The party’s over, the circus has left town, the finale of the 2012 Hard Rock Calling music festival is over and done, and we’re getting so misty-eyed that we can barely see the keyboard. Luckily the powers that be gave us one hell of a parting gift: Paul Simon performing all of Graceland with the original Ladysmith Black Mambazo backing group! It’s hard to feel too bad with music like that swirling in our ears. Rest assured folks, he’s still crazy after all these years.
But we’re getting way too ahead of ourselves. Today was something of a gentler day for the HRC lineup. If yesterday was a competition to see who could rock out the hardest (and loudest), today was more of an exploration of the many different possibilities within music, from country to gospel to african rhythm to reggae and beyond. It was truly a grab-bag in the finest sense: every set was an unexpected winner, full of songs you never knew you loved. There was something of a late sixties NorCal festival vibe in their air when we arrived. The English summer sun was shining, and we saw young women brandishing tambourines wandering the muddy grounds in lacy shirts with daisy chains in their hair (really). Plus we saw some seriously outstanding mustaches, which were definitely worth the price of admission.
We got there just in time to hear Robert Randolph ripping it up on a pedal steel guitar with his Family Band. Part blues, part funk and all awesome, their break-neck jams gave us as badly needed wakeup jolt. “We only got two hours sleep last night!” Robert yelled from the stage in between numbers. So did we Bob, and right now we barely have enough energy to lift a can of Red Bull to our lips! How does he do it?!
The Punch Brothers were up next on the mainstage, bringing their progressive bluegrass to the masses. Although probably best known at this point for their song “Dark Days” on the Hunger Games soundtrack, the Brothers are absolutely consummate musicians. Out of New York, they almost sound like something you’d hear on a summer’s day in Washington Square Park. But though their tunes are undeniably pretty, there’s an edge in their vocals that keep them from being too cute to be a mere picnic soundtrack. We definitely admire that.
Sadly the Red Bull hadn’t kicked in by this point and we ended up missing Christina Perri’s mainstage set because we misread the festival schedule. But thankfully there was a silver lining to this lapse into stupidity as we were treated to an intimate acoustic performance by English singer/songwriter James Walsh on the VIP stage just a few feet away! While we didn’t know his name right off the bat, the sound of his powerful Bono-like tenor literally made us sit up and take notice. He’s better known to us as the lead singer of the British band Starsailor, whose 2003 single “Silence Is Easy” is the last single legendary producer Phil Spector worked on before being sentenced to prison. Creepy guy, but great song! James did a solo version of this tune before paying tribute to headliner Paul Simon with a glorious cover of “Peace Like A River.” The festival gods can be so very kind. “It would be naff [lame] if I did this on the main stage,” he said with a smile. “But because I’m back here with you, it’s alright.”
We’d gathered our wits enough to find the main stage in time for Alison Krauss’ set. She and her band Union Station delivered a pure shot of bluegrass to the ever-growing crowd. She had a secret weapon in Jerry Douglas, the world-renowned dobro virtuoso whom she described as “the greatest musician alive.” That’s pretty high praise considering she’s worked with legends like Robert Plant, Elvis Costello and Sting. It was rumored that Plant would be taking the stage as a special guest at the end of her set, but sadly he never materialized. But when she and the gang busted out favorites like “Sinking Stone” and “Daylight,” any dissapointment was quickly forgotten. Our pick will always be her heartfelt reading of the Foundations classic “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” but it was also pretty cool to hear Dan Tyminski do his cuts from the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. For a moment it was like having George Clooney in the house!
The set seemed slightly short, leading us to wonder if the acts have been prompted to hurry it up a little after Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen went overtime last night and got shut down by London police. We heard later from HRC organizers that the fines for playing past a noise curfew is somewhere in the area of 25,000 pounds ($38,600)…per minute! So yeah, we can see why they’d want to avoid that kind of payout.
As with the Springsteen the night before, there seemed to be a long gap before the headliner, allowing tensions and expectations to mount to a fever pitch. By the time the 70 year-old Simon hit up the stage, the crowd was prep’d to smother him with affection. He lead off with “Kodachrome,” the perfect choice for a London summer night at sunset. Suddenly, we’re at a big BBQ with 80 thousand family friends, and all the world is a sunny day. Oh yeah. “Gone At Last” and “Dazzling Blue” follow, and soon we’re in full flight. He sings of the Montauk highway and it makes us wonder what these landmarks (so familiar to this New Yorker) sound like to these native Londoners. The same goes for the places Bruce Springsteen sang about last night. Does they sound as distant and exotic as African rhythms, or as common place to them as it does to us. Like trying to hear you’re own accent, it’s tough to tell.
For the first few songs, Simon almost seems like a benevolent grandfather. Patient and gentle but serious, with lessons that he’s trying to teach you. Without question it comes from a kind and warm place, as if he’s trying to pass his aquired musical wisdom off on all of us. He plays some instrumental passages on his guitar before helpfully adding, “That was ‘Mystery Train’ by Junior Parker, and ‘Wheels’ by Chet Atkins.” At his age, he’s certainly not touring for his health. He’s at a place in his career where he doesn’t need to be doing any this, and at moments it seems as if he feels above something as fleeting as live performance.
He brings out the legendary Jamaican musician Jimmy Cliff to take the reigns on “The Harder They Fall” and the prennial “Many Rivers To Cross,” seen by many as one of the greatest songs of all time. Then they tag team it on Jimmy’s protest song “Vietnam,” and Simon’s reggae-tinged “Mother And Child Reunion.” The sight of the diminutive Simon and the towering Cliff makes them look like some kind of bizarre comedy duo and the result is incredibly endearing.
Then the lights dim and show turns into a confessional as Simon picks the intro to “Hearts and Bones,” a bruising self-portrait from the period of his divorce from actress Carrie Fisher. He practically whispers into the mic, getting right up close to it. So far we’ve seen Paul Simon the musical archivist, the optimist, and the super star. But for the first time tonight, we see Paul Simon as a flawed and vulnerable man. He reaches for a Beach Boy-y falsetto and it hasn’t aged well. But it’s those cracks in his voice that show us where he’s been. The imperfections make the music three dimensional, in the same way they give human’s depth.
An army of stage crew bring out a dozen mics, and the crowd starts to rumble. We know what this means. Simon introduces the South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and everyone cheers. It’s Graceland time. As he starts to play, it’s apparent that something within him has changed. He’s having FUN. You can see the twinkle in his eyes. He starts acting out conversations in the songs, turning to one side and then the other for different characters, and offering accusatory hand gestures. He’s getting into it! And then you suddenly realize: This is PAUL SIMON. Making Graceland right before our eyes!
In the 25 years since its release, there have never been any other sounds like those on Graceland. The fusion of world rhythms, western tonal modes on exotic instruments and Simon’s trademark introspective lyrics created something totally without precedent. It can’t sound dated; there’s almost nothing on the record that can tie it to any time or place. It doesn’t rely on any cultural shorthand or musical cliches of that era, or of any era. It’s not zydeco, it’s not reggae, it’s not funk, it’s not dixieland, it’s not folk, it’s not South African tribal music. It’s all of it! The blend existed totally in the mind of its creator, which is what makes it timeless. Pure creativity never goes out of style. Paul Simon had the vision, and was impervious to political pressure to stay out of South Africa because of the ruling regime’s policy on apartheid. He was smart enough not to confuse people with politics, and in the end set out to make the music he wanted to make. That takes guts.
The record is just as important sonically and socially as something like The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We have a funny feeling Sir Paul agrees, as we caught him backstage dancing during the show with his new with Nancy Shevell. He obviously had no hard feelings about getting shut down during last night’s surprise appearance!
One mildly disappointing thing about the set was that Simon didn’t do the album start to back, but skipped around and played non-album cuts in between. He even left out the record’s closing song, “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints,” all together. But in the end, who cares? He played pretty much all of Graceland, and we were happy with that. Besides, the crowd didn’t seem to notice, much in the same way we didn’t notice that he never played a single Simon and Garfunkel song for the whole first part of the set. It wasn’t until he did “The Sound of Silence” and “The Boxer” for an encore that we realized that fact. How many classics did this guy write, anyway!?
The final song of the evening -and of the 2012 Hard Rock Calling music festival – was “Still Crazy After All These Years,” a melancholy look back at old friends and lovers. It’s not exactly music to “rock out” to, but it was a good summation of the festival, which looked to the past just as much as it looked to the future. We had recent reunions with Soundgarden and the Stooges, celebrations of past triumphs with Graceland, mourning for lost old friends like Clarence Clemons in the E-Street Band. And of course we saw all sorts of wonderful new up-and-coming performers and future superstars on the Hard Rock Rising stage. Who knows, one of those groups may headline the festival someday!