Nobody expected Paul Simon to release the best album of his career in 1986. Up until that point his only projects of the decade had been a disastrous movie (One Trick Pony), a cash-in oldies tour with Art Garfunkel and two poorly received studio albums (the soundtrack to One Trick Pony and 1983’s Hearts and Bones). When he headed down to Apartheid-era South Africa to record Graceland with local musicians he was called both a cultural imperialist and a political scoundrel for violating the boycott. When people actually heard the album — which combined American pop with Isicathamiya (South African a cappella) — it became abundantly clear that Simon had brilliantly bridged the cultures and taken a musical quantum leap forward.
He hasn’t been able to duplicate its commercial success or creativity in the years since (though he came close with 1991’s Latin America-infused Rhythm of the Saints). These two albums were celebrated by Simon and guests on Saturday night, the fourth of a five night Under African Skies concert series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It’s the second of three-part, month-long residency at the theater called Love In Hard Times: The Music of Paul Simon. The first part revived Simon’s 1998 Broadway musical The Capeman and it concludes next week with American Tunes, which honors his non-world music catalog.
Much of the Graceland touring band was back for the concert, as well as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, South African folk singer Vusi Mahlasela, Cameroon vocalist Kaissa, Brazilian jazz singer Luciana Souza and former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Simon was onstage for much of the night, though he was often content to strum his guitar on the side of the stage and let other performers take the mic. Mahlesela sang a powerful version of “The Boy In The Bubble” backed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who later played a note-perfect a cappella rendition of their Graceland spotlight track “Homeless.” Simon took the vocals for “Gumboots,” “Cool Cool River” and sang a tender duet with a very pregnant Souza on “Vendedor de Sonhos.”
The MVP of the night, however, was clearly David Byrne. Wearing a bright green shirt and grinning like a madman, he sauntered onstage to sing back-up on the standout Rhythm of the Saints track “Born At The The Time,” before launching into a rollicking “I Know What I Know” that bought the entire audience to their feet for the first time of the evening. He followed it up with an orgasmic “You Can Call Me Al,” which had much of the audience dancing in the aisle while Byrne maniacally danced Stop Making Sense-style onstage. It was a hard act to follow, but Simon tried with a triple shot of “Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes,” “Graceland” and “That Was Your Mother” as the finale.
Paul Simon’s career has been a little rocky since his two forays into world music. He spent seven years crafting The Capeman, only to see it universally panned and close after just sixty-eight performances. The recent reunion tour with Art Garfunkel was a great show, but not exactly a forward looking project. His only two albums since Rhythm of the Saints — 2000’s You’re The One and 2006’s Surprise — were met mostly with indifference (though I’d argue they both had many strong moments). He hasn’t seemed cool in a very long time, which is probably why he agreed to spend a month at BAM reviving his past. The Under African Skies show was a strong reminder that he was one of the very few 1960s rock stars still putting out brilliant music twenty years on. Decades from now, Graceland will most likely be seen as Simon’s crowning achievement, and this show was a wonderful reminder of that fascinating chapter of his career.