Sunday, October 2, 2016

Austin City Limits: Paul Simon (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I stayed up until 1 a.m. to watch an Austin City Limits episode featuring a full hour with Paul Simon. Simon just released a new album, Stranger to Stranger — there’s a regular edition with 11 songs and a deluxe one with five more tracks (though one of those is simply a live version of one of the songs on the standard release) — and this hour is a blend of several of the new songs (“The Werewolf,” “Wristband” and one I couldn’t figure out which is probably called either “Working on the Rewrite” or “Help Me, Help Me, Help Me”) along with four (“The Boy in the Bubble,” “That Was Your Mother,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al”) from the ground-breaking 1986 album Graceland which he did with South African musicians (and recorded part of in South Africa while apartheid was still in force, which got some nasty criticism from the self-consciously “politically correct” people who accused him of violating the worldwide boycott of South Africa — which he had, but he also helped build awareness of the rich musical culture of Black South Africa and underscored the absurdity of apartheid in a way that may have helped hasten its end) and one, “The Cool, Cool River” from Simon’s immediate follow-up to Graceland, the 1989 album The Rhythm of the Saints. That didn’t get the same reputation as Graceland because that time he went to Brazil and collaborated with Brazilian musicians, and unlike South Africa, Brazil was hardly terra incognita either to U.S. musicians or U.S. audiences — but I think it’s one of Simon’s best and most unfairly neglected albums and I was glad to hear him do a song from it. The three other songs were “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” from Simon’s first (more or less) solo album, Paul Simon (reportedly he’d made a solo album in Britain even earlier, between the first two Simon and Garfunkel albums — Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m. and The Sounds of Silence — but I’ve never heard it and I’m not sure it was ever released) and the only two Simon and Garfunkel songs he did all night, “Homeward Bound” and “The Sounds of Silence.”

I’ll never forget the anecdote Paul Cable published in his book Bob Dylan: The Unreleased Recordings about Dylan and Simon running into each other and Dylan asking Simon why he wasn’t performing live. “Because everyone who went to see me would want to hear ‘The Sounds of Silence,’ ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Homeward Bound,’” Simon said. “But Paul,” Dylan replied, “if I went to a Paul Simon concert, those are the songs I’d want to hear you do!” Simon did “Homeward Bound” and “The Sounds of Silence” with far less accompaniment than he used for the rest of his show — he tours with a lot of musicians playing a lot of different instruments so he can reproduce his various experiments with world music (even before he made albums in South Africa and Brazil he was tapping on other cultures’ music, Peruvian on “El Condor Pasa” and Jamaican on “Mother and Child Reunion” — which I’m pretty sure is the first reggae song ever written and recorded by a white artist) but for “Homeward Bound” he cut it to his own acoustic guitar plus a discreet piano, bass and drums; and for “The Sounds of Silence” he cut it to his own guitar, period. What’s more, he played the first chorus of “The Sounds of Silence” without singing, which briefly made me wonder if he was going to do the whole thing as an instrumental (he didn’t, but that would have been different). Simon’s voice has weathered the years surprisingly well — about the only song he had to rewrite to duck some high notes he no longer has was “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” (on the lines “Goodbye Rosie, the queen of Corona”) — and I was also amused that, unlike a lot of other veteran performers who do PBS programs (I remember one Fourth of July show with K. C. and the Sunshine Band, in which K. C. was obviously the only original member — the others were far too young, and so were the other members of Foreigner when Mick Jones brought a lineup with that band name onto a previous PBS show), most of Simon’s backing musicians looked almost as old as he is!