He Is a Rock

Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon put their heads together. Simon received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon put their heads together. Simon received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

Paul Simon is a noted perfectionist, so it was ironic that the musical tribute staged in his honor Wednesday was somewhat flawed. It was memorable, to be sure, but imperfect from the start.

With Simon peering down from a box in the balcony of the gilded Warner Theatre and PBS cameras rolling, the concert opened with folkie Shawn Colvin and bluegrass stars Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas joining Simon's backing band onstage. But just as they began to play a vintage Simon and Garfunkel song, "The Boxer," a low, loud hum came oozing out of the PA.

As the obnoxious noise subsided, the musicians set off on a shuffling, country-accented take on the tune, with Krauss and Colvin singing sumptuous harmonies and Douglas adding lyrical lines on his dobro. It sounded gorgeous -- until another blast of feedback pierced the proceedings, just as Krauss began playing a solo on her fiddle.

Here's to you, Paul! (And later, here was to him again, as the musicians returned for a made-for-TV do-over of "The Boxer." Alas, the fiddle-solo feedback returned, as well.)

The sophisticated pop poet was in Washington to accept the first Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the formal presentation of which took place Tuesday at a dinner ceremony in the library's Great Hall. Then came the concert-cum-coronation, which was recorded for a June 27 broadcast on PBS.

Presumably, the editing process will transform the concert into a clean and coherent whole, with some semblance of flow. Live and up close, it was a series of marvelous, even magical moments mixed with momentum-killing lulls, technical and human glitches, too many taped videos and even a couple of soporific performances of songs from Simon's deep catalogue. Notably: Krauss and Douglas doing a dour version of "Graceland," which was stripped of the original's effervescent groove. But most of the performances were more faithful to Simon's originals, such as James Taylor's starlight-loungey "Still Crazy After All These Years," though Taylor, in perfectly sweet voice, did make a lyrical addition near the end of the song, singing "still crazy -- I mean mad-dog-barking-crazy."

But for every hiccup or yawn, there were as many glorious highlights -- such as Jessy Dixon's hopped-up duet with the sensational Yolanda Adams, in which each gospel star sang lead on "Gone at Last" before they kicked into a fiery call-and-response exchange. Such joyful noise.

There was Ladysmith Black Mambazo performing "Homeless" a cappella, with a breathtaking depth and richness to their vocals. Later the group joined Simon for the first time in nearly a decade to perform "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." Simon looked positively elated as the Zulu singers -- "my brothers from South Africa," he called them -- added fills and flourishes.

And then there was Simon escorting Stevie Wonder onto the stage to play harmonica during Simon's performance of "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" -- two giants of popular music sharing the stage. (Surely, Wonder is on the short list for the next Gershwin Prize. Yes?)

The lineup spotlighted the tremendous range of Simon's creativity: Aside from the gospel and R&B and African singers and the bluegrass stars and folkies, there was a Latin crooner (Marc Anthony) and a jazz songstress (Dianne Reeves), a classical composer (Philip Glass) and a celebrated Texas songsmith (Lyle Lovett), plus Buckwheat Zydeco.

There was even a Marley -- Stephen, the spitting image of his legendary father, Bob -- performing "Mother and Child Reunion," which, when it was released 35 years ago, represented one of the earliest reggae songs by a white musician.

Presenter Bob Costas noted that he couldn't come up with a list of Simon's 20 greatest songs because there are simply too many, spanning five decades and so many different styles. "This sustained run of creative excellence is . . . close to unheard of," Costas said.

The run, of course, began in earnest when Simon and Art Garfunkel became folk-rock stars in the '60s before the partnership dissolved in 1971. Simon introduced Garfunkel at the Warner as "my dear friend and partner in arguments," and while Garfunkel still has that shock of frizzy hair, his voice has become badly frayed: He strained badly during the first verse of the duo's iconic "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

When Simon, who sang the song's second stanza, joined Garfunkel to harmonize, his old creative counterpart's voice swelled, rising in register and volume, which simply magnified the rough edges. You have to admire Garfunkel for going for it, but you aren't obligated, legally or otherwise, to admire the end result.

The duo returned for an encore of "Cecilia," during which Garfunkel's microphone appeared to be off during part of the first verse: You couldn't hear him in the house, and his vocals were inaudible from the monitors onstage.

Nonetheless, Simon and Garfunkel received a rousing ovation from the crowd, which was so very Washingtonian: lots of dark suits, politely enthusiastic and apparently incapable of proper rhythmic clapping, no matter how hard Yolanda Adams tried to keep everybody in time. (Cost of a ticket to the event: $150 to $750. Having a functional internal meter: Priceless.)

Lorne Michaels, Simon's longtime friend and New York neighbor, noted that he once went to an Irving Berlin tribute with Simon, and recalled having wondered then whether Simon would ever receive a similar honor. But, Michaels had joked, it probably wouldn't happen until Simon was 100, because, well, "he had so much to do to fill out a night." Hah.

The show was scheduled to run two hours and wound up going 30 minutes over because of the re-dos and such, and it included two encores from the 65-year-old Simon, including the finale in which he joined Wonder and the Dixie Hummingbirds for "Loves Me Like a Rock." The gospel-pop song was chugging along until Wonder stopped midstream, apologized twice and joked that he couldn't go on without his cue cards. Everybody laughed while Wonder fixed the actual problem -- he wasn't wearing his in-ear monitor -- and the musicians started again from the top and got through the song the second time without a hitch.

By the end, Simon was beaming. It wasn't perfect, but it sure was sweet.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company