Ok, I think I finally found a concert series that’s a little too rich for me here. Not that I wouldn’t go to shows by Prince, Billy Joel, Dave Matthews, Tom Petty and James Taylor, but for $3000 each? Wow. And if you want a rant on the subject, here’s Bob Lefsetz. So by that standard, paying $150 for a ticket to last night’s Paul Simon tribute (recipient of the first Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song) was pretty cheap. And it was in the cheap seats – I was one row from the very back, very glad I brought binoculars.
Jill came by my office, bringing Popeye’s for me and Chipotle for her so we’d get to see each other since we didn’t Tuesday night, then I headed into DC and the Warner Theatre. I got there about a half hour early, correctly figuring that gettting in would take some time and if I got a drink they wouldn’t let me take it to my seat. The seat was uncomfortable and it was too dark to read, but I stopped caring about that when the show started. Now I’ve been at shows that have been televised before, most notably a couple of Farm Aids and Live 8, but those were just concerts that had cameras. This show had stops and starts and redos if there were problems, but it seemed there’d been a rehearsal (or at least the band and stagehands knew what they were doing – good idea to use Paul’s touring band).
The show started with the band playing “Boy In The Bubble” (it was nice to finally see Steve Gadd on drums, but the find of the evening was trombonist/percussionist Jay Ashby), then an announcer introduced the show and the first artists: Shawn Colvin and Alison Krauss with Jerry Douglas doing “The Boxer”. It was a good version, but there was an ear bleeding wail of feedback towards the end, which made me wonder if they’d try another take (yes, they did, but later). Bob Costas was the main emcee, and was pretty quick on the draw when forced to. He introduced one of several short films they played throughout the evening, including a Woody Allen one about the Gershwin brothers. Next, Lyle Lovett came out with “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, which was good, but I prefer the 4 Way Street version. The first highlight of the evening was Stephen Marley on “Mother And Child Reunion” – the reggae beat was perfect for him.
Next up was Ladysmith Black Mambazo doing “Homeless”. Now I wouldn’t consider myself the biggest Paul Simon fan. I like the Simon & Garfunkel stuff (enough to see them on their reunion tour), and I certainly like a lot of his solo stuff, but what I really love is Graceland. From the very first time I heard “You Can Call Me Al”, I wanted to hear the rest of the album, so I bought a cassette copy (rare for me – even in 1986 I was waiting for CD and didn’t start buying those until midwy through college). For several weeks, I woke up to side B, which kicks off with “You Can Call Me Al”, and it’s one of those albums where I still remember every note. I’ve seen Paul solo once before, and was very happy with him playing some of my favorite Graceland songs. For this tribute I was hoping it would follow the Bob Dylan tribute format (which I still enjoy listening to), which would hopefully place a big emphasis on Graceland.
Anyway, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is one of the featured artists on Graceland. He brought them on the tour, but I didn’t see it then (couldn’t drive yet), and it was always something I wanted to see. They performed a nice version of “Homeless”, but I hoped they would come out again with Paul later. Next up was James Taylor with The Dixie Hummingbirds, doing a gospel infused take on “Slip Slidin’ Away”. The Dixie Hummingbirds stayed on to give an appropriate background to “Sunday Morning With The Sensational Nightingles” a poem by Billy Collins. Another highlight for me was Lyle Lovett and Buckwheat Zydeco doing “That Was Your Mother” – also from Graceland, but heavily influenced by Cajun tradition rather than African. Lorne Michaels came out and talked about living on the same floor, and showed a montage of SNL clips featuring Simon, finishing with the full perfomance of Simon and George Harrison doing “Homeward Bound”.
James Taylor returned for a smooth “Still Crazy After All These Years”, then everyone left the stage. They set up a piano and drum set in the middle of the stage, then Dianne Reeves came out with a trio and performed the Gershwins’ “Our Love Is Here To Stay”, then Simon’s “Something So Right”, both with a swingin’ jazz style. The stage was cleared again while Charles Grodin spoke, then Yolanda Adams came out to sing Simon’s big gospel number, “Gone At Last” to a great response. Next, they brought out George Gershwin’s piano for Philip Glass to perform a solo version of “Sounds Of Silence” on, then moved it off and brought Marc Anthony on to do versions of “El Condor Pasa” and a rocking “Late In The Evening”. Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas returned for a very subdued take on “Graceland” – different, but I liked it. Shawn Colvin joined them again for another take on “The Boxer”, which was once again marred by feedback – but I don’t think it was in the same place, so hopefully they can splice the two versions together.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington came out to introduce the man of the hour, and Paul came out with Stevie Wonder so Stevie could play harp on a jamming “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”. The high point of the evening for me started with him saying, “I haven’t performed with them for a few years, but they’re my brothers from South Africa,” as Ladysmith Black Mambazo joined him for a nice long version of “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”. The first encore of the night had Paul return with his longtime partner Art Garfunkel for “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – earlier they’d played a short film with a number of cover versions, and it was clear that there was only one person truly meant to sing that song. The audience went wild, and they returned for a second encore with “Cecilia”. Not enought by any measure, and Paul returned for the recent “Father And Daughter”, before bringing back both Stevie Wonder and The Dixie Hummingbirds for the stupendous finale of “Loves Me Like A Rock”. That performance wasn’t without it’s hiccups, as when Stevie went to sing, there was some problem and they had to start over, although not before Stevie brought the house down with a quip about not being able to see his cue cards.
A great show, worth the money and staying out late on a school night. The only thing I could have asked for was “You Can Call Me Al”, but at least I’ve seen him do it another time. It’ll be interesting to see how they whittle down the nearly 3 hour show for the 90 minute broadcast on PBS June 27th.