All you need to know about the history of white American rock stars dipping into the deep well of African rhythm—the awkward discomfort, the comical stiffness, the jovial audacity, the goofy guilelessness—can be summed up by the sight of David Byrne dancing. He’s dancing right now, in fact, onstage at BAM’s Opera House Wednesday night, a lithe, white-haired string bean with the musculature of Gumby and the joie de vivre of a five-year-old. Some of us have two left feet; David has seven or eight, all bolted to the floor. So he wiggles in place, juts his chin out like a Pez dispenser, flings his elbows to and fro like they’re fires he’s trying to put out. It’s undeniably funny and stupendously endearing. He is singing “You Can Call Me Al.”
We’re here for the second phase of BAM’s month-long triptych in praise of Paul Simon, the grand master of the awkward/comical/jovial/goofy American-African exchange program. The month started with a week of shows honoring Simon’s ill-fated Latin doo-wop musical, The Capeman, and ends next week with five shows devoted to The Hits. In the middle, we’ve got “Under African Skies,” celebrating the apex of his multicultural dalliances: Graceland and, four years later, 1990’s quite possibly superior Rhythm of the Saints. Tonight is opening night, sold out as hell and packed with an odd menagerie of celebrities (Susan Sarandon! Steve Buscemi! Wallace Shawn!) in thrall to a global alliance of guest stars: Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Vusi Mahlasela from South Africa, Kaïssa from Cameroon, Luciana Souza from Brazil. But though he’s only around for a couple songs, Byrne almost runs away with the thing, howling “I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore!” to raucous applause and profound amusement. On Graceland‘s “I Know What I Know,” as he repeatedly shouts “In the back of my head!”, all the old tics—the yelps, the bleats, the shouts, the effete howls—come bursting out.
Only Simon himself inspires that same kind of crowd elation, and for most of the evening, he’s content to lurk merrily in the background. After Ladysmith Black Mam-bazo starts us off—black pants, white sneakers, huge smiles, high-kicking with aplomb, and unleashing chorally elegant streams of mmm mmm mmm mmm‘s and em em em em‘s—and Vusi pounds out a few tunes (including “The Boy in the Bubble,” one of American song’s few instances of what could even conceivably be called “iconic accordion”) in his vivacious, volatile, almost cock-rock wail, Simon wanders onstage as if by accident, haggard but tremendously cheerful, bounding about and mock-conducting his band, including a drummer and three boisterous percussionists. He’s so enthusiastic, in fact, that he accidentally plows over a mic stand during “Gumboots,” slapping an embarrassed hand over his mouth and sheepishly bending over to hand the mess back to a stagehand.
But soon he’s resting on the drum riser or wandering back offstage entirely as someone else takes the lead. Kaïssa tackles the (relatively) surlier stuff, dismissively growling “I got to go/I got to go” on “Proof” like a typical harried Brooklynite while delicately lifting the train of her bright yellow dress to bounce around in a complete circle. Souza, meanwhile, is the mournful one, her voice a clear, deep pool of great unease submerging the Steve Reichian pipe-banging hypnosis of “Can’t Run But” or tangling with a funereal muted trumpet on “Further to Fly.” But even when you can’t hear Simon’s actual voice, you’re overwhelmed by his authorial voice, his sheets-of-nouns approach to songwriting, that strange mixture of deft melody and erudite wordiness. He never settles for “You can’t quit me, babe” when he can draw it out as “Oooh my storybook lover/You have underestimated my power/As you shortly will discover,” but the flourish always feels natural, feels necessary. And the power is oddly enhanced when such jumbles are delivered in foreign accents: neurotic wordplay as a second language.
Paul will probably never cast as deep and dark a shadow over young indie-rock turks as, say, Springsteen, though Vampire Weekend’s cheeky Afro-pop jams have inspired a raft of Graceland comparisons, accurate or not. Such foreign-exchange mischief will always sound a little strange, a bit like facile tourism to some more cynical ears. (Does Simon have his own “Stuff White People Like” entry yet?) But with a few notable exceptions—Talking Heads’ “(Nothing but) Flowers” for one, for which I considered throwing $100 in cash onstage as a bribe/request—Graceland is as good as it gets, from Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s ethereal, chill-inducing “Homeless” harmonies on down. But tonight the Rhythm of the Saints tunes hit the hardest, deeper and fuller and more complex, percussively and emotionally. A few times on that record, Simon lays bare the seams that bind the Only Living Boy in New York to the African menagerie that entranced him and that he sought to emulate. Called back for an encore, the boys launch into “The Cool, Cool River,” its rhythm complex and foreboding, far more severe and ominous than Simon’s usual fare. But from the onset, he sings with more intensity—in a hit-parade atmosphere like this, it’s always a pleasure when the grand marshal finds a tune that still moves him, that still resonates, that he can deliver with a little more muscle beyond his standard gotta-keep-the-crowd-happy reflexes. Everything about “River” just feels different, BAM’s lights pushed out and shining on the crowd now: Pay Attention. And the song climaxes at its softest point, the eight-handed drum assault fading momentarily into the deep background, with just Simon’s voice and guitar at the forefront, a lonely voice broadcasting as if from a lonely outer-borough apartment:
I believe in the future
We shall suffer no more
Maybe not in my lifetime
But in yours, I feel sure
Nearly two decades on, it doesn’t look like he was right about that. But he makes you believe it anyway. And once he has, Paul Simon finally plays “Graceland.”
Paul Simon plays at BAM April 23 through 27