You don’t put on a concert as ambitious as tonight’s star-studded The Music of Paul Simon at Carnegie Hall without a little rehearsal.
Although the musicians performing tonight at Carnegie Hall aren’t going to get the proverbial “practice, practice, practice” one usually requires to get there, they did get a Sunday’s worth of rehearsal with the house band for the evening, the Afropop ensemble Antibalas.
Greeted by promoter Michael Dorf, promoter of tonight’s benefit concert for seven youth-centered music education programs in the city, the lucky full house at City Winery got to sit in and watch as some of the performances came together.
Rehearsal wasn’t quite the right word, as the songs had been worked-out during the afternoon. Dry run is more like it. But whatever you call it, Sunday night’s 90-minute event was a casual, laid-back teaser to tonight’s concert with several of the headliners and the always-kinetic Antibalas trying their hands at some of the greatest American songs has ever written.
The songs were the stars of the show: “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “Loves Me Like a Rock,” “Something So Right,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Mrs. Robinson” – a tiny taste of an epic repertoire. Half of the work in producing this show must have been in just choosing the songs.
There were some surprising choices. Antibalas took the stage and started with “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” locking into original drummer Steve Gadd’s unique, tricky beat and embellishing it with their three-man percussion section. The vocals were by percussionist Marcus Farrar, who would stand in ably throughout the evening for various absent headliners.
The show got an immediate energetic boost and considerably star power on “You Can Call Me Al” from Simon’s epochal Graceland album, with the diminutive Beninoise powerhouse Angelique Kidjo powering through on sheer verve and veteran confidence.
Despite the obvious advantage of having a genuine Afropop band in support, there were moments that showcased Simon’s extravagantly-elegant way with melody and song structure. Perhaps best was Northern California singer/songwriter Brett Dennen’s sweet take on “Something So Right,” the performance reaching boldly for Simon and Quincy Jones’ perfect original.
There were many more moments like this. John Doe of X took a rocking shot at “Mrs. Robinson,” Bob Mould did the same with the Simon and Garfunkel track “Fakin’ It,” Andy Cabric of Vetiver did a lovely job on “Born At the Right Time,” and Josh Ritter sang “Duncan” with Antibalas’ four-man horn section filling in beautifully for the original pan pipe refrains by Peru’s Urubamba.
That horn section also got a chance to show off its considerable chops on “Late in the Evening,” sung again by Farrar, the most purely celebratory song of the evening, and perhaps its highlight. Not sure who will be singing it tonight, but I’m betting on Bettye LaVette.
Like “Late in the Evening,” several other songs were performed without the Carnegie Hall singer, older performers like Sam Moore (“Loves Me Like a Rock”) and Allen Toussaint (“Take Me to the Mardi Gras”) were resting up in their hotels before the show.
Farrar capped the evening with a lovely falsetto version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which will be sung tonight by Judy Collins.
In addition to those mentioned above, other performers at Carnegie Hall will include Joe Henry, Mike Gordon of Phish, Joy Williams of Civil Wars, Dan Wilson, Ben Sollee, and Madeleine Peyroux and Jon Herington.
Finally, it’s pure speculation, but who’s to say that Simon, who lives uptown, may not relish the notion of capping off the show himself? Unlike last night’s rehearsal, there are still a few tickets left for tonight’s show.