Monday, April 28, 2008

Paul Simon, "American Tunes", at BAM.

Saturday night, my wife and I had the privilege (thanks to a neighbor who had two tickets she couldn't use) of attending Paul Simon's "American Tunes" concert (part of the "Love in Hard Times--The Music of Paul Simon" series) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

My credentials as a Simon fan are pretty solid. In 1965, I plucked a copy of Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., Simon and Garfunkel's first album, from the "Folk" bin of the record department of the University of South Florida bookstore. I knew nothing about them, but the cover looked intriguing and I was a folk fanatic. Someone told me he thought they were from Miami, which would have given them a Florida connection, to boot. (Wrong.) I took the vinyl album to my dorm room, played it, and experienced the opposite of buyer's remorse. During winter break, I was playing it on my parents' stereo when a neighbor, a devout Catholic lady, came in just in time to hear them harmonize on the Christmas spiritual "Go Tell It on the Mountain (that Jesus Christ is Born)." She smiled brightly and asked me who was singing. "Simon and Garfunkel", I answered. Her aspect immediately went from beatific to baleful, and she snapped, "So what does Simon Garfunkel know about Jesus Christ?" I weakly replied that I believed they shared a common ethnic heritage.

My S&G fandom continued through my college days, although to an extent eclipsed by my devotion to Dylan, who appealed to my wild-and-woolly Hermetic, as opposed to my snotty-intellectual Apollonian, side. My third year of law school, in the throes of hopeless love, I would sometimes annoy my dorm floormates by attempting "Bridge Over Troubled Water" during my morning shower. "Kodachrome" provided part of the soundtrack of a joyous summer excursion to the West Coast following my discharge from Army active duty. When I hear it today, I can envision myself driving south on California Highway One, waves splashing rocks below to my right, the trees and hills of Big Sur to my left. Paul welcomed me back to New York with "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard". And so on.

Despite all this, I'd never seen Simon and Garfunkel, or Simon alone, in live performance. I wasn't sure what to expect of this concert, which featured several other singers and groups--only two of which, the Roches and Olu Dara, I'd ever heard before--as well as Simon and his band. The Roches opened with the concert's title song, "American Tune", followed by "Another Galaxy". I've liked the Roches without being a great fan, and their performance of these two songs confirmed my estimation--excellent musicians, but a bit too cutesy. Then they finished their set with a "Cecilia" that rocked the rafters, and set me and my estimation back on our heels.

I had expected the format to be all of the supporting musicians up first, in turn, with Simon out for the last set, perhaps culminating in a final song in which everyone would be on stage, singing in turns. I even imagined the last song as being "America". But, no. The Roches exited, and there was Simon, chugging into "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover."

Few, if any, musicians will perform their old standards exactly as recorded, for understandable reasons having to do both with their own sanity and, in most instances, a laudable desire to expand their audiences' horizons. Sometimes, however, this is done in such an aggressive way that it seems to express contempt for the audience, as if the musician is thinking, "I know you want to listen to this old crap instead of the exciting new stuff I'm doing, so, here it is, with stresses on all the wrong notes and way slow (or fast) rhythm. Eat shit and die!" I'm a great fan of the Byrds, and will collect just about anything of theirs. The only "live" album in their mainstream Columbia collection is one disc of (Untitled), on which they did several oldies (including the oldie-est of them all, "Mr. Tambourine Man") in ways that reflected influences on the band (principally from country music) since the time the songs were recorded, but still treated the songs, and the audience's expectations, with respect. About a year ago, I picked up a recording of a concert the Byrds did at Winterland, in San Francisco, in which the songs were done in such an assertively awful style that I could only guess at the band's motivation. Perhaps it was as I speculated above--simple boredom with their material. Maybe it was the Angeleno Byrds' contempt for Bay Area pretensions. Whatever it was, I donated the CD to the Grace Church Fair and prayed that nobody I like wasted a buck on it.

The point of this digression is to get something off my chest, and to lead into my observation that Paul Simon does it right. In this concert, he sang his oldies in ways that allowed the audience to discover unsuspected nuances in favorite songs without alienating them. Sometimes it was by doing a pre-Graceland song in a way that incorporates African pop influences, as he did in "Fifty Ways"; in others it was just by bringing out some aspect of the song that hadn't previously been stressed, as in his blues tinted performance of "Mrs. Robinson".

A Brooklyn band, Grizzly Bear, opened with an idiosyncratic but compelling version of "Graceland", then followed with "Mother and Child Reunion". The latter was originally done on Paul Simon with a bouncy reggae rhythm that seemed at odds with the song's somber lyrics. Grizzly Bear turned it into a slow, chant-like piece that was very affecting. This is a band worth watching. According to the program, they will be opening for Radiohead on a forthcoming tour.

Olu Dara and his band followed with "Slip Slidin' Away" and "Still Crazy After All These Years", both done in his unique jazz-blues-dance band style. His vocals and cornet solos were superb. I saw Dara once before, some years ago, when he provided musical accompaniment and counterpoint to a reading by the late August Wilson from his works, at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights.

Josh Groban was the only one to seriously disappoint me. The program quoted New York Times critic Stephen Holden:

His intonation is nearly perfect. He always sings directly on the note... He respects the melodic line of a song and brings to everything he sings an intrinsic sense of balance and proportion.
I mostly agree with Holden. Groban has a gorgeous voice. I'd love to hear him sing Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge, or something by Cole Porter. But on two of the songs in this performance, "America" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water", in my estimation he misjudged the material. "America" needs to start in an understated way, then build to a grand climax. Groban gave it the full-bore treatment from start to finish. On "Bridge", by contrast, he stayed too much in control at the end, failing to finish with the wild abandon that the song demands.

Amos Lee did competent versions of "Peace Like a River" and "Nobody", accompanied by multi-instrumentalist and Paul Simon band member Mark Stewart on cello, holding it like a guitar and playing it pizzicato on the latter song.

The real eye-opener of the concert for me was Gillian Welch, who, with her partner, David Rawlings, sent things to a whole new level with "Gone at Last", done in a style that combined elements of Bill Monroe, Tom Petty and Lucinda Williams, along with some original juice, to produce a sound that had many in the audience clapping and hooting along with the music. Welch then said Paul had asked her if there was a particular song she wanted to sing, and she told him there was one that she would cry if she couldn't do. I guessed "Duncan", and she proved me right, producing spine-tingling harmony with Rawlings on my favorite Simon song. After that, Simon joined Welch and Rawlings onstage to do "Boxer."

Simon's final set was all I could hope for. He reached way back for "Sounds of Silence", making it seem as pertinent now as it was in the 1960s, and leaped ahead to 2006's powerful "How Can You Live in the Northeast?" For his encore, I expected something upbeat, perhaps "Baby Driver", but he closed on a sweetly wistful note with "The Only Living Boy in New York".