Friday, May 1, 2009

Paul Simon: Popular Songs

By David Luhrssen
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In 2007 the Library of Congress inaugurated an award called the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Its first recipient, Paul Simon, is uncontroversial until you think about whom else might have won in that debut year. Without Bob Dylan’s example, Simon might have enjoyed a career as a pop tunesmith in the Brill Building or published a poem or two. He’s unlikely to have gone as far if Dylan hadn’t opened the door. Couldn’t they have honored Simon in year two?

The documentary of the concert held in conjunction with the Gershwin Prize, Paul Simon and Friends (out May 19 on DVD), is prefaced by an introduction from Bob Costas. He says Simon’s songs are “beyond any single musical category or period,” forming a body of work whose high level spanned the 1960s through the present. The first half of his assertion is true, but it’s harder to argue that Simon’s resonance, heard so loudly from the ‘60s through the ‘80s has continued in the ‘90s and the ‘00s. True enough, Simon’s period of peak creativity outlasted most of his contemporaries, but while one may like the more recent albums, few would claim they are as memorable as past work.

But the concert itself supports Simon’s claim to great songwriting by showing how his material can be reinterpreted while maintaining its integrity. In his lovely rendition of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Lyle Lovett endows the song with more pathos than in Simon’s original recording. Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin and Jerry Douglas transform “The Boxer” into high-lonesome Appalachian alt country. Among the other performers are Stevie Wonder, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Simon’s old partner in song, Art Garfunkel.

A few clips of historical footage are tossed in, including George Harrison and Simon performing “Homeward Bound” and Simon with African songstress Miriam Makeba singing material from Graceland in a 1987 concert in Zimbabwe, back when that African nation seemed to have a bright future.

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