Yesterday we were in Birmingham which I mentioned yesterday is where my friend Thud invented onstage Goofy Golf 15 years ago. He was an endless provider of laughs, entertainment and hard work each and every day. Once the PA was up and the 70 (!!!!!) mics were placed, wired and checked, he would create little worlds of fun for the crew to enjoy. Anyone can steal plants furniture and lighting fixtures to make the side of the stage look like a lounge or diner but to actually write up and copy a menu that would get everyone howling with laughter? A select few can create a golf course onstage that wouldn’t impede the load in, the show or storage but to build a putter entirely out of sound gear that worked like a charm? These are the special people that have made up my touring family for over 20 years, people who are way too smart to be pulling cable for a living but are there and the best people for the job. I remember the days when…
Tonight me and a few others went to Wembley Arena to see Paul Simon on his second to last show of the year. His tour ends tomorrow in Birmingham, were we just came from. The first tour I did for Paul started rehearsals in August of 1990 and ended in Capetown, South Africa on my birthday in 1992. Though I had developed good friends before that on the road, this was being part of a big family that saw and did a lot of remarkable things together. Many of us are still in touch with one another, even on a daily or semi-daily basis. There were some remarkable bonds built during that tour.
Tonight, 16 years later, I got to watch Paul perform for the first time. With the exception of some one offs and a month long tour in 2002, I had done every tour with Paul excluding these last shows in the states and Europe. I have had the experience of seeing a band that I used to work for before; it’s quite strange because it feels like you should be somewhere else doing something else. I usually only have one kind of nightmare which I call “job responsibility” dreams; they usually have me unprepared for a show or the drums aren’t there or terrorists have stolen the guitars…watching a previous employer can be like that.
I worked on the first leg of Paul’s tour this year in July in the US. I was aware of the current band, the setlist and the arrangements. I had no problem like a good backline roadie looking bored (see Dan, it’s ok, I do it all the time) but was surprised at how emotional and engaged I was to his show. Due to repetition and a commitment to perfecting a professional jaded attitude, some roadies can be making faces and singing dirty replacement lyrics while everyone in the audience is crying their eyes out. Hey, that’s what we do.
I’d have to think that I’m just a bit emotionally raw from everything going on with my family in the past few weeks and being so faraway from it. But there I was; hearing songs I have literally heard 100′s of times live and tearing up. Am I just a big sissy? Perhaps. But besides my connection to the artist over the years there are the songs.
Paul is one of those rare writers that continues to capture the poetry of life in his work. His best older songs still have so much universal power that they can speak to the human condition today. He has gone through periods where his focus was not as laser-like as it can be; even then he’s written songs that kick the ass of 99% of the stuff out there. He also is relentless in perfecting and rehearsing until the shape of the song is close to what he hears in his head. Though some would look at working on a 40 year old song with people who have been playing it for you for 20 years as being detrimental or self indulgent, it gets results.
I always enjoy his rhythmic constructs and the groove built between the drums and the guitars. My favorite times are when the detailed arrangements are put away and he just sings the song and plays the guitar. It is a breath between musical chin ups, a cleansing of the palette.
Tonight the set began as it did in July with the song “Gumboots” from the album Graceland. It is an extremely upbeat number that serves as a launching pad to either direction. Steve Gadd is one of two drummers in the band; he is often considered enough drummer for most of the world’s greatest acts. I’ve toured with him and Paul with 4 other drummer/percussionists in the band, 2 other percussionists and with a second drummer. He is solid, tasteful and one of the true voices of his instrument, an influence to generations of drummers who know how special he is.
He is strangely restrained when playing with others, always staying out of the way and just laying down the groove. His economy of movement and arrangement should never be confused with simplicity; what he does is so hard to quantify. There are times when the only way to do that is to remove him and then you realize what a special musician he is. I had the incredible pleasure of teching for him for a few years with Paul and I never failed to be filled with amazement and new ideas each night.
This is threatening to turn into a full on review of the show, so I’m gonna just hit on some highlights. He added the song “Train in the Distance” from his totally unappreciated album Hearts and Bones. The earlier song “Duncan” remained as did a few from his new album Surprise and a bunch from Graceland. The combo of his new song “Wartime Prayers” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” served as a quiet musical statement about the current climate. “Wartime” is now being performed as a solo guitar piece which he stared doing at a benefit in Dallas that I worked on. Difficult to play and captivating to hear, it has a place today and in the future for those who pray for peace.
Being a writer and appreciator of words, word combinations and word combiners, Paul is one of those special few who have so many lines that hold you, put you in a place and send you. Having worked for a few amazing songwriters in 20 years, I had the honor of sharing my own work with Paul as his tour and interaction inspired my first collection of poetry “Impressions…” His support as well as his sharing of his reading list (Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney) pushed me to persist and grow. Though blogging, podcasting, photography and other forms of writing have taken a large amount of my energy, writing poetry is still the most therapeutic and direct means of communing with the divine in my life. When I need to go, it’s there and when it takes me, I just let it.
Paul has a great deal to do with this part of who I am and I thank him here for the past 16 years of being an example of what that kind of writing can do. The music business is an unforgiving one which loves you when you sell lots of recordings and forgets you when you don’t. As artists stop looking like high school sweethearts and start looking like soccer moms and dads, they’d better have the words to carry them on.
I wasn’t surprised to see a large contingent of younger 20 somethings at the show. They were raised on Paul’s music (and maybe even conceived to it). The words mean something to this generation too, the ones that listen. That is a kind of hope to me, that group of kids who are touched by words. There will always be crap music out there for the companies to sell, mindless phrases shaped into ringtones sung by teenagers. But there will be someone who will write something so personal that it will touch anyone listening with its universal truth. I hope that I can find their music in the future.
I was so glad to see everyone on the tour and to share it with some folks from the one I’m on. This may have been the first time I’ve seen Paul from out front; I hope it’s not the last.