Paul Simon & Friends
Gershwin Prize for Popular Song
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2009, Volume 16, #6
Written by John Metzger
Mon June 15, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
Few songwriters in the history of American music are truly worthy contenders for the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Named after George and Ira Gershwin, the award was initiated by the Library of Congress in 2007. Considering the tremendous levels of depth and diversity that the Gershwins exhibited in their work, it will be difficult to maintain a consistent stream of nominated artists who are capable of standing toe-to-toe with the brotherly team. While Bob Dylan would have been the obvious choice to be honored first, the government institution instead tapped Paul Simon to be its inaugural selection; strangely, Dylan has yet to be decorated, as Stevie Wonder was named the second and only other recipient.
To draw attention to the newly created award, a star-studded concert was held in Simonís honor at Washington, D.C.ís Warner Theatre. Throughout the evening, an array of artists ó from James Taylor to Stephen Marley ó assembled to perform his songs. Simon himself even made a brief appearance, rekindling his collaborative relationships with Art Garfunkel, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the Dixie Hummingbirds on Bridge over Troubled Water, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, and Loves Me Like a Rock, respectively. He also unveiled Father and Daughter, which, oddly enough, was the only song to be featured that was written after the release of his blockbuster comeback outing Graceland. A few archival videos were also incorporated into the programís architecture, including Simonís duet with George Harrison on Homeward Bound, which was taken from Saturday Night Live, as well as the mesmerizing and haunting rendition of Mrs. Robinson that he delivered during a public memorial service for baseball star Joe DiMaggio.
The real highlights of the concert, however, were the interpretations of Simonís material that were presented as he waited in the wings. Within the hands of others, his songs gently were pushed away from their moorings and given ample room to breathe. Frequently, they drifted closer to the various genres from which Simon originally had pulled his ideas. Dianne Reeves, for example, steered Something So Right toward its jazz-imbued, R&B-inspired roots, while Yolanda Adams and Jessy Dixon turned Gone at Last into a rousing, gospel-soul revival. Elsewhere, Marc Anthony embraced the fiery salsa beat of Late in the Evening, and pianist Philip Glass built the intricate guitar patterns of Sounds of Silence into a majestic, classical composition.
At other moments, Simonís tunes simply gained new perspectives. The ghosts of Southern life floated through the ethereal atmosphere conjured by Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas on Graceland, while Lyle Lovett found the wry humor as well as the torment that lurks inside 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. Thereís no doubt that over the years, Simonís songs have become such familiar companions that itís easy to miss how restless his spirit typically has been. In truth, he seamlessly has incorporated an amazing breadth of musical styles into his compositions. The sum total of the nearly two-hour extravaganza that was held to acknowledge his receipt of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song undeniably was a strange meshing of commerce and art. Yet, it also emphatically made a clear-cut case for any doubters. While his selection may have been surprisingly unconventional, Simon was utterly deserving of the honor. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
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3 Stars: Respectable
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