Pour One Out for the Music of 'Conan': An Appreciation

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Courtesy Photo
Conan O'Brien performs with Jimmy Vivino & The Basic Cable Band on Conan.

As his house band plays its final show & musical guests are no more, revisit the 25 years of music O'Brien brought to late night.

On the night of September 13, 1993 a young, virtually unknown writer made his grand entry into comedy infamy. Against all odds, Conan O’Brien would go on to become an indelible part of the pop culture landscape, whether through his stints hosting both Late Night and The Tonight Show on NBC and later on TBS as host of Conan. Throughout his run, one major through line complemented O’Brien’s improbable ascent over the past quarter century: a penchant and passion to showcase music, whether through inviting musical guests, ranging from the cutting-edge to the bizarrely obscure, or his own house band.

It’s a melodic era that came to a close this week as O’Brien, whose show transitions from a traditional hourlong talk show to a half-hour program that focuses on remote pieces, said goodbye to both the idea of booking musical guests and, most emotionally, his own band. For the latter, bidding adieu to the group of musicians that accompanied O’Brien for the entirety of his existence as a television host no doubt comes as a stark change for longtime viewers who grew as accustomed to the swinging group, first anchored by drummer Max Weinberg and in later years by the guitarist Jimmy Vivino, as much as O’Brien himself. The parting of the ways was also a major one for O’Brien in a personal sense, with the host showing a rare streak of emotion during their final episode. Noting that his band even performed during O’Brien’s 2002 wedding (trekking to Seattle during the winter, no less), O’Brien was frank: “There are many, many changes coming up that I’m really excited about, but to be really honest and very frank, there’s one change on the horizon that makes me quite sad.”

It was during O’Brien’s initial run as host of NBC’s Late Night that first introduced viewers to what was then the Max Weinberg 7. As legend goes, O’Brien and Weinberg had a chance encounter in front of the Carnegie Deli in 1993, shortly after NBC recruited the talk show host to step into David Letterman’s gargantuan shoes. At the time, Weinberg was known as the longtime drummer for Bruce Springsteen’s famed E Street Band (touring with The Boss since the '70s) and imparted O’Brien with some ideas he had for the musical direction of the show. When it came to house bands for talk shows at the time, Letterman’s new CBS gig had Paul Shaffer who slanted toward rock and pop, and The Tonight Show’s Jay Leno was led by the jazz and blues guitarist Kevin Eubanks. Weinberg’s group would have a slant toward swing and a pronounced horn section, a concept hearkening back to the days of Johnny Carson’s bandleader Doc Severinsen. It turned out to be an essential juxtaposition to the intensely silly comedy O’Brien’s talk show would become known for. Hearing a Frank Sinatra ballad immediately following a recurring comedy bit, like for example The Masturbating Bear (which, for those unacquainted, was exactly what it sounds like), turned out to be a classy antidote and provided a deft balance. It also didn’t hurt that unlike, say, Shaffer, with his groovy glasses and hip outfits, Weinberg most closely resembled a tax attorney. Eventually, the show’s instrumental soundtrack became synonymous with fans of Late Night, which famously floundered in the ratings until Conan became a hip force in the genre and developed an ardent fan base, going so far as to release an album of the show’s music in 2000.

Along the way, and with five hours a week of airtime to fill, O’Brien and his writers would mine the members of the house band for fodder. Playing off of Weinberg’s pent-up image, he’d often be portrayed as a sexual deviant in sketches. Trombonist Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg would provide his odd falsetto for what would become O’Brien’s most well-known early comedy bit dubbed "In the Year 2000," which featured parody predictions about the then-future. Even long after O’Brien’s much-publicized departure from NBC to TBS in 2008 and the Max Weinberg 7 morphed into the aptly named Basic Cable Band (after losing Weinberg during the transition), O’Brien still generated material to rib the musicians -- or to have them rib him, with a recent recurring bit featuring bassist Mike Merritt providing some tongue-in-cheek racial commentary.

While the house band provided fitting bookends to Conan’s humor and interviews, it was performances from a wide array of musical guests that typically filled the show’s final slot, starting with Radiohead, the show’s first musical guest. Thanks to longtime booker Jim Pitt (who was replaced by Roey Hershkovitz in 2017), O’Brien’s tenure prided itself on the cutting edge, offering television debuts for the likes of future superstar acts ranging from No Doubt and Green Day to The Black Keys and Portugal. The Man. More recently, BORNS and Alabama Shakes both made their late-night debuts, with the latter band playing free shows and opening for the Drive-By Truckers just months before the powers that be at Conan caught wind of the group. In 2009, the show featured a then-unsigned Drake, months after the release of his breakout mixtape So Far Gone. 

Of course, the show also showcased legends as well: David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, scores of appearances from Weinberg’s pal Bruce Springsteen or annual holiday turns courtesy of Tony Bennett all turned in memorable appearances. Other musical milestones include the final U.S. performances from The White Stripes in 2009, and Beck, Billy Gibbons and Ben Harper joining Conan and Will Ferrell for “Free Bird” on his defiant final episode on NBC. Perhaps that’s why as recently as 2013, Forbes called Conan “the musician’s best bet on late-night television.”

So pour one out for the music of Conan, from both the guest musicians he’s gifted our ears with to the house band that endeared itself to a cult of fans -- the latter of which it’s apparent O’Brien himself will miss the most. “Since we began this journey 25 years ago, my band has been a daily source of joy in my life. These remarkable musicians have given their talent, energy, enthusiasm and incredible showmanship for 4,000 hours,” he said on the band’s final show. “To put it very simply, I love these guys.”

Watch O'Brien's final performance with the band below.