Saturday, April 12, 2008

Simon said, Night 2: "Under African Skies" at BAM

i wrote in my post on the "Songs from the Capeman" concert last week that even though Paul Simon was only onstage for a tiny fraction of the show, the overall production was so energetic and engaging that you barely missed him. unfortunately, this wasn't the case with the second part of BAM's Simon retrospective: "Under African Skies" had trouble mustering energy not just when Simon wasn't featured, but weirdly, for a lot of the time when he was.

while the Capeman show didn't duplicate the original Broadway production, its revue-style presentation retained a good deal of narrative interest. "African Skies" didn't have any sort of hook like that: basically what it was was a Paul Simon concert, focusing exclusively on music from "Graceland" and "The Rhythm of the Saints," with a whole bunch of guests. Simon sang lead on about 40% of the material, with Brazlian singer Luciana Souza, and African vocalists Kaïssa and Vusi Mahlasela (Milton Nascimento was scheduled to appear, but didn't due to illness) handling much of the rest--supplemented by a brief (and completely show-stealing) turn from David Byrne. more on Byrne later. (the a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo was totally incredible in a brief introductory set, their transcendental doo-wop mirroring the Little Anthony and the Imperials set that opened the Capeman show. but they weren't really a part of the concert proper, except for an appearance during the climactic "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.")

often the problem for me was that the guest singers just didn't offer much engagement with the material. opening the show with "The Boy in the Bubble," Mahlasela seemed really happy to be there (he was a late addition to the show), but his delivery seemed kind of off: intensely joyful but seemingly oblivious to the subtleties of the lyrics. Souza had a beautiful, refined delivery that was technically impressive but a little too perfect at times; some of the "Rhythm of the Saints" tunes that she sang (e.g., "Can't Run But") are already a bit sleepy, and it was tough for her to summon much energy. Kaïssa suffered from similar problems--on the whole i found these three guests turns to be pleasant at best.

some of the Simon leads were outstanding, especially his first feature, "Gumboots," definitely one of my favorite "Graceland" songs. Simon has this pretty badass way of shimmying along with the music and this really peculiar way of flicking his hands around while he sings in quasi-pantomime. on the whole, though, the concert had this creeping sense of stagnancy; it was an immaculate nostalgia-fest really, and not a whole lot more. granted i was pretty psyched to be hearing Steve Gadd (responsible for the sick drum solo on Steely Dan's "Aja," not to mention the awesome "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" groove) live, and guitarist Vincent Nguini's laid-back poise was pretty marvelous to behold.

but again, surprises were few. one was extramusical. during one of the between-song breaks, a fan yelled, "When is everybody going to get up and dance?" (people were on their feet during the show, but only sporadically.) then during a subsequent break, there was a scuffle in the back of the theater and you could hear the same guy yell, "Why are you kicking me out?!? I just want to dance!" from the stage Simon quipped, "What if you're not a good dancer? Kick him out." totally surreal moment, for sure.

which brings me to the highlight of the concert itself, which was undoubtedly David Byrne. he came out about two-thirds of the way through for a backup vocal on "Born at the Right Time," and the place absolutely freaked. dancing in his inimitable smooth yet dorky way, he singlehandedly resuscitated the show; as a performer--at least in a large space the size of the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House--he totally trumped Simon in terms of exuberance and magnetism. admittedly the songs he drew for lead vocals are perhaps the two most exuberant and magnetic tunes of the bunch, "I Know What I Know" and "You Can Call Me Al."

when i interviewed Byrne for the Time Out piece on the Simon shows, he said that it was a totally natural thing for him to inhabit this period of Simon's music, dealing as it does with a nerdy, intellectual NYC white guy navigating world-music rhythms, and he proved that with these renditions. both of the songs are like these stream-of-consciousness spews of neurotic bewilderment, and Byrne just nailed that vibe. he's always been great at projecting that sense of playful unease and it was really cool to see it applied so seamlessly to material other than his own. awesome, awesome stuff and the indisputable highlight.

Simon's encore rendition of "Graceland" couldn't help but be gorgeous b/c the song itself is gorgeous and this was a flawless version. but overall i just didn't feel much of the magic at this show that i felt at the Capeman gig. when Simon strode out during the earlier performance, i was completely dumbstruck, whereas at this one, i just didn't feel that spark. maybe it was the fact that they kept him under wraps for so long at the Capeman show, or that the Capeman material was much fresher to me than the Graceland stuff. whatever the reason, though, the show felt like a victory lap, something like the baby-boomer version of those "Don't Look Back" indie rock shows where Sonic Youth, Slint and other indie-rock heroes dutifully reprise their classic records. hopefully the last installment of the Simon series, "American Tunes," can transcend this vague bummer of a vibe.

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