Producer Michael Dorf’s annual series of tribute concerts have become a highlight of the NYC music scene, and this year’s edition was no exception. Featuring nearly two dozen artists — both established and up-and-comers — and anchored by the house band Antibalas, The Music of Paul Simon did ample justice to its honoree. The only disappointment was that, unlike such previous subjects as Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, the legendary performer failed to make an appearance.
An added benefit for those paying the not-insignificant ticket charges for this Carnegie Hall show is that 100% of the net proceeds will go to organizations delivering music education to underprivileged youth.
The worthiness of the cause was made clear by the heartwarming appearance of 13-year-old Megan Doyle and Snow Guilfoyle, students at the Church Street School of Music, whose gorgeous rendition of “Scarborough Fair” on guitar and piano brought down the house.
Simon’s endlessly eclectic music lent itself particularly well to the occasion, with his decades-long career well-represented. The songs ranged as far back as 1962’s “Motorcycle” from his early band Tico & the Triumphs, here performed in garage band fashion by Thelonious Monster singer Bob Forrest and Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes (“We’d be the troubled waters under the bridge,” joked Forrest), to 2006’s “Wartime Prayers,” given a suitably elegiac treatment by cellist/vocalist Ben Sollee.
While the evening got off to a hard rocking start with John Doe’s rambunctious take on “Mrs. Robinson” and later featured Bob Mould’s swaggering punk-style take on “Fakin’ It,” many of the performers harkened back to Simon’s folk-music beginnings. Joe Henry, performing as part of a trio that included a clarinetist, delivered a stark version of “The Boxer” that felt reminiscent of Woody Guthrie. The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams offered “The Sound of Silence” with the feel of a hushed, religious incantation, while Madeleine Peyroux, accompanied by Jon Herington on steel guitar, infused “American Tune” with her trademark bluesy, husky vocals.
Singer-songwriters clearly influenced by Simon were on abundant display. They included Josh Ritter, bringing a dose of sunny optimism to “Duncan”; Brett Dennen, delivering a laid-back “Something So Right”; Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, clearly relishing the lyrics of “The Only Living Boy in New York”; and past chart-topper Richard Marx, lending his still-impressive pipes to “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
Simon’s ethnographic musical wanderings made Antibalas, which includes large horn and rhythm sections, particularly well-suited for their assignment. Among those employing their versatile services were Allen Toussaint, who brought a genuine New Orleans vibe to “Take Me to the Mardi Gras”; Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave), fully mining the gospel cadences of “Loves Me Like a Rock”; Phish bassist Mike Gordon, effectively recreating the funky rhythms of “Late in the Evening”; and Angelique Kidjo, who closed the show with the African music-inspired “You Can Call Me Al.”
Although most of the covers were fairly traditional, a truly odd note was struck by L.P., who recalled Tiny Tim with her falsetto vocals and ukulele playing on her eccentric take on “Slip Slidin’ Away.”
Other highlights of the evening included Judy Collins’ gorgeously ethereal “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson’s beautiful harmonies on “America” and Bettye LaVette’s exuberantly soulful “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” The latter was particularly dynamic, as the soul diva stalked every corner of the large stage, continuing to sing even as she wandered off into the wings.
The encore was of the usual all-star show variety, with nearly the full line-up of performers gathered onstage for a finale of “Feelin’ Groovy” that displayed more exuberance than musical cohesion.
John Doe — Mrs. Robinson
Judy Collins — Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Megan Doyle & Snow Guilfoyle — Scarborough Fair
Joe Henry — The Boxer
Joy Williams — The Sound of Silence
Madeleine Peyroux & Jon Herington — American Tune
L.P. — Slip Slidin’ Away
Josh Ritter — Duncan
Allen Toussaint — Take Me to the Mardi Gras
Bob Mould — Fakin’ it
Bob Forrest & Gibby Haynes — Motorcycle
Isobel Campbell & Andy Cabic — Born at the Right Time
Breit Dennen — Something So Right
Ben Sollee — Wartime Prayers
Dan Wilson — The Only Living Boy in New York
Antibalas & Tunde Adebimpe — Think Too Much
Sam Moore — Loves Me Like a Rock
Bettye LaVette — 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
Richard Marx — Still Crazy After All These Years
Ann & Nancy Wilson — America
Mike Gordon — Late in the Evening
Angelique Kidjo — You Can Call Me Al