On Monday, New Orleans piano master Allen Toussaint, soul survivor Bettye LaVette, horn-studded funk band Antibalas, ambitious punk rocker Bob Mould and more than 20 other acclaimed musicians playing in disparate styles will gather at Carnegie Hall to perform the music of Paul Simon.
Michael Dorf is the man who will bring them there.
Dorf, who has quietly become one of the foremost promoters in New York, has chosen Simon as the subject of his 10th annual tribute concert. ´The Music of Paul Simon´ follows similar events dedicated to Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and other beloved songwriters with wide and varied repertoires of memorable songs that invite interpretation.
´I’m like a kid in a candy shop,´ says Dorf, 50, about his annual selection of a tribute subject. ´There’s no shortage of great artists who we’d like to have as the honoree, and there’s never, ever a shortage of great musicians who want to come out and honor their favorites. We’ve had some incredible artists play at these tributes, and this roster is no exception.´
Dorf doesn’t know if Simon will show up at the tribute. But he’s a lifelong Simon fan, and when he put together a Simon & Garfunkel tribute for Central Park’s SummerStage in 2010, he was impressed by the artist’s graciousness. (Simon also visited City Winery, Dorf’s handsome Tribeca club, earlier this year to attend a performance by his son.)
Once Dorf announced his intention, he found plenty of artists eager to participate.
´The beauty of this series,´ he says, ´is that it’s not about replicating what the honorees did or capturing their intonations. It’s about hearing the performers reinterpret and sometimes reconstruct songs that are already well known. Because it’s coming through their voices, you pick up something about the song that you didn’t hear when Paul was singing it. They’re all great songwriters themselves, and they understand what makes these songs work.´
They’re also all performing for an honorarium. These tributes raise money for music education programs targeted toward underprivileged kids, and Dorf is serious about getting as much of the ticket money to the charities as he can. Carnegie Hall doesn’t come cheap, but Dorf believes the venue helps the effort.
´Carnegie is so special,´ says Dorf, who lives in New York but is originally from Wisconsin. ´It’s as prestigious a room as you can get, and because of that, it helps elevate everybody’s expectations. Many of the artists that we end up having at our tributes have never even been to Carnegie Hall. It’s got such a history that it makes them a little nervous, and maybe gets them to step their games up a bit.´
It also couldn’t be any more different from Dorf’s original New York venture. In 1987, he co-founded the Knitting Factory, a ramshackle space on East Houston Street that became home to unconventional jazz artists and rock bands and unclassifiable experimental musicians. Some of the first experiments in webcasting live performance were done under its roof.
The Knitting Factory’s personality was distinct from all other Manhattan clubs, although many have tried to copy its alchemy: It was urbane, seedy, technophilic and courageous. It felt like a house of cards, but Dorf built it into a success — and in 1994, he moved it to a multi-stage performing arts center on Leonard Street.
´There was never much of a calculated business plan,´ he says. ´Our goal was to learn and see what happened. I was 23 when we started the Knitting Factory, and I had very eclectic tastes. I had the idea of creating a club that had a Jack Kerouac jazz thing, with poetry and music, but it wasn’t all that well thought out.
´It was much different than City Winery, which was from the beginning all about exposing singer-songwriters to an audience that wants to have a complete experience: music, food, and wine.´
The Knitting Factory continues in Brooklyn, with branches in Southern California, Reno, Nev., and Boise, Idaho. Dorf, however, has nothing to do with the current company: He left it a decade ago and now devotes himself to tribute shows, festivals and City Winery, which he’s expanded to Napa, Calif., Nashville and Chicago’s West Loop.
It’s not lost on Dorf that property values in the neighborhoods where he’s opened clubs have escalated in a hurry. There was little of interest to a music fan on East Houston Street when he began the Knitting Factory; now, that strip is a center of pop culture.
´My dad always told me,´ he says, ´that I should have gone into real estate.´
The Music of Paul Simon
Where: Carnegie Hall, Seventh Avenue and 57th Street, New York
When: Monday at 8 p.m. with Heart, Judy Collins, Sam Moore, Bettye LaVette, Bob Mould, Allen Toussaint, Josh Ritter, Angélique Kidjo, Madeleine Peyroux, Mike Gordon, Richard Marx, Antibalas, John Doe, Bob Forrest and Gibby Haynes, others
How much: $48 to $160; call (212) 247-7800 or visit carnegiehall.org.