DVD Review: Paul Simon & Friends: Gershwin Prize for Popular Song (Library of Congress)

The commercial release of this May 2007 concert at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C.—originally shown on PBS—is a cause for rejoicing for all Paul Simon fans; hell, it should be for anyone who loves great music. The gala was organized to salute Simon on the occasion of his being awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and an amazing roster of musicians from many different genres was enlisted to pay tribute to a man who is certainly among our greatest living songwriters. Simon’s work has spanned so many different styles through the years—folk, African, gospel, rock, Peruvian, Caribbean, country, zydeco, Brazilian; you name it—yet he’s always served up his songs in a way that is unmistakably him, completely infused with an unusual and idiosyncratic lyric vision and his fantastic ear for melody.
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The commercial release of this May 2007 concert at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C.—originally shown on PBS—is a cause for rejoicing for all Paul Simon fans; hell, it should be for anyone who loves great music. The gala was organized to salute Simon on the occasion of his being awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and an amazing roster of musicians from many different genres was enlisted to pay tribute to a man who is certainly among our greatest living songwriters. Simon’s work has spanned so many different styles through the years—folk, African, gospel, rock, Peruvian, Caribbean, country, zydeco, Brazilian; you name it—yet he’s always served up his songs in a way that is unmistakably him, completely infused with an unusual and idiosyncratic lyric vision and his fantastic ear for melody. That other musicians have been so drawn to his work is no mystery—there is so much to be found in his strange turns of phrases, in his opacity and his vivid and compelling human portraits.

The DVD works as a de facto Simon “Greatest Hits” session, with each of the multitude of top-notch artists—including Simon himself—bringing something unique and special to the songs (most aided by Simon’s extremely versatile band). The pairing of singer-to-song is impeccable. You’d expect someone like James Taylor to have an affinity for Simon’s work, and he does—he shines here on “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “Slip Slidin’ Away,” the latter with the Dixie Hummingbirds. That gospel group also shows up at the end for a version of “Loves Me Like A Rock”—along with Simon and the ubiquitous Stevie Wonder—reprising their role on Simon’s early ’70s original. Ladysmith Black Mambazo are stirring on their version of what has become their signature tune—“Homeless”—and with Simon on “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” It turns out that Lyle Lovett is just the right fit for the quirky “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and Lyle is joined by Buckwheat Zydeco for the Cajun-spiced “That Was Your Mother”; very nice! Perhaps the prettiest and most moving performance comes from Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin and Dobro master Jerry Douglas—their take on the “The Boxer” (no doubt influenced by Emmylou Harris’ arrangement) is a perfect jewel. Also beautiful is Art Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a tune that’s been covered by a zillion other singers, but which Artie still owns.

While many of the performances hew fairly closely to the original versions, there are a few that are refreshingly different—appropriate, as Simon himself has often changed the arrangements of his own tunes tour to tour. Particularly notable in that regard are Krauss and Douglas’ effectively slowed-down “Graceland,” the joyful reggae bounce of Stephen Marley’s “Mother and Child Reunion,” Dianne Reeves’ torchy take on “Something So Right” and the DVD’s moody (and classy) ending—Phillip Glass improvising around “Sounds of Silence” on solo grand piano.

True to the original concert, the DVD is interspersed with a handful of vintage video clips of Simon songs, including the memorable performance of “Under African Skies” featuring Miriam Makeba from Simon’s amazing 1987 video Graceland: The African Concert; Muppets Grover and Elmo singing “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”; Simon and George Harrison sounding sweet on “Homeward Bound” from a 1976 Saturday Night Live episode; and a rather somber Simon solo version of “Mrs. Robinson” from the 1999 Yankee Stadium Tribute to Joe DiMaggio.

Bob Costas is definitely not the guy I would have chosen to introduce the concert, but otherwise this nearly two-hour affair is just about flawless.

Producer: Allen Kelman. Director: Linda Mendoza. Music mixer: John Harris.

Speaking of still crazy after all these years, you can e-mail me at blair@blairjackson.com.