'Grammy Salute to Paul Simon' Has Guests From Stevie Wonder to JoBros

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Viewers can’t go wrong catching the full two hours of “Homeward Bound: A Grammy Salute to the Songs of Paul Simon” tonight on CBS (or, in the coming days, streaming on Paramount+). But if you only have about 10 minutes to spare for non-Christmas music on television in the days leading up to Christmas, maybe make that the final act of this special – especially the generational crossover number that has a master, Rhiannon Giddens, joining touching to another. As Giddens and Simon play “American Tune,” you can feel like you’ve set out to find America, and actually sort of succeeded in that quest, over the course of just one number.

Everything else about the broadcast – which was filmed in front of a live audience at Hollywood’s Pantages in April (see Varietynext day’s coverage here) – seems immaculately chosen by producer Ken Ehrlich, though hardly marred by left-field surprises. There are no excuses for the youth vote, except for the inclusion of the Jonas Brothers reviving “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” which, with all due respect to their respect for one of the greats is probably the least essential performance here. But it’s okay that they didn’t bring, like, Gayle to the occasion. With a Paul Simon, you want something closer to a peer-to-peer review panel, which you definitely get when one of the guests of honor is Stevie Wonder, the only guy who won more album of the year Grammys in the 1970s. (three) than the pair of album trophies Simon won during the same decade. None of the other guests count as ’60s-era contemporaries like Wonder does, but with other frequent award winners like Bonnie Raitt also on board, it feels like Old Home Week when it comes to this “Greeting” almost secondarily serving as a tribute to the Grammys themselves.

It may or may not seem surprising that some of the show’s best bits come from Simon’s 1987 Album of the Year winner, “Graceland” – it’s only shocking if you didn’t believe that Rickey Minor would be able to assemble a band capable of playing this stuff in concert. its maximum potential from the African continent. Minor also plays bass in the 17-piece house band he put together, and you might wonder how the hell he managed to play the signature bass parts on “You Can Call Me Al” so expertly, until it’s announced — from above, from final presenter Oprah Winfrey — that “the last living member of the band ‘Graceland’”, Bakithi Kumalo, is also present in the ensemble. Aside from Simon’s own version of the title track “Graceland’s” near the end, the album that may be the landmark album of the ’80s is represented by Take 6 channeling Ladysmith Black Mambazo a cappella “Homeless” and Angélique Kidjo and another Southern native -African. Dave Matthews bringing figurative swagger and literal swagger to “Under African Skies” and “Al.”

Angélique Kidjo and Dave Matthews perform on stage during Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon at the Hollywood Pantages Theater on April 6, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)
Getty Images for The Recording Academy

There are other moments in the show where things get as multicultural as ever in honor of whoever is one of the biggest Yankees fans, like putting Jimmy Cliff and Shaggy in joint service for “Mother and Child Reunion,” arguably the first reggae song to become a true staple of American pop life. Showcasing Simon’s ecumenical and ethnological diversity, his early-’70s fleeting interest in the black gospel saw the godlike “Loves Me Like a Rock” revived by the combination of Take Six and Billy Porter – the latter not known for his impact. . on the Christian charts, but as Porter puts it about their converging interests: “I grew up Pentecostal, I’m also gay, and I’m in love with life.” Their trip to New Orleans for “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” gets the most fitting cast possible, topped here by Trombone Shorty and Irma Thomas, the other guest with as long a pedigree as Simon and Stevie.

Ironically perhaps, Simon has dove throughout his career into almost any and all genres that count as one of the building blocks of rock ‘n’ roll, without ever identifying rock ‘n’ roll per se, but that gap is taken in the Susanna Hoffs special bringing back the Bangles’ hit cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter”, possibly the only time Simon has been associated – by proxy – with headbanging, as well as the headshrinkers material.

HOMEWARD BOUND: A GRAMMY® SALUTE TO THE SONGS OF PAUL SIMON, a special concert honoring 16-time GRAMMY® winner Paul Simon, featuring a guest appearance by the legendary singer/songwriter, will air on Wednesday, December 21 (9:00-11:00 pm, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network and available for on-demand streaming on Paramount+. In the photo: Susanna Hoffs. (Photo by Christopher Polk/CBS via Getty Images)
CBS via Getty Images

For all this depiction of their genre exploration, most of the two hours goes, not without reason, to stars who treat their singer-songwriter essentials in singer-songwriter fashion. Country artists are best at twisting songs that suggest other old-school writers or singers: Garth Brooks, joined in perfect harmony by Trisha Yearwood, delivers “The Boxer” sort of through Don McLean, while Eric Church slightly reinvents “America” as a Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb song.

One of Simon’s great gifts as a songwriter, which is also an integral part of why it’s sometimes difficult to fully convey his brilliance to younger generations, is his special talent – especially with some of his early post-Simon & Garfunkel solo work. in the ’70s – to marry some of the trickiest, most insightful and sometimes most melancholy lyricism pop has ever seen with deceptively cheerful melodies that represented the apex of what “adult contemporary” songs could be. That’s evident here when Little Big Town gleefully takes on “Slip Slidin’ Away,” a sad song that only gets sadder when, as edited for broadcast here, it drops the cosmic shrug of the final verse and ends with a touching verse about a divorced father paying a furtive visit to his sleeping son. They shouldn’t be smiling, really, but it’s hard to blame them — the song’s easy Sunday-morning quality elicits a feel-good brain chemistry even before the group’s harmonies are applied.

But Simon also had his moments, to be sure, when the songs advertised themselves as deep and delivered. That’s how the strong double whammy that ends the show has such a powerful impact after so many selections that felt, well, cooler.

The band packs up after “Graceland” (in real life, anyway—the super-tight editing doesn’t allow for the Pantages changing scenery) and Giddens leaves to join Simon, or to join him, as His only contribution to “American Tune” is as an instrumental accompaniment. It’s an impressive rendition, from those of us who saw the recording live in April, waiting eight months for the rest of the world to hear it. (The two also performed together at the Newport Folk Festival in July, so it wasn’t completely unheard of in between.)

Giddens invests the classic song with enough new meaning that you almost believe she was born to sing it, not Simon. A big part of that is how a key couplet in the last snippet was altered to make the ballad no longer a white man’s blues, with “Oh, we came on the ship they call the Mayflower / We came on the ship that sailed the moon” to “We didn’t come here on the Mayflower / We came on a ship on a blood-red moon”. Having been credited with the change when the song was first played earlier this year, Giddens was quick to point out that it was Simon’s own doing, not hers. But regardless of its inspiration, the sight of Giddens singing these new lyrics while she plays the banjo – as she often points out, a crucial slave instrument – while Simon accompanies her acoustics adds some guard-changing text and subtext to a song that was already at the height of American music in its earliest form.

Rhiannon Giddens and Paul Simon perform at the recording of “Homeward Bound: A Grammy Salute to the Songs of Paul Simon” at the Pantages in April 2022
Chris Willman/Varieties

Even without these tweaks, “American Tune” stands as something that speaks to the American experiment more deeply in this political climate than ever before. “I don’t have a friend who’s comfortable,” Giddens sings, and you know she’s not lying. (The rhyme “you can’t be blessed forever”/”get some rest” might also have some special resonance for anyone who often reads headlines about the state of the nation heading into Christmas week.) When Simon sings, you tend to sing. to imagine that the arc of the universe bends towards a kind of sad resignation; when Giddens adds his seriousness, you believe that change can still happen after all.

Instead of reverting to a celebratory note for leaving, the broadcast ends with Simon, solo, singing “The Sound of Silence”. His shows also ended unsuccessfully, before he retired from the road three years ago, so maybe picking such a somber note to do this special isn’t a total risk. It still feels poignant, in more ways than can be fully explained, to see Simon approach the end of his career with a song that defined youthful alienation at its inception, now alluding to a deeper, more deserved state of silence🇧🇷 But as this special shows, barely scratching the surface of what may be the most legitimately poetic of all the great American songbooks, Simon’s voice will never go silent.