Paul Simon – Live at Sydney Entertainment Centre; Tuesday April 2, 2013

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Paul Simon knows me better than I know myself.

Despite the fact I’ve never met the man, he has nonetheless managed to express me and my human condition better than anyone, such that I actually consider one of his earlier works to be my personal theme song.

But this isn’t the only reason I’m a fan…he also writes a nice tune.

And I suspect that one or both of those reasons was responsible for 10,000 people (maybe more) packing into the Ent Cent last Tuesday night.

But before we get to his show, a word about the opening by Rufus Wainwright. Simon explained at the end of the concert that he had been connected with Rufus’ family – especially his mother – over many years. I have already written about Rufus’ last Australian tour here. Having also been at Byron Bay, Rufus was on the festival train and commented about arriving back in Sydney ‘in one piece’ and mentioned a slight headache. I thought he must be joking, because when he sat at the piano and that sublime voice opened up with ‘The Art Teacher’ and continued through the set, I thought he was absolutely at his best. But then he took up his guitar to do ‘Out of the Game’ and one of my personal favourites ‘Jericho’ from the same album. I guess the best that could be said was that it was hit and miss. He was fluffing chords and, as my dad might have said, he was playing like a hairy goat. That’s when I thought he really might have been a bit dusty from too much festival fun. You do have to give it to him, though. He’s a professional and he just bashed away with loads of chutzpah till the end.

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But then he got back behind the piano and not a blemish. Not in the voice, not in the performance. And he was extraordinary. I never tire of ‘Montauk’ and the playfulness of ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’. This was the first time I had seen him do ‘Memphis Skyline’/’Hallelujah’ so hearing the intro about Rufus’ Jeff Buckley ‘issues’ and then this wonderful medley was a real treat. By the end of his set, I’d forgotten the hairy goat and was back under the spell of this extraordinary man from a family I’ve made no secret of loving for many years.

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So to Paul Simon.

Last time I saw him was 1991 for the Born at the Right Time tour, launched on the back of the South American-infused Rhythm of the Saints album. Back then, I was relatively new to the whole live concert thing and I now realise that I was completely spoiled. It set a very high bar.

I’m not talking about slick perfection or mind-blowing technical stuff. I’ve seen some of the biggest acts in the world and they’re all pretty much of the same high standard. And all artists have their awkward and thoroughly human moments (including Simon). But there’s something about the way he puts a show together that delivers an experience that others, for me, have not achieved. I think it has something to do with the meticulous attention he pays to selecting his musicians. I also think it’s about his arrangements; that ability to pare back a song without losing its richness. And as a known perfectionist, I think there’s also a fair bit of preparation and rehearsal in that mix. I know other artists do all of those things but none of them are, well, Paul Simon.

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Looking back at the setlist, it was pretty much wall-to-wall favourites including six songs from Graceland including ‘Gumboots’, ‘That Was Your Mother’, ‘Crazy Love Vol II’, ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’, ‘You Can Call Me Al’ and the title track. I was a little miffed that there was only one song from Rhythm of the Saints (‘The Obvious Child’) but there were more than enough other great hits to be going on with. I was also gratified that he delved back into some works that I’ve not seen him do live before – either recorded or live – and Simon seemed to revel in revisiting them. This included ‘My Little Town’ and ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ (including excellent backdrop photographs).

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Whilst everything on the list was a highlight of some sort for fans, I think the truly great moments of the show were when he deviated from his own songbook.

The first of these was when he melted from his stunning ‘Hearts and Bones’ into Junior Parker’s ‘Mystery Train’ and then to Chet Atkins’ ‘Wheels’ via a sneaky few bars of ‘Mona Lisa’ and who knows how many other subtle references (the latter was made famous by Nat King Cole, but was written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston for those playing at home). Driven by the amazing Mark Stewart on lead guitar (a startlingly versatile multi-instrumentalist who has toured with Simon since the mid-90s), this segue was surprising as it was dominated by a straight country rhythm which I had the impression was not Simon’s bag. But he was loving it, and so did we.

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Mark Stewart

The next deviation was in the first encore (there were three!), where they launched into ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Simon’s sweet voice proved the perfect conduit for George Harrison’s tune.

The third was in the last encore. The band struck up the Bo Diddley beat for ‘Pretty Thing’ and the ensemble was doing an excellent job on its own. But for good measure, Bonnie Raitt snuck on stage to lend some percussion and backing vocals. Knowing I was going to see her the following night, this was the perfect preview. It also highlighted to me how rare it is for Australians to see such high calibre cameos. They are more common in the US where artists are literally often just down the road from one another’s performances on a regular basis. I guess we can thank Bluesfest for that.

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Bonnie Raitt

I also like that Simon was prepared to go a little off script. Citing a mood to try a couple of S&G songs (other than those he’d already prepared), and apologising upfront for being unrehearsed, Simon started ‘Homeward Bound’ with the rest of the band following. What emerged was again a country rhythm that, this time, actually did feel incongruous and seemed to overpower the delicate chorus. I’m not sure who engineered it – possibly Stewart or Simon himself – but the rhythm section got the message and pulled back, and the final result was excellent. I like the fact that he went off script, I like that they tried something, I like that it went a little awry and that they got it back in the end. This is what live performance is.

And then there was the ultimate moment. The final of the three encores and the moment I had been waiting for. You need to know that ‘The Boxer’ for me is up there with ‘Dimming of the Day’ and ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ for all-time beautiful songs. So whatever Simon decided to do with it, I would be happy as long as he played it. So when Rufus came out and lifted this already gorgeous tune with his soaring and sublime harmonies, I confess to an overwhelmingly emotional moment. I’ve heard lots of people do covers of that song, but I’ve never heard the harmony articulated that way. I mean Garfunkel’s performance is quite singular, but Rufus brought something different and all his own. I was definitely speechless.

That said, ever professional, I was also mindful of getting a shot, so here you are…

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I think I’ve gushed enough, but it’s no less than you might expect for one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. Argue at your peril.

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Shawn Colvin – Live at The Basement, March 31, 2013

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It’s never been about ‘Sunny Came Home’.

Whilst it is arguably her most popular song, she already had me at Steady On, especially ‘Shotgun Down the Avalanche’ and the title track.

Then, for me, came Cover Girl. The irony is not lost on me that an album which has became the soundtrack to a very significant period of my life – and therefore is definitely coming to the desert island – doesn’t contain any songs she’s actually written. Instead, this album highlighted her guitar skills and gave me a better sense of her wonderful vocal interpretation. I already knew she had a great voice, I just heard it more clearly on Cover Girl. The album also contains her version of Jimmy Webb‘s ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ which rips your heart out in a way equalled only by Bonnie Raitt’s version of Richard Thompson’s ‘Dimming of the Day’.

Essentially, whilst I have a number of Colvin’s other albums and I think they are all excellent, it should be understood where my connection with her music comes from.

So last night’s show was a delight. She recreated the vibe I got from the live tracks on Cover Girl, the guitar work was as accomplished as always and the voice was as I expected, although I’m not sure that I know how to describe it. I wouldn’t call it pure or classically folk. It’s strong and has some smoke in it, there’s breathiness (not in an ingenue way) but also some sharpness. And it has the ability to stand forward on its own or fall back and support others’ vocals (which she has done many times) with a chameleon-like richness and warmth. This is a rarer skill than you might think. Anyone can sing a harmony, but not all back-up singers can truly blend. Colvin can.

However she was no-one’s support last night and the stand-out beautiful voice was what we got.

The show wasn’t slick in a polished sense (which can sometimes be distancing). Colvin was a little more – for want of a better word – organic, taking her time over some of the phrases and letting the songs roll as they may. Somehow that was more satisfying. Like she was playing for family in the lounge room. Don’t get me wrong though, this wasn’t amateur hour. You just got the sense (as you do with artists of her ilk) that she’s worked hard to be as good as she is, and if she wants to pause a bit over that section, she will. It wasn’t all the time, but was a nice touch.

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Some of the new songs from the latest album All Fall Down were highlights, especially ‘Change is On the Way’, which she wrote with Patti Griffin. Colvin noted this album represented a spreading of her writing collaboration wings, having spent a long time working with the remarkable John Leventhal (Leventhal is a Grammy-award winning producer, musician and co-writer who I first encountered via listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter. He’s worked with a virtual who’s who of my music world and is something of a hero. He’s also married to Roseanne Cash). While Leventhal still has a hand in four songs on the album, some of Colvin’s partners on this new work include Griffin, Jakob Dylan, Bill Frisell and Viktor Krauss (Alison‘s brother and Lyle Lovett‘s bass player).

Aside from songs from the new album, ‘Sunny Came Home’ got a run as you would expect. She also did lovely versions of ‘Shotgun Down the Avalanche’ and ‘Diamond in the Rough’, beautifully retaining their richness of tone despite just being one guitar. Sometimes I find solo acoustic versions of songs I know so well from the albums to be thin and lacking substance when done live, but this wasn’t a problem.

Probably the absolute highlight for me was ‘Killing the Blues’. Written by Rowland ‘Roly’ Salley (Chris Isaak‘s bass player), this was on Cover Girl but was also done wonderfully by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their album Raising Sand. The song is another favourite and, since the album version was a live recording, the experience was very much the same. Therefore it was not only familiar but heightened by the fact she was only a matter of feet away. And it wasn’t just me, it was obvious everyone else was feeling it in their own ways and for their own reasons. It was just superb.

Colvin was also very engaged with the crowd. She’s not a comic or a clown, but she has some funny moments, like when she unintentionally unleashed a spate of requests from the floor and gave a Scooby-Doo ‘Ruh-roh!’. It’s just nice to see them show us who they are.

I am ashamed to admit I have no idea what her first encore song was, but it was complex and stunning. I think it really highlighted the singularity of her voice. If anyone can help, that would be greatly appreciated, and I’ll update.

Her finale was another one from Cover Girl. Her take on ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ which is also a live track on the album. So again, another one done how I expected it to be, and even better when she’s in the room.

That was the perfect ending. I left The Basement still singing it on the street and ultimately gratified to have finally experienced the stunning skill and beauty of a voice that has accompanied me through many life experiences over many years.

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