Conan O’Brien ended his 28-year run as a late night talk show host in June when he hosted the final episode of his TBS program Conan. Like other late night shows, one of the hallmarks of O’Brien’s programs were musical performances up until Conan had its runtime truncated to half an hour in 2019.
In this article, we’re focusing on performances from his 1993 to 2009 run as the host of Late Night. His predecessor on that program, David Letterman, made it one of the best places to catch music on late night TV in the 1980s and early ‘90s and O’Brien continued that trend during his tenure. Also, it’s much easier to find VHS uploads of old Late Night performances on Youtube than it is from O’Brien’s runs on either The Tonight Show or Conan at the moment.
When O’Brien was selected as the host of Late Night following Letterman’s departure from the program, he was a relative unknown, whose name was only known to hardcore fans of The Simpsons as the writer of three of the show’s best-loved episodes, and not as a host or television personality. There were many industry who predicted that Conan would flop and get the show canceled due to the awkwardness of his early episodes. It took a few years, but he proved those doubts wrongs by becoming a dependable, funny late night host who both continued the offbeat tone of Letterman’s Late Night while carving out his own legacy. His musical guests were part of that, too. At first, he could not get the big names that would come through Jay Leno’s Tonight Show or Letterman’s new CBS Late Show, and as a result his show regularly booked acts who wouldn’t have otherwise appeared on network TV.
Suede – “The Drowners” (1993)
Suede were the band that kicked off the Britpop movement in the U.K., landing on the cover of Melody Maker magazine as the “Best new band in Britain” before they’d even put their first single out. They went on to release one of the most important British debut albums of the entire ’90s, which didn’t get the same response across the Atlantic in the US, where the band was soon rebranded as The London Suede due to a lawsuit (A note to Brit readers: That’s still what they’re called here, but most American fans still just call them Suede). While Suede’s debut was not a significant commercial hit in the US, they did promote it by appearing as one of the first musical guests of Conan O’Brien’s Late Night tenure, playing the glammy art rocker “The Drowners”, the same debut single that got Melody Maker so excited in the first place.
Jawbox – “Savory” (1994)
In his early years hosting Late Night, O’Brien’s show regularly acted as a showcase to a variety of guitar bands signed to labels big and small. Jawbox, a Washington D.C. band who were highly influential on later post-hardcore and emo bands, put in a great performance of their only significant radio hit “Savory” here, and you can also find fascinating clips of bands like Morphine, The Spinanes, Superchunk, Lush, Fishbone, and Hum on Conan’s show on Youtube.
The Greenberry Woods – “Trampoline”
This name probably doesn’t ring a bell to a lot of readers. The Greenberry Woods were one of many power pop bands signed by major labels that didn’t really get the chance they deserved. If you think Fountains of Wayne or Teenage Fanclub were underpromoted, at least they got on the radio; this band had one single that got played on MTV and then Sire Records gave up on them after two albums. “Trampoline” is a fine, catchy song with an indelible melodic chorus, and if you like this kind of jangly indie pop, you’ll love this one. Clearly Conan was impressed by them because he also invited them over to his couch for an interview too.
Tito Puente – “Para Los Rumberos” (1994)
Near the end of his life, legendary Afro-Cuban jazz percussionist Tito Puente became an omnipresent pop culture figure. That was in part due to his appearance in documentaries and the two-part Simpsons episode “Who Shot Mr. Burns”, but also television appearances like this one that showcases his virtuosity on the timbales.
Blackstreet – “Before I Let You Go” (1994)
This was one of the first television appearances of ‘90s R&B stars Blackstreet, a few years before they topped the Hot 100 with “No Diggity” performing their first big hit. Most of the Conan musical footage on Youtube is of rock bands – we could not locate videos of Salt N Pepa or Tony! Toni! Tone! For this feature – and it’s great to see this excellent performance up in full.
Belly – “Now They’ll Sleep” (1995)
Belly are from my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island and it was cool that there was a band from here that was getting national attention when I was growing up. This wasn’t even Belly’s first appearance on Late Night, they were on one of the very first Conan-hosted episodes playing “Gepetto” from their debut Star, but it’s the best of the two appearances. “Now They’ll Sleep” was one of the excellent and catchy singles from their underrated sophomore album King and they put on a great performance here. Belly wouldn’t last too long after this, breaking up in 1996, but they’re back together now and are definitely a band to check out live if they come your way post-pandemic. Other great Late Night alt-rock performances from the mid and late ‘90s include The Cure performing both “Strange Attraction” and “Boys Don’t Cry” and Pulp performing “Party Hard”.
King Crimson – “Dinosaur” (1995)
How did this happen? Prog legends King Crimson have rarely appeared on television over the years and I’m pretty sure this is only their second appearance at all on American TV in particular (The first was their two-song performance on Fridays in 1981). Also, prog rock wasn’t especially hip in the mid-90s either, so it’s interesting that they even got a slot. And it’s good that they did because their Late Night performance is fantastic TV. Here, the band play a track from THRAK, their first full length album in a decade and appear in their “double trio” six-piece formation. This is a neat piece of prog history that should be better known than it is.
Phish – “Farmhouse” (1997)
If you ask a Phish fan what the best year to see the band live was, you’re very likely to hear 1997, due largely to their Great Went festival and beloved fall tour dubbed “Phish Destroys America” in which they played some of the best concerts of their career. But between that festival and tour, Phish stopped by The Late Show to promote their then-recent live album Slip, Stitch and Pass. Instead of playing a song that appears on that record, though, they debuted a brand new song. “Farmhouse” is one of Phish’s most accessible and folkiest songs, and it wound up being a fan favorite before appearing as the title track to their 2000 studio album.
Aretha Franklin – “Freedom of Love” (2002)
By the time the new millennium rolled around, Conan O’Brien had shaken off any doubt and awkwardness that had once surrounded his Late Night and his show had become a reliably offbeat and zany closer to Jay Leno’s comparably anodyne and safe Tonight Show. He also started booking some real gets in terms of musical guests. Case in point, here’s Aretha Franklin in an at-the-time uncommon TV appearance singing “Freeway of Love” on his show after an interview. Aretha being Aretha, she turned in an incredible performance that is one of the best musical moments in the history of Late Night.
Rilo Kiley – “Portions for Foxes” (2004)
Moreso than even in the ‘90s, Conan’s Late Night was seen as the go-to spot for indie and rock bands on late night TV in the mid-to-late 2000s. It became the kind of show where The White Stripes could stop by for an entire week. You can find great performances by Franz Ferdinand, My Chemical Romance, and Explosions in the Sky, but we’re highlighting Rilo Kiley here performing their 2004 indie classic “Portions for Foxes”.
Rilo Kiley also played this on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show while they were promoting More Adventurous, although that clip isn’t in the best quality on Youtube. This Conan performance is a good example of how great Rilo Kiley could be in their prime as one of America’s best guitar bands.
The same year Rilo Kiley appeared on Late Night, O’Brien was officially announced as the next host of The Tonight Show when Jay Leno retired from the program in 2009. What happened after Conan took over that 11:35 P.M. timeslot is…messy, and probably better left to Wikipedia for the details, but Conan continued to book cool musical guests during his show Tonight Show tenure: Wilco, Andrew Bird, Regina Spektor, Gomez, Smokey Robinson, Cheap Trick, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Paramore, Tegan & Sara, and Rosanne Cash, just to name a few. Few to none of those clips are still on Youtube though, due to NBC’s systematic erasing of his tenure from memory. Still, aside from his skits and monologues, Conan O’Brien’s long run as a late night host should be remembered for his consistent support of musical acts just like his idol Letterman was.