Paul Simon has a demonstrated knack for putting himself smack in the eye of the hurricane.
It's happened in the arena of public perception, as Simon has lately found himself the unwilling center of political controversy for having made an album as seemingly apolitical as "Graceland."
It happens more purposefully on stage, though, where the always temperate Simon obviously enjoys surrounding himself with more flamboyant talents--most notably in his previous forays into gospel music, and now with a current tour that finds him in the midst of a troupe of highly spirited African singers and musicians.
As expected, Simon dragged a storm along with him for the opening of that U. S. tour Tuesday at the Universal Amphitheatre: strong gusts in the form of pop/jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, singer Miriam Makeba and a cappella vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo--all performers who could give singers far more demonstrative and charismatic than Simon a run for their money in a showdown.
It was no contest, though. It was, if you'll pardon the '60s jargon, community . As cerebral an anchor as Simon is, he had no trouble holding court with the more overtly emotional and showy musical strains around him, and his sobriety never seemed in danger of being swallowed up by the jubilee.
That helped make the concert not just a triumph in its bridging of nationalities, but perhaps an even greater achievement in its blending of radically different psyches.
Historic? Significant? How about fun ? You might not expect party atmosphere from a concert centered around "Graceland"--an album concerned, for all its foreign musical trappings, largely with lost love and middle-age crisis and other New York-type stuff.
Likewise, the only two oldies of Simon's included in the show, "Mother and Child Reunion" and "The Boxer," aren't exactly get-down fare.
Yet, there was a giddy universality being celebrated here--not in any wistful New Age lyrics, but implicitly, as in the way the African sax riff of "Gumboots" was magically transformed mid-song into the American R&B sax riff preceding "Whispering Bells" (a 1957 Del-Vikings hit). And at last Simon's music, which has always seemed so emotionally latent , seemed to find true catharsis.
That there are others in the world who can't join in the party was recognized, via Masekela's "Bring Him Back Home" and "Stimela" (and let's face it, South African exile Masekela singing about apartheid is more convincing than Simon singing about apartheid) and a closing rendition by the entire revue of the unofficial African national anthem.
The format for most of the two-hour-plus set had Simon singing two or three numbers at a time from the "Graceland" album, then leaving the stage to let one of his three guest acts have the spotlight for a couple of songs, and so on--all of them backed by a crackerjack band of African musicians (including several who played on the LP).
The 10-man-strong Ladysmith Black Mambazo came as close as anybody to walking off with the crowd's collective heart.
The men of Ladysmith made it abundantly clear that hamming it up is not an exclusively American entertainment pastime; they added some hand jive and kicks to "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" that might make the Rockettes jealous, and even inspired their host to a little boogie of his own during "You Can Call Me Al."
But the Ladysmith outfit was also responsible (with Simon) for the evening's two most exquisite and affecting numbers: the LP's "Homeless," and a version of "Amazing Grace" that led into an African gospel song of prayerfully desperate proportions.
A key line from Simon's album--key to understanding the charm of the concert, at least--is in "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," when he sings: "I could say oo-oo-oo / And everybody here would know exactly what I was talking about . . . "
Sure enough, even when Ladysmith Black Mambazo's lyrics were in Zulu, it was in the power of their communication skills and their joy in humanness that everyone there indeed seemed to know exactly what they were talking about--or close enough.
Hallelujah and be-bop-a-lula are, after all, the same in any language.
Simon's sold-out run at the amphitheater continues through Sunday, with tonight off.