25 April 2008

Paul Simon "American Tunes" @ BAM - 23 April 2008

Paul Simon renewed his month-long residency at BAM Wednesday night in a concert billed as "American Tunes", an obvious foil to the two previous series "Under African Skies" and "Songs from The Capeman". The three separate concert runs were designed to highlight different periods of Simon's songwriting career with "American Tunes" revisiting his years as a songwriter working with Art Garfunkel into his early years as a solo artist, "Under African Skies", quite obviously, highlighting those years in the '80s and '90s when Simon delved into the music of Africa and South America, and "Songs from The Capeman" giving New York one final listen to music from Simon's Broadway disaster The Capeman.

EAR FARM skipped out on "Songs from The Capeman". But! We were lucky enough to attend the other two Simonfests (check out the EF review of "Under African Skies") and I was, in particular, looking most forward to seeing Grizzly Bear and Gillian Welch and Paul Simon perform Simon's earlier work. You know, the stuff that came from his soul, rather than from the mind of someone else. The American songs! Songs to be proud of as an American, because they were written by an American, in America! (gratuitous Trey Parker nod alert) America! Fuck yeah!

What follows is a song by song recap (in order) of we what heard and saw on Wednesday during night one of "American Tunes".

"American Tune" performed by The Roches and Paul Simon
Appropriately, from a thematic standpoint, the show began with the song that gave the final run of Simon concerts its name. However, because of the mellow nature of the song and below average performance by The Roches, it was an altogether lackluster start to the concert. Par for the course, really, when you've decided to begin a show with a song about "trying to get some rest" and being "weary to the bones". Simon remained in the background for the entire performance feebly strumming along, perhaps exhausted before he even began...

"Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" performed by Paul Simon
Or not. As The Roches exited the stage Paul Simon launched into "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" and the cloud of doom that had permeated the building gave way to applause and dancing and joy. One of the great lessons learned during Simon's April residency is how automatically pleasing many of his songs are on the most basic of levels. Even when they're about drug deals and mothers witnessing illegal activity and all the whatever else this song is about. (side note: anyone else remember that video for this song featuring Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Spud Webb, Mickey Mantle, et al.? The one that came out like 15 years after the song?)

"Graceland" performed by Grizzly Bear
Simon exited the stage and the crowd waited for what seemed an eternity as the crew setup the stage for the next performance. It was a recurring theme throughout the night - the lull. Maybe they too were "weary to the bones"? Whatever the case, Grizzly Bear entered and launched into a mind-bending deconstruction of "Graceland" that split the crowd in two immediately. A surprise song choice, given that the song was also played at the "Under African Skies" concert, but easily one of the two major highlights of the night.

"Mother And Child Reunion" performed by Grizzly Bear
Grizzly Bear continued their too-brief appearance with an elegiacally poignant twist on "Mother And Child Reunion". The arrangement and the band's performance were both outstanding. It is, after all, and contrary to its upbeat reggae vibe, a song about a "strange and mournful day". Regardless, the audience seemed largely perplexed and the band departed with little fanfare. Marty McFly chided them in my mind, "I guess you guys aren't ready for that, yet. But your kids are gonna love it."

"Peace Like A River" performed by Amos Lee
Another lengthy change-over later and Amos Lee took to the stage. His take on Simon was much shallower water for the majority of those in attendance and they cheered with appreciation. If there was a time to visit the restroom, this was it.

"Jonah" performed by Amos Lee
In fact, if I hadn't noted the set list as I was watching the show, I'd have completely forgotten that Amos Lee even performed. His two songs were far from bad, but also nowhere near memorable.

"Slip Slidin' Away" performed by Olu Dara
Olu Dara is the father of Nas? And... I learned something from Stereogum? Weeeeird. Anyway, Dara's presence was animated and magnetic. "Slip Slidin' Away" was the perfect song for him and his band.

"50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" performed by Olu Dara
However, he didn't hit full stride until he twisted and reworked the lyrics to "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover". Dara hit something like 1 out of every 5 lines correctly, but this was intentional. He was flippin' it. For our sake, and likely his own too. Who hasn't heard "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" 50,000 times? It was roborant, it woke me up a bit from my Amos Lee-induced daze, and was entirely entertaining.

"Still Crazy After all these Years" performed by Olu Dara
But wait, Olu Dara's a one-trick pony... I see. Well, why'd he have to butcher one of my favorite Paul Simon songs? Butthead.

"Another Galaxy" performed by The Roches
No! What freakin' song is this, and who let these women back on stage?! Yaaaaawn.

"Cecilia" performed by The Roches
"Cecilia" is one of Simon and Garfunkel's most rousing songs and a near can't-miss for an artist picking a Paul Simon song to cover. Unless, of course, you're The Roches. Not good.

"America" performed by Josh Groban
Josh Groban? Okay, I'm pre-disposed to dislike him, probably owing to the fact that he's like a black hole of indie-cred (hey, I can be honest with myself), but this was actually an excellent, if very straightforward, rendition of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel song "America". Groban's voice is good. Too good?

"Silent Eyes" performed by Josh Groban
It struck me during Groban's performance of this song that he sings rather like Superman would: perfectly, and utterly devoid of even a tiny hint of human emotion.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" performed by Josh Groban and Paul Simon
This was the one. The one I'd been wondering about heading into the show: "who's going to sing Garfunkel for 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'?" I queried. Obviously it was going to be Groban. He was born to sing songs like this... And to save our planet from evil masterminds like Lex Luthor and Brainiac!

"Gone At Last" performed by Gillian Welch
Boy oh boy was Gillian Welch a site for sore eyes. Here, finally, was a performer with the ability to liven up BAM just a little bit. And that's precisely what she and guitarist David Rawlings with their take on "Gone At Last". Their bluegrass barnburner performances were far and away the highlight of the evening, much the same way David Byrne was at "...African Skies". I was a casual fan of hers before this show, now I need MORE GILLIAN.

"Duncan" performed by Gillian Welch
Is David Rawlings in Megadeth? I know that they too were in town this night, can anyone confirm or deny that he and Dave Mustaine are/aren't in fact the same person? Both play guitar, same first name... I'm just saying, dude can shred.

"The Boxer" performed by Gillian Welch
A pure classic, this song, and an audience favorite. But again, the impotent booms (rather than hefty BOOMs) that followed the "lai la lai"s should've been much mightier. Solid, but a missed opportunity. Grizzly Bear should've done this one.

"The Sound Of Silence" performed by Gillian Welch and Paul Simon
Pictured above, this performance was elegant and very good, if a tad on the "weary" side. It is, however, important for younger listeners (note to self) to remember that downtrodden, tattered, torn, weary, embodying ennui yet somehow beautifully full of harmony, is precisely what Paul Simon first made a name for himself with before he discovered the music of Africa, Jamaica, and Central America.

"Mrs. Robinson" performed by Paul Simon
As Welch and Rawlings left to a well-earned round of applause, Paul Simon and his backing band turned a corner and finally energized themselves and the audience by launching into a bluesier than expected version of "Mrs. Robinson". Paul beamed and clearly enjoyed performing this one.

"Train In The Distance" performed by Paul Simon
Inconceivably, Simon seemed to rise up to another level during "Train In The Distance". As if he was merely annoyed before that all of these guests had stayed so long at his party, but now he finally had the house to himself. His backing band soared here, most notably the sax solos at the end.

"How Can You Live In The Northeast?" performed by Paul Simon
Thanks to Paul's infatuation with appearing on Saturday Night Live, I was already familiar with his 2006 song "How Can You Live In The Northeast?" - a refreshingly relevant song for an artist in the twilight of his career. Again, Simon obviously enjoyed this one and so did I. A surprise favorite.

"The Only Living Boy in New York" performed by Paul Simon and The Roches
Ah yes, an obvious inclusion. But perhaps poorly placed within the set as the first song in the encore and... there are those damn harpies again! Who invited them back onto the stage??

"Late In The Evening" performed by Paul Simon
Right, well it was late in the evening at this point - probably 10:15? - so definitely late if you're... a sixty-six year old hobbit, weary from hearing three harpies slaughter your songs, and eager to get back to your Shire in New Canaan. What? I kid the living legend Paul Simon... But really, I was expecting "Kodachrome" as a final song and was more than pleased with "Late In The Evening". The song soared, helping Simon and crew to end the evening on a series of high notes (nudge nudge); unsurprising, perhaps, since "Late In The Evening" serves as a creative bridge to the vibrant Graceland. Which, ultimately, left me wanting to revisit the far superior concert that was "Under African Skies".

*above photo courtesy of Kathryn Yu.

"Graceland" by Grizzly Bear

Also at this show: NY Times, Pitchfork, Stereogum, Thepunkguy, and Guac & Roll.

See Paul Simon perform "American Tunes" from April 24-27 at BAM.

Visit Paul Simon on MySpace.


odile said...

Ha! Great read and a nice wrap up to the shows. I was at the Graceland show and I agree, Paul definitely looks weary, to put it gently. Thanks for the honest, and humorous, review!

Anonymous said...

Well I thought Amos Lee was the best part so there!

Roo said...

Josh Groban really milked his time onstage, hanging there for an extra like awkward 10 seconds trying to get extra applause

ARTIFACT said...

You are funny, but The Roches are amazing I have one vinyl and one CD, they have been around a while, very edgy lyrics and incredible harmonies. Gillian and Dave are amazing. saw them at BE show and Newport Folk Fest. Your take on Josh Grobin's voice is hysterical! I hate schooled voices....I like the bumps along the way!

Anonymous said...

you were at the evening with the donar/subscribers crowd. Ie: old people

the following night (i work at bam) was filed with young people and GB got one of the best responses

was a nice turn around


Better Days said...

I was at the Friday 4/25 show and it was GREAT. My wife thought The Roaches version of American Tune was better than the original. It was hard to say what was the highlight but Grizzly Bear's version of Mother and Child Reunion was a mix of Velvet Underground & Roy Orbison. And Gillian Welch was transcendent.

Anonymous said...

I was there Wednesdays and I agree with you 100 percent. I am wondering what is up with the Roches. They used to be so wonderful in performance but there was no doubt that someone's singing was WAY off. PAINFUL at times. Gillian was by far the highlight and I, for one, appreciated Grizzly Bear for making the songs they covered sound new to me.

Anonymous said...

I think the gray haired lady from the Roaches and the guy who plays with Gillian Welch would make a great couple. Both were distractingly hilarious on stage.

Anonymous said...

Three years ago
QUOTE “Hyde Park London concert Simon e Garfunkel - / July 18, 2004
(By Norman Lebrecht)”
The mother and child reunion
This was Simon and Garfunkel's first London concert for 22 years …
Half a million people saw the US leg of this tour; 50,000 people packed Hyde Park…………….. Not that we were overwhelmingly middle-aged. Many in our throng, in their teens and twenties, knew every lick and lyric and seemed ……………. They stood, they sang, they danced the dusk away with a sense of secular communion and wholly innocent abandon…………...
They spoke of our time, our confusions.They still do.
The magnetic element in them, though, is a yearning for something never quite attained, for a Mother and Child Reunion, for a poet and a one-man band. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, aspiring to angelic harmony, illustrate in their lives and music the impossibility of symbiosis - the unattainability of perfect friendship for any length of time. In their most poignant numbers, there is always one chord unresolved. And that's why their music can sell out a park. Nostalgia ain't perhaps what it used to be, but it can still teach us a thing or two about our former selves………………………The end quote
“In an unprecedented month-long residency at BAM, Paul Simon collaborates with an extraordinary range of artists to offer three musical constellations from the career of one of America's greatest songwriters.
Featuring performances by Olu Dara, Grizzly Bear, The Roches , Josh Groban……….” The end quote
Why not Art Garfunkel?
The magic of tunes American written by Paul is born with the voice of Art, can forget!!!
By fans S&G from Italy

Anonymous said...

I adored every moment of the night!! Your critical ear/eye found too much wrong...all performed from the heart...Amos Lee was awesome as well as the Roches and I didn't notice a time lag between sets...Oh well, I'm so glad to have been there...it's a memory I cherish...a lovely evening with my daughter in a gorgeous hall with great music!

Anonymous said...

I was at this same show, the first one. And this is the best review I've found so far relating to Simon's final run of shows at BAM. Better than the Times even because they missed a lot thats covered here. However, I also must disgree with your take on Amos Lee. That dude has SOUL.


Anonymous said...

Also note that after W, the setlist was shifted, Olu lost 50 ways and Amos gained "homeward bound" and also switched to "nobody" the arrangement was also shifted with the roaches performing all their songs at the top, amos after josh. It really flowed a lot better the rest of the week, a shame you only got to see wed..a great but not greatest night.

I must also point out that if you, like me, think Josh has no soul in his sound, than you really should try and dig up some Amos Lee, that guy is the polar opposite, all soul, great lyrics.

whoami said...

Saw the show wed, th, & fri. It got better each night. Wed was like a dress-rehearsal.

Groban - the man worships at the feet of Simon. I went on youtube and listened to a bunch of S&G's numbers and then Groban again. Totally disagree with the "no soul" assessment. Sure he's no folk singer, but give me a break, it was great. I would love to hear him sing without thinking - as it would sound in the deep of the night.

Amos Lee: go and get his self-titled CD, sit in a dark room, and sip a drink. The man is mellow and addictive.

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kokonohp said...

Ha! Great read and a nice wrap up to the shows. I was at the Graceland show and I agree, Paul definitely looks weary, to put it gently. Thanks for the honest, and humorous, review!
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