DVD Review: “Paul Simon and Friends: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song”

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Paul Simon And Friends: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song (2009, Shout Factory)
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I’d somehow blocked this out before sitting down to watch Paul Simon and Friends, but I think my earliest musical memory relates to Simon — specifically, of picking up There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, seeing the Warner Bros. logo on the album, putting it on the turntable expecting to hear some Bugs Bunny music, and being really pissed off when I got something completely different.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this experience is what kept me from caring about Paul Simon’s music until I was in my 20s. I mean, sure, I had my Columbia Record House copy of Graceland just like everyone else, but before the mid ’90s, my interest in his work began and ended with “You Can Call Me Al,” which is now an almost physically painful admission — Capeman aside, I don’t think he’s ever released anything I couldn’t cherrypick at least two wonderful songs from, and even though I’m fairly confident that his best (or at least most approachable) music is behind him, he’s written some of my all-time favorites.

Which isn’t to say I’m not aware of his many flaws, one of them being his nigh-total lack of stage presence. Having seen him live, I can tell you that if you’ve watched a Paul Simon concert video and thought to yourself, “his shows can’t possibly be this boring in person,” you were wrong, because they totally, totally are — which is most of why I wasn’t expecting much going into Paul Simon and Friends, and part of why it ended up being such a wonderfully pleasant surprise.

To be fair, this DVD could have focused on almost any songwriter and I would have had similar apprehensions; after all, most tribute concerts tend to run the gamut from disappointing to awful, and one held in honor of an award as stuffy as the Library of Congress Gerswhin Prize would seem to face even grimmer odds. But Paul Simon and Friends dodges those bullets in two ways, and here they are:

  1. Whoever was responsible for organizing it assembled a tremendous (and perfectly sensible) lineup of guests
  2. Though it consists almost entirely of performances of Paul Simon’s wonderful music, Simon himself is almost nowhere to be found

See? Brilliant, isn’t it?

After an introduction from noted musicologist Bob Costas, the show reels off three quick, perfect covers: Lyle Lovett doing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”; Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin, and Jerry Douglas doing “The Boxer”; and Stephen Marley doing “Mother and Child Reunion.” Lovett is such a natural fit for Simon’s music that I feel like a dolt for never noticing their vocal similarities, and Marley’s faithful interpretation of “Reunion” underscores how deeply felt Simon’s reggae flirtations in the ’70s really were. “The Boxer,” meanwhile, is simply gorgeous — as is the six-minutes-and-change version of “Graceland” that Krauss performs with Douglas later in the show.

In fact, pretty much everything is stellar, from James Taylor covering “Still Crazy After All These Years” (and fronting the Dixie Hummingbirds for “Slip Slidin’ Away”) to Buckwheat Zydeco backing Lovett for a version of “That Was Your Mother” that surpasses the original. And there’s more: Yolanda Adams and Jessy Dixon cooking with “Gone at Last,” Ladysmith Black Mambazo delivering a typically beautiful version of “Homeless”…and Dianne Reeves’ version of “Something So Right” is the best cover of the oft-covered ballad I’ve ever heard. Hell, I didn’t even mind when Marc Anthony showed up to do “El Condor Pasa” and “Late in the Evening” (and laughed out loud when Grover and Elmo concluded their “Feelin’ Groovy” duet by insulting Simon).

Finally, toward the end of the program, Simon appears — but only for five numbers, and he makes them count. After running through “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” with Ladysmith, he brings out his “partner in arguments,” Art Garfunkel, for a duet version of “Bridge over Troubled Water,” then settles in for a solo rendition of “Father and Daughter.” And then things get really interesting: Stevie Wonder comes out to play harmonica on “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” then sits down at the piano (and fucks up the song, prompting a do-over which he explains is a result of “not having my cue cards”) for “Loves Me Like a Rock” — and the Dixie Hummingbirds sit in, too. When Philip Glass comes out for a rendition of “Sounds of Silence,” it feels anticlimactic, but what wouldn’t?

If there’s a drawback to Paul Simon and Friends at all, it’s the bittersweet, autumnal vibe that runs through it. Paul Simon, to put it politely, has not aged well — maybe a little better than Billy Joel — and seeing him and James Taylor share a bill reminds you that these were the artists who sparked a multimillion-dollar pissing match between Warner Bros. and Columbia in the ’70s. Are there any artists — hell, any labels — that could create that kind of thing today? Watching those old pros take the stage underlines not only how far the music business has fallen, but just how fucking old I am. That little kid who dropped There Goes Rhymin’ Simon onto the turntable is watching his beard turn gray now, and watching old idols enter the dotage of their careers. It sucks — but this DVD doesn’t, and if you’re any kind of Paul Simon fan, you’ll want to place your order today.

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