Some of the world’s best-known musicians took to the Warner Theatre’s stage May 23 to honor one of their own, Paul Simon, recipient of the first Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, sponsored by the Library of Congress. Named for brothers Ira and George, writers and composers of some of the 20th century’s best-loved music—including Porgy and Bess and “Rhapsody in Blue”—the prize not only recognizes a great American songwriter but also draws attention to the library’s collection of manuscripts, scores, and movies.
Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live and a longtime neighbor of Simon’s, delivered a brief but very funny roast. Video clips, played while stagehands made changes between numbers, showed Simon in performance through the years—dressed as a turkey on SNL, singing “Mrs. Robinson” in tribute to Joe DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium, and more. One clip showed Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” sung by everyone from Roy Rogers and Dale Evans to the US Army Chorus at President Reagan’s funeral.
Mercifully short on the usual dull speeches and expressions of gratitude prevalent at many galas, the evening belonged to the music.
Simon was serenaded by an impressive and eclectic line-up of artists, each of whom put a distinctive mark on Simon’s songs. Singers Shawn Colvin and Alison Krauss opened the show with a limpid, bluegrass-accented rendition of “The Boxer.” Lyle Lovett broke hearts with “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” James Taylor gave sly, quirky takes on “Slip Slidin’ Away” and “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Stephen Marley wailed through “Mother and Child Reunion.” Pianist Philip Glass improvised a darkly fascinating “Sounds of Silence.” Dianne Reeves virtually made a jazz standard of “Something So Right,” and Latin heart-throb Marc Anthony all but crooned “El Condor Pasa.”
The high points came when Simon joined artists he has worked with in his four-decades-plus career, including the Dixie Hummingbirds, Buckwheat Zydeco, and the South African troupe Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with whom he performed a captivating “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Most anticipated, of course, were Simon’s duets with his “partner in argument,” as he put it, Art Garfunkel. Whatever the state of their relationship, their harmony on the climactic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was nearly flawless.
Standing ovations prompted three encores, the final one a triumphant, gospel-infused version—by Simon, Stevie Wonder, and the Dixie Hummingbirds—of “Loves Me Like a Rock.”
At one point near the evening’s end, Simon paused and thanked the audience “for this wonderful evening.”
“Thank YOU!” yelled a fan from high in the balcony.
It was a sentiment seemingly shared by all.
The show was taped for broadcast and will air on PBS June 27. A new CD, Essential Paul Simon, is to be released June 26.