Most black-tie gala tribute concerts are so lame that they tend to diminish the significance of the honoree´s work. With the thought of a Paul Shaffer all-star jam featuring Joss Stone screaming ´you got the cool water when the fe-ee-eee-EEE-ver runs hiii-IIII-uh-uh-iii-uh-uh-high,´ I approached the Library of Congress´ First Annual Gershwin Award concert honoring Paul Simon with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation. The reason so many of these tribute shows are bland and, frankly, boring is that the evening´s backing band ´“ while no doubt very fine musicians ´“ are unfamiliar with the complex subtleties that make an artist´s catalog truly noteworthy. So my fears were dispelled as soon as I entered the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C. and saw Steve Gadd´s drum kit ´“ I knew that this was going to be serious.
Choosing Paul Simon´s own tour band ´“ an outrageously talented and sympathetic group of musicians ´“ to back the guest musician´s was a stroke of genius. The band members this evening were: Clifford Carter (piano, organ), Tony Cedras (accordion, syntheziser, guitar), Steve Gadd (drums, percussion), Mark Stewart (guitars, mandolin, vocals), Harper Simon (guitars, vocals), Jamey Haddad (percussion), Bakithi Kumalo (bass), Jay Ashby (trombone, percussion), Andy Snitzer (saxophones), Jim Hynes (trumpet). The music played this evening truly reflected Paul Simon´s compositional genius and ´“ at the end of the show when the auteur himself performed ´“ substantial vocal abilities. The following is a slightly expanded series of notes that I made during the concert and gives a bit of a clue for what to expect from the PBS broadcast scheduled for June 27. The only disappointment is that the three hour concert will be edited in half ´“ down to 90 minutes ´“ for the broadcast.
The opening song was an instrumental version of ´The Boy In The Bubble´ which I assume will run under introductory credits. The first guest vocalists of the evening were Shawn Colvin and Allison Krauss who performed ´The Boxer´ in a version plagued by feedback. Shawn played acoustic guitar and sang lead, while Allison sang very nice harmony and doubled her fiddle with Jim Hynes´ muted trumpet on the instrumental verse. Following the last chorus, Jerry Douglas played an instrumental verse on dobro.
Mark Stewart on mandolin and Tony Cedras on accordion joined the dobro master to give the performance a very rustic quality.
Bob Costas introduced Lyle Lovett who performed a remarkably facile ´50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.´ Harper Simon left the stage for this number while Mark Stewart switched to acoustic guitar and the Jessy Dixon Singers contributed energetic background vocals. Ira Tucker has been with The Dixie Hummingbirds since 1933 and is still a powerful singer at the age of 87. The Hummingbirds have been reinforced recently with younger members including amazing bass singer Cornell McKnight. The horn section - Jay Ashby, Andy Snitzer and Jim Hynes ´“ gave real punch to the choruses while Jay Ashby´s mournful trombone solo between the choruses and verses was reminiscent of his ´You´re The One´ tour performance.
Bob Marley´s son, Steven Marley, followed with ´Mother And Child Reunion.´ This version was reminiscent of the original studio recording which featured members of Toots & The Maytals but featured a prominent and funky horn line. Harper Simon joined Mark Stewart on electric guitar, while Vincent Nguini played the rhythm guitar part on another electric guitar. Cliff Carter contributed tasty organ licks and the Jessy Dixon Singers sang backup.
A video clip of ´Under African Skies´ from The African Concert video preceded the entrance of Ladysmith Black Mambazo who sang a riveting version of ´Homeless,´ which lead singer Joseph Shabalala co-wrote with Simon. Shabalala maintains an incredible energy level, continuing his high kicks even though he is well over sixty years old. Ladysmith is always a joy to see and hear and this performance was no exception.
Bob Costas told the anecdote about Mickey Mantle asking why he hadn´t been included in ´Mrs. Robinson´ (Simon´s famous response: ´syllables´) and introduced a video clip of Paul performing a solo acoustic ´Mrs. Robinson´ at Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium.
James Taylor and The Dixie Hummingbirds followed with a really nice version of ´Slip Sliding Away.´ J.T. played acoustic guitar, Mark Stewart and Vincent Nguini played electric guitars, and Cliff Carter contributed some very tasty organ licks. Hummingbirds´ bass singer, Cornell McKnight, really stood out on this performance. His voice is an operatically pure bass with tremendous range and vibrant tonal color. James Taylor clearly enjoyed singing with him.
Poet Billy Collins gave one of the few completely unnecessary performances of the evening, a recitation of his poem ´Sunday Morning with the Sensational Nightingales,´ backed up by gospel humming from ´“ who else ´“ The Dixie Hummingbirds. OK, so Collins is a former poet laureate and the poem was ok and even tangentially relevant but this was supposed to be the music of Paul Simon and not be about the music of Paul Simon. I did like the humming, though.
Lyle Lovett and Buckwheat Zydeco took the stage next with Tony Cedras also playing accordion. Steve Gadd and Jamey Haddad set up a great groove with washboard player Sir Reginald Dural (Buckwheat´s brother). Andy Snitzer and Mark Stewart each took a very hot solo, while Lovett´s vocal was (to me) surprisingly good.
Lorne Michaels introduced a collection of clips from Saturday Nite Live, including the complete ´Homeward Bound´ with George Harrison. Lorne recounted how for many years he has lived in the same building with and just across the hall from Paul Simon. ´When I´m asked how it feels to live across the hall from a genius, I always say ´˜ask Paul,´´ Michaels deadpanned.
James Taylor followed the SNL clips with one of the many highlights of the show ´“ and a truly bizarre moment. Taylor sang ´Still Crazy After All These Years´ accompanied by Clifford Carter on electric piano. Andy Snitzer took the sax solo and Tony Cedras played a string ensemble synthesizer. I´ve never been a James Taylor fan, although of course I´ve respected his talent. His performance of this song, though, converted me. I could never have imagined any singer other than Paul Simon performing this signature tune but Taylor demonstrated a skill so great it made the performance seem effortless. There were times during Taylor´s singing that I felt I was listening to a precisely tuned instrument. Bizarre moment? During the coda, Taylor vamped ´still crazy, I´d be still crazy, I´d be mad-dog f**king crazy, after all these years.´ That may be enough to get it clipped from the PBS broadcast, which would really be a shame.
A short Woody Allen (!) film about George and Ira Gershwin was followed by Dianne Reeves with her own jazz trio singing the Gershwin tune ´Our Love Is Here To Stay.´ She then sang a very jazzy version of ´Something So Right.´ Reeves has a powerful voice with a beautifully rich timbre that she enriches with a mastery of lyrical subtlety and nuance. She used those gifts to great effect here and turned in a wistful rendition that was miles away from the original version recorded by Simon. She showed that Simon´s songs don´t require his crack road band in order to live and breathe.
Charles Grodin introduced a film montage of various performers, including Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and a military band at Ronald Reagan´s funeral, playing ´Bridge Over Troubled Water.´ At this stage of the show, Paul Simon was still seated in a V.I.P. box with Edie Brickell and their children. During the short film, Paul seemed to sag physically and I saw Edie put her head on his shoulder to comfort him.
Yoland Adams joined Jessy Dixon to duet on ´Gone At Last,´ another highlight of the evening. The band really cooked with Clifford Carter on organ and Tony Cedras on piano. The horn section gave the song a much bigger sound and the performance seemed to take off like a rocket. I gave my first standing ovation of the evening for this one, although the rest of the crowd didn´t seem as impressed as I was. ´Fools,´ said I, you do not know´¦.
Costas introduced yet another film, this time narrated by Tom Brokaw. Phillip Glass followed with Bizarre Moment No. 2, a solo version of ´Sounds of Silence´ on the grand piano. My note for this performance says only ´weird!!!´ Glass transformed what essentially is a simple folk song into a harmonically complex, even dissonant in places, work hinged on a three note minor key riff. Every few bars a trace of the original melody would come through and then Glass would shove it back under his technique. When I glanced at the V.I.P. box during this one, Simon appeared to enjoy the performance. Maybe when I see the broadcast I´ll be able to understand this one, but then again, maybe not.
Elmo and Grover from ´Sesame Street´ followed with ´The 59th Street Bridge Song.´ Grover: Wow, that song is short! Are all of Paul Simon´s songs that short?
Elmo: Yes, Paul Simon is a well-known short song writer.
Marc Anthony entered to perform ´El Condor Pasa´ with Harper Simon, Vincent Nguini and Tony Cedras playing acoustic guitars, Mark Stewart playing mandolin, Jamie Haddad playing a variety of percussion instruments and Steve Gadd moving from his trap set to stage right, by the horn section, to play a big red conga that looked vaguely like an oil drum. Anthony turned in an overwrought vocal that made it seem like he had just reached an epiphany in learning that ´a man gets tied up to the ground.´
´Late In The Evening´ was another story, however, and Anthony´s vocal abilities and personal charisma fit the song perfectly. The guitarists all switched to electric guitars and the horn section took full advantage of the opportunity to ´blow that room away.´
Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas followed with a very country version of ´Graceland´ with Douglas playing the signature riff on the dobro. This was one of the most radically altered Simon tunes of the evening (although compared to Glass´ performance, it seemed like a note-for-note transcription of the original record). Harper played acoustic guitar, Mark Stewart played electric guitar and Tony Cedras played accordion. Steve Gadd, Jamie Haddad, and Jay Ashby played an interesting percussion line that didn´t interfere at all with the acoustic feeling of the new arrangement. Douglas´ dobro playing again was outstanding.
At this point, Shawn Colvin and Allison Krauss performed ´The Boxer´ again, presumably because of the sound problems that had plagued the first effort. This time, the feedback waited until Krauss started to play the instrumental interlude on her fiddle. Perhaps they´ll be able to edit the two versions of the song to create a single acceptable performance, but the technical problems may well prevent this song from making the broadcast.
James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, nervously introduced Paul Simon who entered the stage with Stevie Wonder. Paul sang ´Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard´ accompanied by Wonder on harmonica. Wonder´s harmonica playing has always amazed me; he plays a bluesy style on a big chromatic harmonica which has much thicker reeds than a standard diatonic harmonica. Yet Wonder is able to bend those thick reeds effortlessly to create a stunning technique. At times on ´Me And Julio´ Wonder´s harmonica sounded like Airto Moreira´s cuico on the original recording. Simon clearly has a lot of affection for Wonder and the performance was a real standout of the evening.
Paul then introduced his ´brothers from South Africa´ and sang ´Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes´ with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This was another bright moment in an evening filled with highlights. After Ladysmith had danced off the stage, Paul introduced his old friend and partner ´in argument,´ Art Garfunkel.
Simon & Garfunkel sang ´Bridge Over Troubled Water´ in a version very similar to the ´Old Friends´ tour version. Art sang the first verse and Paul sang the second verse but without the reggae rhythm from the 2003-2004 tour. Paul strapped on an electric guitar and the two sang in harmony on the third verse until the ´sailing right behind´ part. Art gave one of his most impassioned performances, letting it all out for the last sixteen bars. I thought that he might have cut off the end a bit abruptly but that may have been planned. Art´s singing was a very fitting tribute to the man who wrote so much wonderful music.
Simon & Garfunkel continued with ´Cecilia´ although the sound gremlins returned and Art´s microphone appeared to be off for much of the first verse. Paul followed with a beautiful version of ´Father And Daughter´ that he sang straight to his children in the V.I.P. box. Paul and Vincent played acoustic guitars on this, while Mark Stewart played electric and Harper played a nylon string classical guitar. This was another highlight for me and one that I hope makes it into the final broadcast for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that it was the only post-Graceland song of the entire evening.
The evening ended with Stevie Wonder on grand piano, joining Paul Simon and The Dixie Hummingbirds on ´Loves Me Like A Rock.´ The group really sizzled, with Simon taking the first verse and Ira Tucker singing the second verse. Wonder missed his cue on the third verse and stopped the song. The blind singer explained that he had ´misread the cue cards,´ causing everyone on stage to laugh. Simon instructed the group to ´take it from the top´ and Wonder and Tucker engaged in an extended call and response that was nothing less than masterful.
After the performance, we repaired to the hotel bar where Simon´s afterparty just happened to be scheduled. We people-watched until about 2:00 a.m. (Steven Marley´s group taking their picture with James Taylor) and I got to talk to Tony Cedras and Phil Ramone. It was a wonderful evening ´“ look for me in the video!