14 April 2008

Paul Simon "Under African Skies" @ BAM - 11 April 2008

In imagining ways to describe Friday night's BAM production, it's difficult to avoid summoning the whole "universal language of music" cliche. It almost sounds like the setup to a bad joke...quick, what do you get when you put two pop icons, a legendary South African vocal group, a Cameroonian chanteuse, and two Brazilians - one percussionist and one singer - into a room with an amazing backing band?

A bad joke at band camp nonetheless, but the point remains: "Under African Skies" was a two-hour case study in the universality of amazing melody, exquisite musicianship, and the shared love of music. It was also one of the more incredible shows I've seen.

The evening began with Ladysmith Black Mambazo - a world-renowned 10-piece vocal group from South Africa - emerging unaccompanied onto the sparsely lit stage to perform two songs. Specializing in a traditional form of music originating in the mines of South Africa called Isicathamiya, the group's combination of imaginatively playful vocal harmonies and carefully choreographed "tip-toe" dance steps - dating back to the mines when workers would dance lightly so as not to disturb security guards - set a celebratory tone amidst feverish expectation for what else was to come.

What came next was the voice. Vusi Mahlasela, known in his native South Africa simply as "The Voice", led Simon's backing band onstage and launched into a wonderful rendition of "The Boy in the Bubble", the first of many selections from Graceland. Then, finally, as not to surrender any of the production's irresistible momentum, Simon emerged to delirious applause and officially commenced the evening...

With Simon at the helm, the band launched into a muscular "Gumboots" before then transitioning into "Under African Skies". For this song (and the next several), Simon ceded the floor to the amazing vocals of Cameroonian singer Kaissa in a move that characterized much of the evening; he would play a song and then sit the next few out, lending the whole performance an informal vibe of good friends getting together and swapping songs back and forth. It was an effectively humble way for someone as legendary and iconic as Simon to celebrate his own song catalog, and it clearly inspired each guest performer to give their all in his presence.

Transitioning to the equally rhythmic material of 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints, Kaissa gave stand-out track "Proof" new life and swagger while guest Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista grooved on a daunting assortment of drums, chimes, and auxiliary percussion pieces. Most interesting among these was the cyrimba, a glockenspiel-like instrument made from an assortment of enormous PVC pipes and played with what looked like Dr. Scholl's insoles. Baptista put this piece to work on an amazing version of "Can't Run But", providing an enchantingly melodic rhythmic backdrop upon which guest Brazilian singer Luciana Souza added soaring lead vocals.

With each progressive song, the energy and momentum continued to build until reaching a palpable climax as David Byrne took the stage, first shimmying alongside the backup singers before moving front and center to deliver two of the evening's highlights: utterly unbelievable, transcendent, magical, and perfect versions of Graceland's "I Know What I Know" and "You Can Call Me Al".

The buzzing crowd responded in kind with the realization of having witnessed something unique and special, coaxing Simon back onstage after singing "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes" alongside Ladysmith Black Mambazo (and in characteristic fashion of the evening, allowing them to finish the performance with a final reprise) before summoning all of the evening's participants to join him for a group bow in recognition of the frantic standing ovation.

This same rabid applause should be extended to BAM as well, whose scope of effort and creative ingenuity in making a month-long Paul Simon concert series more than just a simple fantasy (not to mention some of the other recent concerts they've hosted) is nothing short of remarkable.

*above photo courtesy of Nadim Issa

See also:
8+ (David Byrne)
The 5 Sides of Paul Simon You Won't See At The BAM Retrospective
The National @ BAM - 23 February 2008
Joanna Newsom @ BAM - 1 February 2008

See Paul Simon perform "American Tunes" from April 23-27 at BAM

Visit Paul Simon on MySpace