Battle of the Late Night Bands

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The first of the TV bands I remember paying attention to was the Saturday Night Live band.  (I knew of Doc Severinsen and the orchestra on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but everybody knew that was your parents’ show.)

Guitarist G E Smith and then sax player Lenny Pickett were gifted, visible, and telegenic bandleaders, and the band was young and hip and could apparently play anything – either on its own or with its many hundreds of musical guests. 

The SNL band is still great, but that’s just a once-a-week gig.  The bands that have inherited the mantle of Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Orchestra have to play every night.  That requires the ability to play almost anything, at almost anytime.  It’s impressive to watch these bands over the years, though I have to admit that these days I don’t get to see the late night talk shows that much, aside from Jon Stewart and the Daily Show – and they don’t have a band.  But when I do occasionally check in, I see the familiar face of Paul Shaffer on David Letterman’s show, where he has apparently been since the last mastodon walked the earth.  As Shaffer and Letterman have aged, their show – and the band – seems to have grown closer to the old Carson/Severinsen model, which now feels a bit dated. 

But tune in to Jimmy Fallon’s show and you hear something else.  ?uestlove and The Roots… well, I was about to write that “they’re a real band.”  Paul Shaffer’s CBS Orchestra is a real band too, and so was his earlier NBC group, the wonderfully named World’s Most Dangerous Band.  But The Roots are not a made-for-TV band; and for some reason, that makes a difference to me.  So when they play with Fallon’s musical guests, they’re not sidemen – they’re collaborators.  Their performance with Elvis Costello, to take just one example, might be one of the best things that has happened on that show, period. 


Which late night show do you think has the best band?  Leave a comment