Under Maryland skies that shed all their tears just in the nick of showtime, the "Graceland" tour made one of its last stops at the Merriweather Post Pavilion last night.
The Paul Simon name drew a full and half-wet house but even those sodden by the torrential downpour an hour before the music began seemed to give in to the supple, irresistible pull of the music made by Simon's African cohorts.
This was no star-turn, no simple recapping of hits and myths, but a generous act reflecting Simon's recent intoxication with the music of South Africa. After 2 1/2 hours of swirling rhythms and jubilant singing, whatever questions hadn't been answered by the "Graceland" album had been answered by the "Graceland" tour.
Although Simon did a few of his old staples -- "The Boxer," "Mother and Child Reunion," a surprising "Sounds of Silence" and a communal encore of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," the focus was clearly on collaborations, particularly with his crack band of African musicians under the direction of guitarist Ray Phiri and with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the astounding Zulu a cappella vocal ensemble.
After five months of touring together, any tentativeness evident on the album was replaced by authority and confidence. Simon, resplendent in a white T-shirt and jeans, came out with Ladysmith and the full band for an exuberant "Township Jive" that set the festive rhythmic pulse that would course through the night in endless, and wonderfully contagious, variations. Tonight's concert will be about the music of South Africa and the songs from the "Graceland" album, Simon said, after which he pretty much let the music speak for itself.
He did all of the African-rooted songs from the album, starting with "Boy in the Bubble," and including a rambunctious "Crazy Love, Part II," a roiling "Graceland" and "Diamonds in the Soles of her Shoes."
Throughout the night, Simon worked with various combinations. He sang a cappella with Ladysmith on the Zulu/English "Homeless," a pensive plaint that could be about South Africa or South Carolina. He sang with the band and the three women singers on the propulsive "Gumboots," which segued into the old Del Vikings" do wop hit, "Whispering Bells." With Ladysmith and then Ladysmith and the band on the soaring "Diamonds," the 10-man vocal group's high steps made them look like the hammers of an upright piano rippling successively lovely chords. For sheer charismatic showmanship -- admittedly never one of Simon's strong points -- Ladysmith proved to be show stealers. Simon was generous with the concert's structure, giving every one an appropriate showcase, and Ladysmith made the most of theirs with "Nonathemba," a flurry of rich and complex harmonies, high-stepping tribal gestures, dance steps and polyrhythmic interplay. With seven bass voices providing a virile undertow for leader Joseph Shabalala's darting, liquid expansions, it was a sound to behold.
While Simon made no overt political statements about apartheid and the political situation in South Africa, there was much implied in his choice of showmates, particularly trumpeter Hugh Masakela and singer Miriam Makeba, both longtime expatriates from that troubled country. Masakela's "Bring Him Back Home" was a joyfully urgent missive pleading for the release of imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandella, while "Stimela" was a cathartic impression of the trains that transport mine workers from the outland to the diamond mines, separating them from their families and townships. It was a harsh African blues, kin to "Soweto Blues," the Masakela song performed by Makeba.
Makeba had broken her ankle just a few days before and ended up performing from a wheelchair, but little else was confined as she sang a number of African tunes, interspersing them with astoundingly rhythmic breathing and vocal accents.
As for Simon, he seemed redeemed as a vocalist, and when some of the old flatness crept in, it was overrun with rhythmic melody.
For the most part, he sang with verve and in fact seemed most at ease as a big band singer on the rollicking "You Can Call Me Al" and "I Know What I Like," and least so in his duet with Miriam Makeba on "Under African Skies." Maybe he has a thing about duets.
The joy in Simon's performance made it clear that this African connection has justly rewarded some genuine risk taking. After the lack of success of his previous solo album, collaborating with unknown South African musicians was hardly a canny commercial move.
But it's turned out to be a richly creative one and one senses the rewards have gone in both directions.
Just as importantly, an awful lot of people who knew nothing about South African music now do, and anyone who could resist such a joyful noise must be hard hearted, indeed.
For one encore, everyone came together on and with "Amazing Grace," which then segued into Ladysmith's jubilant spiritual gem, "King of Kings."
And then the show ended, as it has all along the tour, with everyone singing -- or, in the case of the overwhelmingly white audience, humming "N'kasi Sikeleli" the African national anthem, as powerful a suggestion as "We Shall Overcome" was 25 years ago.
It may not have been a night of miracles, but it was one of wonders.