Monday, November 2, 2009

If There's a Rock & Roll Heaven, Then I Just Had a Near-Death Experience (Part 2)

It was hard to know how the evening would unfold. Clearly, Springsteen was gonna headline, but the rest of the order was up for grabs. When CSN ended and the screen slowly dropped, the shot of the New York skyline that began the next film was all we needed to know that Paul Simon was up next.

Starting the night with "Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes," Simon made a clear connection between his mid-'80's "Graceland" period and the 1950's doo-wop sound that he loved growing up in Queens. It's a constant source of fascination that "Diamonds" and other tunes from that LP are singalong favorites. The lyrics are inscrutable, yet there were tens of thousands gleefully joining in with words that have no apparent meaning.

Not so with the next tune, "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard." The enthusiasm of the crowd led Paul to quip, "Must be a lot of people here from Corona." Then, building on the frenzy, came "You Can Call Me Al," which brought everyone to their feet for the first time of the night.

With that, Simon introduced one of his '50's heroes, "one of the great voices of New York," down from Belmont Ave. in the Bronx, Dion DiMucci. "Yo!" Dion addressed the crowd with a familiar Bronx cheer and the even more familiar "The Wanderer." Simon joined two members of his band to form a singing trio, hunched around an imaginary oil drum, flames flickering over the rim as they stood at a street corner in their minds. Paul seemed very happy. Dion was one and done, and, after he left, Simon held center stage and created the first surprise of the concert.

Paying tribute to a friend that he loved, a friend who held the first benefit ever at MSG in 1971, Simon asked David Crosby and Graham Nash to join him in a version of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun." Now, the fact that Beatle George's benefit was to help save the starving masses in flood torn Bangla Desh, and this night's benefit was on behalf of the non-profit idea of the corporate giants at Rolling Stone was lost on the crowd. The night was irony free. It doesn't bother me one bit, I'm just sayin'. As to the song itself, it was a beautiful moment, and a new CSN was born.

The next bit of irony came after C & N left, Simon proceeding with "Late in the Evening." One Trick Pony, Simon's failed film effort of 1980, is a pretty good tale of a faded 1960's star named Jonah who recoils at the idea of simply parading his old chart toppers. Instead, Jonah wants to maintain his artistic relevance. Simon has definitely succeed where Jonah couldn't. Paul's last LP Surprise was an amazing disc that found him partnered with Brian Eno. For this night, Simon was Jonah, giving the crowd what they wanted. "Late in the Evening," the hit from the movie, was what they wanted.

Paul spoke of his radio listening days as a kid, and his devotion to Alan Freed, and he introduced Little Anthony & The Imperials. The resplendent group, who first met at the Ft. Greene Projects in Brooklyn, noted that they used to sing in the 34th & Lexington Subway station, right down the street. "Two People in the World" was an a Capella knockout.

I wondered how Simon & Garfunkel would appear. It seemed unlikely that Paul would introduce Art. I'm sure Garfunkel wouldn't stand for being brought on as a guest of Paul. So, after Little Anthony, there was a small delay and, with spotlight stage left, the two walked on together, but apart.

First, "Sounds of Silence" to a crazed crowd. New Yorkers love their Simon & Garfunkel, local boys who made good. "Mrs. Robinson" became a mini-tour of rock history. The song morphed into a Bo Diddley, "Mona" infused guitar riff. Would they play that? I was intrigued. Instead, they turned that phasing guitar into "Not Fade Away," then, back to Mrs. R. "The Boxer" followed, not one of my faves, and the interminable ending "la la lies" was mercifully short. By the way, Paul always thought that bit went on too long.

Of course, the final song would have to be "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Artie's voice was a bit husky, a tad fuzzy, emphasizing his overall Jewish grandfatherly image. Paul belted the hell out of the verse he sang, totally outdoing his friend/rival/enemy/partner/nemesis.

Total standing ovation, which led to an encore of "Cecilia." Jubilation indeed. The MSG mob was delirious with joy, but not so our uneasy duo. With the music over, Artie gave Paul a hug, and a friendly tap, from which Paul recoiled. He immediately bolted and they exited as they entered, several steps apart in a tense ceasefire.

Next up, Stevie Wonder.

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