PERFORMING ARTS

Monday, September 8, 2008

Paul Simon

Paul Simon seemed happy and energetic performing at the Washington Convention Center on Saturday night as part of AARP's 50th-anniversary celebration. That is, until he caught a glimpse of his face magnified on the venue's supersize monitors.

"I'm really grateful for that close-up," Simon quipped. "It's like when I look in the mirror close up and say, 'Oh, great.' "

"You still look good, Paul!" someone from the audience shouted.

Yes, and, more importantly, he sounded good. The 66-year-old singer, voice virtually unchanged from his younger days, hit every career highlight in a nearly two-hour show: early Simon & Garfunkel songs, the best of "The Graduate" soundtrack, and decades of solo material.

Simon started with "Gumboots" and "The Boy in the Bubble," from 1986's South African mbaqanga-influenced "Graceland," and "Outrageous" from 2006's "Surprise," but the crowd perked up only when it heard the opening guitar chords of "Slip Slidin' Away."

Still, other than scattered whooping and polite clapping, the audience was subdued, even through "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," "Mrs. Robinson" and a mesmerizing, intimate performance of "The Sounds of Silence," for which Simon cleared the stage.

It turns out the AARP attendees were just trying to be courteous concertgoers. Toward the end of the show, Simon said, "You know, you can stand up, you can come down here . . . it's your night," which prompted tons of people to rush to the front of the stage. They sang and danced through two encores, which included "The Boxer," "You Can Call Me Al" and, of course, "Still Crazy After All These Years."

-- Sarah Godfrey

Ramsey Lewis Trio

AARP's 50th-anniversary celebration at the Washington Convention Center presented the Ramsey Lewis Trio in concert on Friday night. Lewis crossed the same milestone as a professional musician a few years ago, and the performance often reminded listeners of his remarkable career longevity, from the opening chords of "Wade in the Water" to the inevitable encore, "The In Crowd."

Still, it's not what the 73-year-old pianist plays but how he plays it that keeps audiences thoroughly entertained. Only one selection heard during the concert didn't involve improvisation, and more than a few spontaneous diversions popped up unexpectedly, just when it appeared a thematic resolution was in sight.

Lewis and his bandmates -- bassist Larry Gray and drummer Leon Joyce -- engaged in some playful memory-jarring at times, segueing, for example, from "The In Crowd" to "On Broadway" to "Baby, Whatcha Want Me to Do" -- all to the crowd's delight. At other times, however, the mood evoked Lewis's upbringing in the church, via ringing gospel chords and spiritual refrains that the audience softly echoed. Dramatic shifts in dynamics frequently came into play, with bassist Gray's bowed recital of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" creating a particularly soulful interlude.

Lewis and Joyce made for a whimsical pairing when trading riffs, but the drummer-percussionist also was cast in a sharply contrasting role while deftly shading ballads that inspired chamber-jazz-like arrangements. Among the new Lewis tunes -- and certainly among the most rhythmically vibrant -- was "To Know . . .," a piece the composer recently performed with the Joffrey Ballet.

-- Mike Joyce

Chicago

Chicago headlined Friday's entertainment bill at AARP's 50th-anniversary gathering at the Washington Convention Center. It was a gig the band had prepped for from its beginnings.

Chicago's brand of rock-and-roll never did smell like teen spirit, anyway. The group was formed in the late 1960s, a time when psychedelia and guitar heroes were the rage. But Chicago relied on jazz flourishes -- how many other rock bands had lead trombone players? -- and sang plenty of tunes with lyrics designed for an aged audience.

That trombonist, James Pankow (one of four original members still in Chicago), wrote many of the wistful smashes the group put on the charts. His "Make Me Smile," from 1970, looked back on "the dreams we shared so long ago" while 1975's "Old Days" recollected drive-in movies and "good times gone away."

Chicago did make a few excursions to its trippy side, reminding the audience of that period of their lives when drugs weren't taken only on doctor's orders. Original member Robert Lamm sang "Can you dig it?" during his "Saturday in the Park," a tune about not being able to tell what day it was. There were also "25 or 6 to 4," a jam built around not being able to tell what time it was, and "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?," a high-minded argument that such things don't matter anyway.

Bass player Jason Scheff took most of the vocal leads on lite-jazz ballads (among them "If You Leave Me Now" and "Hard to Say I'm Sorry") originally sung by the guy he replaced in 1985, Peter Cetera. Keyboardist Bill Champlin, a Chicagoan since 1982, crooned the best of the band's many sappy singles, "Look Away," a tune written by pop craftswoman Diane Warren.

But the highlight of this occasionally quite raucous oldies-for-oldies show was undoubtedly the all-hands singalong of Cetera and Pankow's 1973 hit, "Feelin' Stronger Every Day!" If that ain't an AARP rallying cry, what is?

-- Dave McKenna

Young@Heart

"Hey, you, get off my lawn!" No, Young@Heart, the senior-citizen chorus known for performing rock, punk, soul, R&B and hip-hop tunes, isn't interested in parody when its nearly two dozen members step -- or roll -- onstage. As the New England ensemble showed in its benefit performance Saturday night at the Duke Ellington Theater, the group isn't looking for easy laughs while performing tunes composed by Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed and Allen Toussaint, among others.

The focus of a widely acclaimed film that will be released on DVD next week, the chorus is composed of singers ages 70 to 90-plus. Some clearly possess a natural comic flair -- and they make the most of it. But with help from director Bob Cilman and a small, versatile combo on Saturday, the group often performed with poker-faced sincerity and all the spirit it could muster en route to a long standing ovation.

Stan Goldman, who arrived onstage in a wheelchair, toting a cane that would later come in handy as both a walking aid and a twirling prop, got his share of laughs when he belted out "I Feel Good," sounding rather like a Borscht Belt soul man. And, to be sure, Helen Boston and Jeanne Hatch delighted the packed house with their sly rendition of "Walk on the Wild Side." But what proved consistently entertaining was the sound of the singers giving their collective all, whether defiantly, at the top of their lungs, or during a soft, hymnlike rendition of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young."

Proceeds from the concert benefited IONA Senior Services.

-- Mike Joyce

Walkmen

In another life the Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser might have defended you in a court of law. Standing there at the 9:30 club in dark jeans, with his hair coiffed, shirt ironed and tucked in, he looked positively urbane and more than a little lawyerly. But the guy can belt it out. When the Walkmen performed Saturday night, Leithauser often seemed as if he would be flattened by the power of his own lungs. Even on the relatively subdued opener, "New Country," the singer seemed to be holding on to the mike stand for dear life, bellowing at the top of his lungs and tilting backward to the angle of a tachometer needle driven into the red. Now that's what you call conviction.

This well-honed balance between decorum and candor defined the best moments of the Walkmen's 16-song set. During "In the New Year" -- from the band's recently released album "You and Me" -- it began quietly, with its collar straight and its buttons buttoned, but that reserve lasted only as long as the first verse. By the time the reverberant organ hook of the chorus came crashing down, ties had been loosened, sleeves had been rolled up and the Walkmen were letting you know how they really felt. Like an indie-rock take on "Sinatra at the Sands," the Walkmen seemed a bit loose, a tinge world-weary, maybe even a little wasted. But even as the band opened up and came unhinged, it never once lacked class.

-- Aaron Leitko

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