, yes. Mostly, anyway, and he may be onto something pretty solid. He was flanked by the members of Cibo Matto--the pair of Japanese house-music darlings he's collaborated with for the last year or so--and his still-new set was grounded in progressive urban sounds: sampling and looping, melodic effects-layering, and lilting Euro-pop. Then he tossed in slight references to the R&B that his dear ol' dad found so inspiring. The results: lightly engaging, well-crafted songs with some intriguing techno hooks and familiar harmonies. (Some would call this harmony "Beatles-esque." The term is moot; what multi-voiced band since the Fab Four doesn't employ this?) A cleverness, if not an untapped sophistication, weaved through the arrangements (an interesting counter to the plodding, unfocused guitar pop his older half-brother put out a dozen years ago). In fact, the young Lennon has managed to pull off what he obviously enjoys while sidestepping the expected and ignoring the pressure of trying to pioneer anything. Granted, the lyrics belie his neophyte status: "I'm stepping into my spaceship/I'm on my way home now." There's still some kid in him.
But he carries himself like a pro. Cracking jokes between songs, he was eager but relaxed. He smiled a lot. He looked just like John Lennon...no, Yoko...no, John. With his horn-rimmed glasses, bleach-tipped scruffy black hair, and stooped shoulders, he came off like a guy whose Manhattan upbringing never wound him too tightly--an articulate jokester as interested in the scoop on the next warehouse party as he is in the contents of the White Album or the influence of early Fluxus art. By the third song, the audience was thoroughly smitten.
A bit later he introduced the one cover of the set, the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," and while he half-apologized to those who wouldn't "get it," he respectfully dedicated the song to the recently deceased Carl Wilson. Embellished with less techno texture than the other tunes, this rendition's strength was in the simple grace of Lennon's vocal harmonies blending with his bassist's--no ugly, flat bellowing here. The members of the audience who knew about the mutual admiration between Brian Wilson and John Lennon looked on happily. Oh, this is cool. John would've dug this. And even without the historic context, it was cool. Not presumptuous or precious or obtuse. Just thoughtful and pretty.
As the set and his test rolled toward a close, the normally distracted industry audience continued to watch the boy like mesmerized children looking in on a baby chimp exhibit at a zoo. So what was the actual attraction? The music was sometimes better than decent, promising though never mind-blowing, and not nearly as powerful as the set that Austin's own Sixteen Deluxe had played on the same stage 30 minutes earlier. Did the younger Lennon inherit his dad's charisma? Or was the audience giving Sean that power because of the mystique of his circumstance? His father was shot to death when the boy was five years old. He was raised by his mother in the most stimulating, culture-dense city on the planet. He was born into the cult of celebrity, and won't escape it. But young Sean has a chunk of the patrilineal, and perhaps matrilineal, gift built right into his system. His performance on Saturday night showed a slice of it, and the audience felt it.
To his credit, he's taken some wise steps on this path to rock stardom. He's kept his profile low and stuck by the New York musicians he befriended early; his solo record, Into the Sun, is due out soon on the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label; he chose an opening slot on a stage at SXSW as the place to try out his live-show chops. But he'll never make an appearance without his parents' legacy hung heavy round his neck, making his own trek all the more precarious. Boy, you're gonna carry that weight a long time. So far, so good.