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Homeward Bound: A Grammy Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon At the Pantages Theatre, Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Paul Simon
Paul Simon

The last time I saw Paul Simon at the Hollywood Bowl, during his Homeward Bound tour in 2018, I thought it would be the last time ever. I was not even expecting to see him during the tribute “Homeward Bound: A Grammy Salute to the Songs of Paul Simon” at the Pantages Theatre, but they announced that he would make a “special appearance” during the show. I actually spotted him very early on, sitting in the front row during most part of the evening, then taking the stage for a glorious final after about 3 hours of music.

The performance was tapped for a TV show, and producer Ken Ehrlich made us aware of that at the beginning. Ehrlich, who produced the Grammys for 40 years, has done the same tapings for Elton John, Whitney Houston, the Bee Gees, and The Beatles, and it is pure luck I heard about this Paul Simon special because it was not really advertised anywhere. The tribute, which will air on CBS later this year, had all the awkwardness of a show tapping, with some occasional do-it-all-over-again. However, nobody did mind hearing twice a song when the producers were not too happy of the first take. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood did a false start and restarted “The Boxer” after a few verses. “Paul Simon is in the front row, no pressure, absolutely,” Trisha joked. Stevie Wonder did “Bridge over Troubled Water” twice and even Paul Simon had to redo “American Tune” with Rhiannon Giddens and “The Sound of Silence” twice! Absolutely no complaints here.

The extravagant night featured an all-star lineup, each star performing their favorite Paul Simon song with the help of a top-notch house band. Even Woody Harrelson (who is a close friend) started a clumsy A-cappella cover of “Old Friends,” while Dustin Hoffman, alluding to “The Graduate,” the 1968 film that launched his career, didn’t go there at all. Rather, he mentioned the essential role of Simon’s songs in the film.

A Grammy salute has to be a love fest, an extended syrupy praise fest like we have seen many before, and this certainly was one. Whether you like Paul Simon or not, you cannot deny the endearing and timeless quality of the man’s music. As Oprah put it – she introduced Simon with a warm embrace when he took the stage – “The songs of Paul Simon have not only defined our times, but they’ve also defied time.”

Countless of his songs are part of America’s DNA and will be for a long time, but, beyond America, there’s also a strong appeal going across countries and cultures. He is an American songwriter who has managed to embrace many cultures and styles and made them his at a time when the term cultural appropriation was not on everyone’s mind. He never cared about this, even when he was heavily criticized for partially recording his Grammy-winning album “Graceland” in South Africa during Apartheid. He saw himself as a musician interacting with other musicians and for the best or the worst, never considered anything else. But all was obviously forgotten last night, and Paul Simon’s art was celebrated across genres and origins, receiving the same overwhelming love from country artists (Brad Paisley, Garth Brooks, Eric Church), African American icons (Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Oprah, Jimmy Cliff, Sheila E.) and African queen (Angelique Kidjo)… yes, all these people in one night and many more.

There was a bit of everything for everybody as the songs were often reworked to the style of the performer. Honestly, it is very hard to pick a highlight of the night as each performer had selected a song they had a personal attachment to, and it showed. Brad Paisley had the honor to open the show with a dynamic “Kodachrome” but he came back later on for a glorious “Late in the Evening”. He visibly had a lot of fun screaming “And I blew that room away,” injecting some youthful energy into the songs, and putting everyone on their feet, dancing… he was good, without transforming the songs extensively, he effortlessly made them his. The Jonas Brothers did a wide-eyed version of “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” while Jimmy Cliff with Shaggy had fun with “Mother and Child Reunion.” A stomping version of “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” fit Irma Thomas and Trombone Shorty like a glove: they put so much New Orleans into that one that people became ecstatic when they had to do it twice. Country band Little Big Town covered “Slip Slide In A Way,” followed by Eric Idle in tandem with Puddles Pity Party for an uplifting “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life” at Simon’s request, injected of a few “Feelin’ Groovy” lines here and there. That was certainly the most “irreverent” approach of the night, and the funniest one. The always delicious Susanna Hoffs didn’t surprise anyone with a rendition of “Hazy Shade of Winter,” but the Bangles rocked the song, and she did it again (twice) with her youthful charm. Eric Church put some real twang in “Homeward Bound,” while Dave Matthews, Angelique Kidjo, and gospel sextet Take 6 joined their cross-cultural forces for “Homeless,” “African Skies,” and “You Can Call Me Al.” As Simon noted himself later, Take 6’s harmonies and vocal prowess were amazingly close to those of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo, while Angelique effortlessly stepped in Miriam Makeba’s big shoes, fiercely flying on stage. Needless to say, everyone in the room was dancing and clapping during Dave Matthews’s dynamic take of “You Can Call Me Al,” but unfortunately, they didn’t need a second take for this one. Dustin Hoffman introduced Stevie Wonder, who told us we were “weary of war” before a full gospel version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with the help from American R&B and jazz singer Ledisi, who pushed the notes very high. It was also the perfect occasion for collaborations and Stevie shared “his love for Mrs. Robinson” by putting a twist on the famous tune with the help of Sheila E. and the Jonas Brothers. Actor and singer Billy Porter told us how personal the song “Loves Me Like a Rock” was for him: “it’s about my mother, it’s about my mother’s love”… “I grew up Pentecostal, grew up gay” he added before a flamboyant Church-like rendition of the song with help from Take 6, and this honestly brought the house down.

A few other stars like Elton John, Sting, and Bonnie Raitt – who previously recorded performances of the beloved “America” (Sting) and “Something So Right” (Raitt) – made an apparition through a video screen, while clips browsing Simon’s impressive and long career aired between the live performances. We had the chance to see precious moments such as Mohamed Ali watching Paul singing “The Boxer,” or Paul thanking Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album the year he received so many Grammys for “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Throughout the night, the man of the extended hour was called an “incredible genius,” “one of the greatest poets in music history,” “a visionary artist,” “a living legend,” “a venturous artist always eager to learn new things,” “a man who has never lost his excitement to explore all possibilities,” or “the Mount Rushmore of the songwriters.”

An unannounced Oprah seemed amazed to be there – it was her first time in a crowd since March 2020. “Your music has indeed brought us miracle and wonder,” she said while introducing her friend, and Paul gave us a life-spinning three-song set: “Graceland,” with a full band and the audience clapping along, “American Tune” with Rhiannon Giddens on banjo and lead vocals, and finally “The Sound of Silence,” solo. If his voice sounded more fragile than the last time I saw him; Simon is now 80. He praised Rhiannon’s talent, joking she was not even born when he wrote the song she performed. She slightly altered the lyrics – “We didn’t come …. The Mayflower”– opening a new level of meaning for the song. Simon, who made a false start after the first chords of his most famous song, threw a funny “Don’t encourage this” after the crowd’s cheering reaction, and ended this epic night with “The Sound of Silence,” as he did endless times during his long career.

“The songs of Paul Simon are like old friends,” Woody Harrelson said. People around me became a bit teary during the show, maybe because all these songs were bringing back tons of memories. In 2022, they sound ridiculously familiar, all of them, without any exception, and this in itself is remarkable. Hearing them again was like revisiting a warm place called home… last night, we were all homeward bound.


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