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Six of the greatest 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' musical performances

Whilst he may have a mandible of Jimmy Hill or ‘The Crimson Chin’ proportions, Jay Leno is so much more than that. He’s one of the most iconic comedians of our time and also one of the most controversial. 

He first cut his teeth on America’s well-trodden stand-up circuit, taking his cues from the likes of Johnny Carson and Rodney Dangerfield, before truly making it when he started as a regular substitute host for the former on NBC’s The Tonight Show in 1986.

In 1992, he became Carson’s permanent replacement, in what was a controversial move as many, including Carson himself, expected David Letterman to be his successor. However, it was not to be, and Leno hosted The Tonight Show between 1992 and 2009. 

Leno left the show in September 2009 to front the primetime talk show, The Jay Leno Show on NBC; however, it was cancelled in January 2010, amid yet more controversy. Going back to the drawing board, Leno returned to hosting The Tonight Show on March 1st, embarking on his second run, which lasted until February 2014, giving us more iconic moments. 

Whilst both runs were not safe from controversy, as this had become expected of Leno, who is known for his forthright behaviour and style of comedy, there is one key feature of his tenures on The Tonight Show that endure in the common memory, the musical performances. 

As is tradition for the iconic show, Leno had a whole host of musical guests join him in the studio to perform their latest cuts. Ranging from the iconic to the dated and the obscure, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was once one of the best places to catch the hottest music out there, and for three different generations, it did not disappoint, often introducing viewers to their new favourite artist. 

Therefore, today we’ve listed six of the greatest musical performances that occurred on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Expect to see some classics and forgotten gems.

Six great The Tonight Show with Jay Leno performances:

Faith No More – ‘Midlife Crisis’

Where else but to start than with alt-metal legends Faith No More? Famous for their outstanding performances across their career, Mike Patton and Co. always had the uncanny ability to attract fans and gain haters at the same time, owing to their wild fusion of funk and metal. 

Without a shadow of a doubt, frontman Patton is the band’s secret weapon, and on this 1992 performance of their hit single ‘Midlife Crisis’, he shines. He’s energetic, and his surreal lyrics about a menstruating heart can be heard loud and clear. Added to this is that the band is tight as hell, and as a group effort, it ranks right up there. 

PJ Harvey – ‘Rid of Me’

Another early ’90s moment comes courtesy of Dorset’s favourite export, Polly Jean Harvey, AKA PJ Harvey. For the performance, she delivers a stellar rendition of ‘Rid of Me’, the opening track of the 1993 album of the same name.

Harvey is met by a thunderous round of applause as she’s introduced by Leno. She then pounces into the track and performs with only her Fender Telecaster. This performance was indicative of the solo career that PJ was about to embark on following the departure of her backing band, and confirmed that she didn’t need a band to captivate, the magic starts with her.

Suede – ‘Metal Mickey’

Suede’s timeless second single, ‘Metal Mickey’, is one of the highlights of ’90s alt-rock. Fusing the glam attitude of Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie, with the attitude of the flourishing grunge movement, there’s no wonder that Suede quickly rose to become one of the world’s hottest bands on the back of singles such as ‘Metal Mickey’. 

This performance also confirms just how they managed to captivate both sides of the Atlantic with such ease. This rendition of the 1992 hit is flawless, and the band’s resident guitar hero, Bernard Butler, shines with his busy, slidey work. The song also goes a little heavier towards the end, and it’s a touch of genius.

Radiohead – ‘High and Dry’

Even though Radiohead have since gone on to become the world’s most prominent experimental band, with records such as Kid A and A Moon Shaped Pool, you cannot doubt that even though it is markedly different to their more recent efforts, their second album, 1995’s The Bends, is a masterpiece. One of the most iconic cuts on the record was the single, ‘High and Dry’, which was another of the Oxford band’s earliest crossover hits.

From the time when the band had only just become massive, it was only right that they perform on America’s most famous nighttime TV show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. As is customary for Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Philip Selway, the band are as tight as can be, and all deliver their parts with verve. Jonny Greenwood is excellent here, and his use of the MXR compressor to achieve some of his high-pitched tones is simply legendary.

Björk – ‘Big Time Sensuality’

Icelandic queen of pop, Björk, has given many great performances on US TV shows over her long and decorated career, but her 1993 appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno ranks right up there. She and the band storm through her hit single ‘Big Time Sensuality’, and it is incredible.

Her vocal delivery is on point, and it was one of the first times that American audiences were properly introduced to one of the most significant musicians of the modern era. Prepare to be blown away. 

Slipknot – ‘Duality’

This will definitely feel like a rogue entry for some readers, but I just had to include Slipknot, performing their 2004 staple, ‘Duality’. Here we see the classic lineup, featuring late bassist Paul Gray and drummer Joey Jordison tear the studio up, and confirm that at that moment in time, they were the most visceral band in pop music.

Dynamically, the band are at the top of their game, as is frontman Corey Taylor, who delivers his vocals with the accuracy and power you’d expect from one of the most influential figures in modern metal. 

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