“Homeward Bound: A Grammy Salute to the Songs of Paul Simon” airs tonight on CBS (and soon on Paramount+). If you only have 10 minutes to listen to non-holiday music in the days before Christmas, make it the last 10 minutes of this show, especially Rhiannon Giddens’ performance of “generational handoff.” Giddens and Simon’s “American Tune” makes you feel like you’ve found America in one song.
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Everything else about the program, shot in April at Hollywood’s Pantages (see Variety’s next-day coverage here), feels flawlessly chosen by producer Ken Ehrlich, if not particularly surprising. There are no sops to the youth vote, except for the Jonas Brothers performing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” which is the least essential performance here. It’s fine they didn’t invite Gayle. With Paul Simon, you want a peer-on-peer review panel, which you get when one of the guests of honor is Stevie Wonder, who won more album of the year Grammys than Simon in the 1970s (three). None of the other guests are genuine ’60s contemporaries like Wonder, but with Bonnie Raitt on board, it feels like Old Home Week with this “Salute” virtually functioning as a tribute to the Grammys themselves.
Some of the strongest parts of the evening come from Simon’s 1987 album of the year winner, “Graceland” It’s stunning only if you didn’t believe Rickey Minor could gather a band capable of playing it to its African-continent potential. Minor also plays bass in the 17-piece house band he’s gathered, and you may wonder how he played the famous bass parts on “You Can Call Me Al” so perfectly until Oprah Winfrey announces that “the last living member of the ‘Graceland’ band,” Bakithi Kumalo, is also present. Take 6 channels Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the a cappella “Homeless,” and Angélique Kidjo and Dave Matthews bring swagger to “Under African Skies” and “Al.”
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Jimmy Cliff and Shaggy perform “Mother and Child Reunion,” possibly the first reggae song to become a pop culture standard in the U.S. Simon’s early-’70s interest in Black gospel sees “Loves Me Like a Rock” revitalized by Take Six and Billy Porter. Porter isn’t recognized for his impact on Christian charts, but he says, “I grew up Pentecostal, I’m gay, and I’m in love with life.” Trombone Shorty and Irma Thomas join Simon for “Take Me to the Mardi Gras”
Ironically, Simon dipped into just about every genre that counts as a building block of rock ‘n’ roll without ever being identifiably rock ‘n’ rolling, per se. Susanna Hoffs brings back the Bangles’ hit cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter” in the special, possibly the only time Simon was associated with headbanging as well as headshrinkers.
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For all his musical exploring, the bulk of the two hours is stars covering his singer-songwriter essentials. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood sing “The Boxer” in the style of Don McLean, and Eric Church reimagines “America” as a Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb tune.
One of Simon’s great gifts as a songwriter, and part of why it’s sometimes hard to convey his brilliance to younger generations, is his knack for marrying some of pop’s trickiest, most insightful, and sometimes melancholy lyrics to deceptively cheerful melodies. Little Big Town merrily performs “Slip Slidin’ Away,” a sorrowful song made even worse by the fact that, as cut for broadcast, it closes on the tragic verse about a divorced dad sneaking up on his sleeping kid. The easy-like-Sunday-morning tune evokes feel-good brain chemistry before the group harmonies are added.
But Simon had songs that promised profundity and delivered. Which is why the show’s last one-two punch hits so hard after so many groovier songs.
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The band packs up after “Graceland” (in real life; tight editing won’t show Pantages set changes) and Giddens comes out to join Simon, or to be joined by him, as his only contribution to “American Tune” is as an instrumental accompanist. It’s a magnificent rendition that those of us who watched the live filming in April had waited eight months to hear. The two of them performed it at the Newport Folk Festival in July, so it hasn’t gone completely unheard.
Giddens gives the song new significance, so you may think she was born to sing it, not Simon. “Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower / We come on the ship that sailed the moon” has been modified to “We didn’t arrive here on the Mayflower / We came on a blood red moon.” Giddens was credited for the modification when the song was initially broadcast this year, but she said it was Simon’s. Regardless of its inspiration, the sight of Giddens singing these additional words while she plays the banjo — a crucial slave instrument — and Simon picks along on his acoustic adds content and subtext to a tune that already stood at the apex of American music in its first incarnation.
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