Tag Archives: Graceland

Paul Simon @ Hyde Park, 15/07/18

30 degrees in the shade it may have been, World Cup Final day it may have been, part of a festival sponsored by Barclaycard it may have been, but Paul Simon at Hyde Park was billed as his last ever UK show, so there was never any question about whether I’d be going.

I bring this up every time I write about him, but Paul Simon was my first favourite musician, when I was unbelievably young. Like, five or six. Why jazz harmony and songs about life as a divorced man in New York City should connect so strongly with a five-year-old British child may be a matter best left to a psychologist, but whatever it says about me, Simon is my guy and I’d never previously seen him play live, so this was it. Last-chance saloon.

I rounded up a special posse for the occasion: Mel, of course; my mum, who is responsible for my three-decades-and-counting love of Paul’s music; and late addition Sara, who took the plunge on a ticket the week before.

BST Hyde Park is a series of one-day gigs over two weekends, with three stages, so there was a lot of music going on, but given the heat we decided not to get there too early, pitching up just in time to watch some of Shawn Colvin’s set on the second stage. She was playing solo with just a guitar and had only a smallish crowd of maybe a few hundred. She’s always had an audience here in the UK, but seldom any hits; Sunny Came Home was the only song I knew among the songs I heard. She was in slightly wobbly voice but went down well with the fans. We skipped the last couple of songs to make sure we got to the main stage for Bonnie Raitt.

Bonnie is a force of nature. 68 years old, her voice is still note-perfect and her slide-guitar playing no less fiery than it was in the 1970s. She also benefitted from the most cohesive and forceful sound mix of any act I saw on the day, with every note was clearly audible (we’ll return to this). Her set, which included a couple of unexpected covers (INXS’s Need You Tonight, Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House) as well as more obvious choices (Skip James’s Devil Got My Woman, Mose Alison’s Everybody Crying Mercy), was mostly blues-centric, with only Nick of Time showcasing her impressive ballad singing. While Nick of Time was great (and very moving), it did make me wish she’s brought things down still further by singing I Can’t Make You Love Me or Love Has No Pride. Still, she did give us a playful version of Something to Talk About that sounded perfect in the afternoon sunshine.

James Taylor was up next on the main stage, and it was during his set that the main drawback of the all-day-gig-in-hot-weather set-up became apparent.

Taylor plays quietly, his music requires an attentive audience and too many audience members preferred to talk rather than listen. With the area nearest the stage out of bounds to those who hadn’t forked out for premium tickets, it was hard to hear Taylor’s song introductions and even hard at times the songs themselves. He played well, if a little less sure-footedly than Bonnie Raitt, and his set included everything you’d want to hear if, like me, you’re only really familiar with his earliest records (Something in the Way She Moves, Fire and Rain, Carolina in My Mind, You’ve Got a Friend, Sweet Baby James – all present and correct), but alas, even those songs failed to completely silence those audience members who’d paid £85 to carry out conversations they could have had for free down the pub.

This became a bigger problem (for me, anyway) when Paul Simon came on stage. Maybe it was me, but I feel sure something was technically awry with the sound, rather than it being that it was simply too quiet. “Too quiet” was the symptom, not the problem in itself (although, looking at Twitter, “too quiet” has been a common cry at all Simon’s UK shows). Five or six songs in, a chant of “louder, louder” began in the crowd, but only in the left-hand side of the general-admission area. I feel like there was a problem with the house-right line array, as the horns kept coming through distorted, and then, suddenly, everything seemed to clear up and the overall sound became stronger and more present. Whatever its cause, the low volume of Simon’s set meant we were more affected than we would otherwise have been by the yakkers. And boy, do some people love to yak.

But enough about them. They don’t get to ruin the last-ever UK gig by Paul Simon.

The man himself, 76 years old, sometimes sounded rather frail, with his voice taking a few songs to warm up, but when he’d got into his stride he sounded vocally strong, and all the way through it was thrilling to watch him play his superlative songs.

He began with America (“strange times,” he observed, before adding, “Don’t give up”), and then the drummer played the iconic intro lick of 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, prompting large sections of the crowd to sing along with the choruses. He then pulled out The Boy in the Bubble, Graceland‘s opening track, on which his bass player, Bakithi Kumalo, was especially impressive. This was followed by the delicate Dazzling Blue from So Beautiful or So What, which featured lovely harmonies from yMusic flautist Alex Sopp, who was one of the band’s MVPs.

Graceland‘s zydeco-flavoured That Was Your Mother was followed by another track from So Beautiful or So What, Rewrite, which, with its intricate layers of guitar and (I think) a kora part rearranged for prepared piano, showcased a lot of what’s best about the quietly experimental recent Simon records. He then went backwards into his catalogue for a couple of crowd-pleasers: Mother and Child Reunion and Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, which once again had the crowd singing along (they were in quite agile singing voice, hitting the high note in “goodbye to Rosie, the queen of Corona” rather more easily than Simon did).

Simon then showcased the excellent yMusic ensemble, bringing them to the front of the stage for a three-song run that took in Rene & Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War (the title of which he explained was a caption in a photo book owned by Joan Baez), Can’t Run But and Bridge Over Troubled Water, a song he described as having gotten away from him and that he now felt he was “repossessing”. I guess there won’t be one final Simon & Garfunkel gig, then.

Next up was Wristband, from his current album Stranger to Stranger, and for me one of the highlights of the set. Double bass-led, the song feels like something Donald Fagen from Steely Dan might write: a vignette about a musician getting locked out of a venue and trying to convince the doorman that he’s headlining the show: “I said, wristband? I don’t need no wristband. My axe is on the bandstand, and my band is on the floor!” The last verse, though, shifts from a woe-is-me plaint by an ageing star locked out of his own gig to a more general comment on inequality, showing Simon’s not lost the knack of bridging the personal and the political*.

Wristband was followed by two songs from Rhythm of the Saints, Spirit Voice and The Obvious Child. The former, with mixes samba percussion and West African guitar, is one of Simon’s loveliest songs, and the band did brilliantly to play such a subtle, gentle song for such a huge audience and not inflate it.

Questions for the Angels from So Beautiful or So What was similarly intimate. It’s another lovely song, one that wrestles with some profound questions. It’s a song that acknowledges the plight of so many around us, that believes that things can get better and is wise enough to know what we and all of our problems are when measured against the infinite span of time and existence. Heavy stuff for a sunny afternoon, and perhaps Simon knew it, as he switched to more uptempo rhythm-driven songs for the remainder of the set: Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and an ecstatically received You Can Call Me Al. During the latter, the whole crowd bellowed along with the horn riff and sung along with the choruses. As we walked down Park Lane an hour later, a goodly number were still singing that horn riff.

But of course, that was not the end of the gig. Simon played two substantial encores. The first consisted of Late in the Evening, Still Crazy After All these Years and Graceland. All three were great, but Still Crazy was quite a moment for me, as it’s always been one of my favourites, and as he played it I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that not only was I finally getting to see the man himself sing it, but that it was the only time I ever would.

The second encore prompted similar thoughts. Simon came back on stage with his acoustic guitar and sang Homeward Bound. During the song, the video screens that had previously only shown close-ups of Simon and his band showed a montage of images from his career, starting with a picture of Widnes railway station, where Simon began the song more than 50 years ago. As the final image (one from the mid-1980s I think, when Simon was in his mid-40s) faded and the screen showed Simon alone on stage, it was impossible not to reflect on his advancing years. Whether this effect had been intended or not, I don’t know, but it certainly added a layer to a song that was already carrying a lot of significance, what with the whole tour bearing its name.

Simon briefly lightened the mood with the deathless Kodachrome (do the millennials in the audience even know what Kodachrome is, asked Sara on the way back to the station), then returned to the weighty. The Boxer. It says a lot about the depth of Simon’s catalogue that as I did a mental inventory of the songs he’d played to try to work out what would be in the encores, The Boxer never once occurred to me. The Boxer. A song any songwriter would dine out on for the rest of their careers, and I’d forgotten about it.

I guess this is because however great The Boxer is, it’s not American Tune. I heard American Tune first (the live version from Greatest Hits Etc.) and it’s always been my push-comes-to-shove favourite Paul Simon song. It was magical, and would have brought tears to my eyes even if the US wasn’t currently being governed by a cabal of the criminal and the unhinged.

Simon finished with The Sound of Silence – an apt choice to end his last UK performance with the song that started his career, but for me it was almost an afterthought after American Tune.

Pop music has given us few more significant figures than Paul Simon, and few whose careers are more worthy of emulation. He never got lazy as an artist, always pushing himself to learn more, expand his musical vocabulary, try new things. His attention to detail and dedication to his craft is evident in every bar of music he’s ever recorded, and was just as evident on stage on Sunday. I feel privileged to have been there, and while there were things that could have been handled better (the sound, the lack of seating/shaded areas), I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

*Here’s that final verse from Wristband:

The riots started slowly
With the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland
Towns that never get a wristband
Kids that can’t afford the cool brand
Whose anger is a shorthand
For you’ll never get a wristband

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

Advertisements

Joni Mitchell from Blue to The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Earlier in the week, before being semi-distracted by the news that teenage favourites Belly have reformed and will be touring the UK in summer 2016*, I’d been spending some time with an entirely different old favourite, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. It got me thinking a lot about Mitchell and her work in the early 1970s, the era when she had a pretty-hard-to-dispute claim to be the greatest singer-songwriter in the world. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start at the begining.

Mitchell came to prominence in the late 1960s as a hippie folkie, after more established stars including Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie began covering her songs. Possessed of a piercingly pretty soprano voice and a wide range of alternate tunings for acoustic guitar, Mitchell was soon a minor star in her own right, becoming properly established as a pop artist with third album Ladies of the Canyon (which contained the hit Big Yellow Taxi and her own version of Woodstock, which had also been covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and Blue, which was hitless in pop terms, but confirmed her as one of the pre-eminent singer-songwriters, a bedsit favourite for ever more.

Blue is an astonishing record: melodically and harmonically expansive, yet always feeling intimate and warm, sung and played with a rare combination of stunning artistic self-confidence and devastating emotional vulnerability. No one was writing and playing at her level in 1971 – not Neil Young, not Paul Simon, not James Taylor, not David Crosby (whose music is probably the nearest stylistic comparison to Joni’s), certainly not Bob Dylan, and not even Carole King.

But Blue should have been a warning to her fans. This sound and style that everyone that connected so hard with everyone was not the final destination of her art but the starting point for the journey she’d be on for the rest of the 197s0s.

Mitchell has remarked that after she released Blue other singers stopped covering her songs as they’d grown too hard to sing. And, in technical terms, California and A Case of You do require the ability to perform some vocal gymnastics (no more than was required for a garage band to take on, say, I Want to Hold Your Hand though). What was more problematic for singers was that the new songs contained increasingly subjective and personal imagery and were melodically harder to pin down or hang on to. They were harder to sing from an emotional point of view, and were an awkward fit within a general repertoire. Once heard, The Circle Game can be sung back by anyone, however tin eared. But even Little Green or River, simple as they are by Blue‘s standards, are a lot more slippery. The Last Time I Saw Richard is all but uncoverable.

For the Roses, released the following year, is usually painted as the transition between Blue and the twin jazz-pop albums that followed: Court and Spark and Summer Lawns. Each is more properly seen as a complete thing in itself. On For the Roses, Mitchell’s tunes continue to get more idiosyncratic, with longer melodic phrases repeated less frequently, and the lyrics begin to leave out the first-person I in favour of the second-person you (Barangrill and Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, to take the first two songs that came to mind, both do this). Arrangements, meawhile, are dominated by Tom Scott’s woodwinds. Its best songs (the two mentioned above, plus the title song and Woman of Heart and Mind) are as good as anything off For the Roses‘ more storied predecessor, but the album remains undervalued – it doesn’t pluck at the heatrstrings as expertly as Blue, and it doesn’t quite play as the jazz-pop record it might have been if the arrangements didn’t lack a rhythm section.**

Court and Spark added that missing ingredient, in the form of the LA Express’s John Guerin (drums) and Max Bennett (bass), as well as the Crusaders’ Wilton Felder (also bass). The added propulsion turned the delightful Help Me into the biggest US hit of Mitchell’s career, and made Court and Spark her biggest-selling album. Despite the charms of its hit single and similar material (Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Jusr Like this Train and Trouble Child), I’ve never been entirely thrilled with Court and Spark. Maybe I just listen to it the wrong way. It was the last of the four albums I heard, and I’d fallen head over heels for The Hissing of Summer Lawns by the time I did hear it, so I tend to hear little elements within the music and lyrics as merely foreshadowing Summer Lawns and even 1976’s Hejira (the high, almost pedal steel-like guitar on Same Situation, played I guess by Larry Carlton, predicts the work he’d do on the latter album’s Amelia; People’s Parties suggests a growing familiarity with a mileu she’d explore in detail on Summer Lawns).

For many, though, Court and Spark is the best Mitchell ever got, and it’s a visible part of pop culture in a way Summer Lawns will never be. There was a band called The Court & Spark. There is a consultancy firm called  Court & Spark. Court & Spark handmade textiles are purchasable off the internet. That I know of, there is no consultancy firm called The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

For an album that begins with the apparently carefree In France they Kiss on Main Street*** and ends with a kind of benediction in Shadows and Light (albeit a wary, eerie-sounding one), Summer Lawns is an extremely dark album. The author had by now grown familiar with the affluent Southern California world she came into contact with in People’s Parties, a world of big-time pushers who keep a stable of young women entranced by dope****, of trophy wives and jet-setting businessmen, of southern belles come to California “chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn”, a world of money, drugs and spiritual ennui.

The album’s lyrics, taken in total, are Mitchell’s finest achievement as a writer – she’s at such a high level throughout, you sometimes have to gasp. She can be as impenetrable as Ezra Pound in Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow:

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
In flames our prophet witches
Be polite
A room full of glasses
He says “Your notches liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

and as economical as Carver the next in the title track:

He gave her his darkness to regret
And good reason to quit him
He gave her a roomful of Chippendale
That nobody sits in
Still she stays with a love of some kind
It’s the lady’s choice
The hissing of summer lawns 

The songs are essentially poems set to music, with refrains rather than choruses. Stanzas (a better descriptive word than verses) seldom contain repeated melodic phrases, instead comprising one slowly uncoiling melodic line, in the manner that she’d be working toward since Blue and that she wasn’t finished with, even at this stage (Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus are all to come before Wild Things Run Fast and Mitchell’s return to pop forms).

At the time, reviews (most notably Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone) praised the lyrics and slammed the music:

If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell’s interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production.

Forty years on, it’s easy to laugh. Except this review was just one (large) factor in the forbidding reputation Summer Lawns has cultivated down the years and still hasn’t shaken off. When I was 20 or so and starting to investigate Joni records, Blue was the obvious classic, emotionally accessible despite dense lyrics and complex melodies, but The Hissing of Summer Lawns had an off-puttingly difficult reputation.

In fact, the music of Summer Lawns is way more seductive and less intrusive than it is on Court and Spark, where the LA Express can come off as cheesy, or at least dated. Think of Car on a Hill and that alto sax phrase of Tom Scott’s, that held high note that begins the phrase: it’s pure mid-’70s sitcom theme. Put to darker use on Summer Lawns, the band (which didn’t include Tom Scott, incidentally) avoid cliche nearly altogether, working in an idiom they invent as they go along, responding to the moods of the lyrics and Mitchell’s gorgeous chord changes. A listener’s ability to draw pleasure from Hejira, Reckless Daughter and Mingus, meanwhile, will depend on that listener’s tolerance for Jaco Pastorius’s hyper-kinetic fretless bass playing (and that chorusy overdriven tone of his). The Hissing of Summer Lawns for the most part presents no such problems (partial exception: Skunk Baxter on track 1).

I can’t finish this piece without mentioning the albums’s second track: the astonishing The Jungle Line, a meditation on the urban artistic life and its intersection, or lack thereof, with the primitive, as embodied in the work of Henri Rousseau. Mitchell constructed the track over a field recording of Burundi drummers, and other than that distorted sample, the only other instruments are her newly purchased Moog synth and a faintly strummed acoustic guitar. The sound of the Burundi drummers, after In France They Kiss on Main Street had implied the record would be something akin of Court and Spark part 2, is an unforgettable shock. It divides listeners to this day, but I can’t help hearing it as crucial to the album, thematically and musically. It was, needless to say, years ahead of its time: 10 years before Peter Gabriel’s work with African rhythms, and 10 years before Graceland. It’s the bravest moment in a fearless album.

As I said up top, Joni was in a class by herself in the first half of the seventies. Perhaps, perhaps, Judee Sill’s self-titled debut is better than any of Joni’s work because of its added humour and comparative lightness of touch. But that’s one album. Joni managed to knock out four masterworks, one after the other (five if you include 1976’s Hejira). Who else did that? Paul Simon? John Martyn? Stevie Wonder? Maybe. For me, Joni’s the champ.

Joni Mitchell in 1974

Mitchell in 1974

*I got tickets, by the way
**Except for The Blonde in the Bleachers, where Stephen Stills played bass and drums
***The guitar playing on this song, by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan, created an extremely negative impression on me when I first heard the album. Unlike Skunk’s work with the Dan, which at the time I hadn’t heard, it’s pretty cheesy, with a horrible fizzy distorted tone that sounds like it’s been DI’d. Nowadays  I wouldn’t change it, but I was, what, 21 when I first heard it and thought I knew an awful lot about what rock ‘n’ roll guitar should sound like
****Edith and the Kingpin is possibly the darkest piece on the album, but I can’t be the only one who hears in the song’s insistence on ending in the major key the idea that this time the Kingpin has met his match

Still Crazy After All these Years – Paul Simon

It probably says a lot about me that I think this, but one of the greatest pleasures in being a music fan is having the opportunity to help a fellow fan find their way into a favourite artist’s body of work. Especially a long-standing favourite. It helps you hear their songs with fresh ears.

There’s no longer-standing favourite for me than Paul Simon. I’ve been listening to the man since I was about five years old. My parents had Greatest Hits Etc. on cassette and it accompanied virtually every long car journey we made. Why jazz harmony and songs about life as a divorced man in New York City should connect so strongly with a five-year-old British child is maybe a matter best left to a psychologist, but for whatever reason, Paul Simon became – and remains – my guy.

Mel asked me to put together a CD of Simon tunes she’d listened to on YouTube after I’d put Something So Right on a mix for her. This I did, but wanting to fill in the blanks and use up the remainder of the CD sent me scurrying back to my Simon albums, to hear these old songs as I imagined she might. I am, of course, knocked out by these songs all over again.

It’s the high points of Simon’s mid-seventies output that still hit me hardest: Something So Right, American Tune, Still Crazy After All these Years, I Do It For Your Love, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Slip Slidin’ Away. They’re spread over several albums, rather than concentrated into one record. If you’re not a Simon obsessive, the records to get are his solo debut album (Paul Simon, written about here), Graceland and a good compilation to fill in the gaps (Greatest Hits Etc. was the best but is out of print – the double-CD Paul Simon Anthology will do in its stead). Simon rewards a conscientious compiler.

The question is, why? Was this stuff too complicated to be able to bash out 10 similar tracks for one LP in any abbreviated time frame? Did it take too long to write a Still Crazy After All these Years or an American Tune? Did he feel that to make a palatable album, he had to lighten things up with some faux gospel (Loves Me Like a Rock is terrific, by the way; Gone at Last is significantly less so). It’s hard to tell. But it’s interesting to me that, when I listen to the Still Crazy album, the gap between the peaks and troughs is fairly huge: Night Game comes off bathetic; Have a Good Time, which is elevated in the context of Greatest Hits Etc., sinks on the second side of Still Crazy

As dark, as idiosyncratic, as spotty, as Still Crazy After All These Years Was, it connected hard: it reached number one on the US Billboard Album Charts, it won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1976, it went gold. But long term, it hasn’t been embraced as its more outward-looking peers in Simon’s discography have. It never went platinum in the US. That staggers me. Perhaps listeners realised that the best songs off the record were on the radio plenty and they didn’t need the album. Perhaps that CBS compilation did away with the need to have whole albums, despite not including My Little Town, the much-ballyhooed reunion with Art Garfunkel (better than it could have been, but more than a little out of place, sandwiched between Still Crazy and I Do It For Your Love – the muscularity of the drummer’s performance comes off rather startling).

I can’t help but feel Simon’s jazzy 1970s output will in time come to matter less and less in the reputation he has among younger fans; his career will likely be reduced to Bookends/Bridge Over Troubled Water and Graceland. Those sounds and arrangements are more copyable and are more copied by younger artists, allowing new fans a gateway to the original. And plenty of people my age and younger grew up with Graceland as their car-journey record. It’s a phenomenal album, as are Bookends and Troubled Water – don’t get me wrong for a second – but they have never left me gasping the way I Do it For Your Love or Slip Slidin’ Away do.

1237_paul_simon_2
Paul Simon, mid-seventies
Recent stuff: