It’s some surprise that it took ten years for producer Michael Dorf’s annual tribute concerts to honor the music of Paul Simon. With its wealth of sounds and styles, Simon’s songbook provided an ideal backdrop for the diverse, genre-spanning line-up at Monday night’s Carnegie Hall concert in Manhattan, which also served as a benefit for music education.
The two-hour, twenty-three song set was a career-spanning overview of Simon’s fifty-plus year tenure as a songwriter and performer. Bob Forrest and Gibby Haynes reached far back for “Motorcycle,” an obscure, minor hit from 1962 that Simon recorded with his short-lived group Tico and the Triumphs, while cellist Ben Sollee performed a chilling solo version of 2006’s “Wartime Prayer.”
Brooklyn-based 12-piece Antibalas was the house band for the evening, and they glided through an impressive range of musical approaches with grace and ease. The sympathetic group even found time to show off during a swampy, Allen Toussaint-led take on “Take Me Down To Mardi Gras.” Artists stuck to one song, generally without commentary, with a few exceptions. Josh Ritter remembered his dad handing him a Paul Simon cassette and telling him Simon was the “greatest artist of [his] generation” during the Idaho singer’s childhood, and Heart’s Ann Wilson fondly recalled taking acid and listening to Bookends in college.
Likewise, the majority of the set focused on Simon’s late-Sixties Simon & Garfunkel work and his most celebrated solo records from the Seventies and Eighties. The first part of the evening featured an array of Simon & Garfunkel standards, with Judy Collins, Joe Henry and Joy Williams all performing reserved, reverent renditions of the duo’s most iconic material.
That said, the expansive, varied riches of Simon’s catalog didn’t truly flourish until the second half of the set, which drew mostly from albums like There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years. Ritter (“Duncan”) and Brett Dennen (“Something So Right”) proved perfect fits for the wandering, pensive early solo gems. R&B veterans Bettye Lavette (“50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”) and Sam Moore (“Loves Me Like A Rock”) thrilled, showing how easy it is to turn a Simon tune into a showstopper. Finally, punk firebands Bob Mould (“Fakin’ It”) and the evening’s opener, John Doe (“Mrs. Robinson”), readily transformed Simon & Garfunkel mainstays into barnburners.
The true star of the evening, however, showed up last. Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo closed the main set with a stunning version of “You Can Call Me Al,” closing the Graceland hit with an extended call-and-response that brought the crowd out of their seats for the first time all evening.
For the encore, all of the evening’s performers gathered on stage for a sloppy, joyful take on “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” With most of the singers hesitant to take over lead vocals, Kidjo grabbed the microphone once again and began letting loose with seemingly improvised lyrics as the band carried on with the original folksy melody. During that brief moment, the many facetes of Paul Simon presented throughout the evening – pop balladeer, world music diplomat, empathetic songwriter – merged together in a fitting ending. As the performers took their final bows, Ann Wilson shouted out a final summary of the concerts proceedings: “We love Paul Simon, he’s a renaissance man.”
John Doe, “Mrs. Robinson”*
Judy Collins, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”*
Megan Doyle & Snow Guilfoyle, “Scarborough Fair”
Joe Henry, “The Boxer”
Joy Williams, “Sounds of Silence”
Madeleine Peyroux & Jon Herington, “American Tune”
L.P., “Slip Slidin’ Away”
Josh Ritter, “Duncan”*
Allen Toussaint, “Take Me to the Mardi Gras”*
Bob Mould, “Fakin’ It”*
Bob Forrest & Gibby Haynes, “Motorcycle”
Isobel Campbell & Andy Cabic, “Born at the Right Time”*
Brett Dennen, “Something So Right”*
Ben Sollee, “Wartime Prayers”
Dan Wilson, “The Only Living Boy in New York”*
Tunde Adebimpe, “Think Too Much”*
Sam Moore, “Loves Me Like a Rock”*
Bettye LaVette, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”*
Richard Marx, “Still Crazy After All These Years”*
Ann & Nancy Wilson, “Old Friends”
Mike Gordon, “Late in the Evening”*
Angélique Kidjo, “You Can Call Me Al”*
Everyone, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’