Paul Simon’s Graceland 25th anniversary concert @ Hard Rock Calling

Paul Simon at Hard Rock Calling. Credit: Andy Sturmey
Paul Simon at Hard Rock Calling.
Credit: Andy Sturmey

The big news is that it didn’t rain on Sunday. That the previous days and weeks had seen torrential downpours that required hundreds of tons of woodchip to shore up poor Hyde Park’s turf is a minor point – it was relatively quagmire-free as festivals go.

But there was never any doubt that the soaring sounds of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ on offer tonight would have lifted the dampest spirits.

Lurking mid-afternoon in the backstage hospitality area, refreshments came courtesy of Starwood Hotels’ impressively elegant (considering it was in a field) SPG VIP area, which among other things provided an opportunity to talk to two Russian ladies. Their initial friendliness was revealed to be an undercover marketing ruse, as their chat quickly turned to preferred brands of credit cards.

It’s a strange festival. Apart from the headliners – Paul Simon (age 71), Bruce Springsteen (62), the apparently ageless Iggy Pop (65), and Soundgarden – and a handful of others like Alison Krauss, the Guillemots, Big Country, The Mars Volta, – you’re left with a bill over three days of names that don’t resonate. Most seemed happy to pay only to hear Paul Simon, judging by the early evening rush at the gates.

With the crowd swelling Paul Simon came on a little early – perhaps in an effort to avoid a repeat of Saturday’s debacle in which Springsteen and Paul McCartney were abruptly cut off when they overran. Onstage Simon appeared a little like the lyrical travelling salesman of ‘That Was Your Mother’ in battered suit and hat – but while he was never a big man, his music still punches above his weight. Hits from the 1970s such as ‘Kodachrome’ seemed poignant looking back over a long career of many musical directions, while the crowd lapped up a sax-heavy rendition of ‘Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover’. Later ’80s singles like ‘The Obvious Child’ from South American-infused album ‘Rhythm of the Saints’ still sparkled, but was sung – jarringly, and inexplicably – without chorus. In a surprise guest spot, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff bounced spritely through ‘The Harder They Come’, and ‘Vietnam’ in a duet with Simon.

But the biggest cheer was reserved for the many members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo whose arrival with ‘Homeless’ signified a whistlestop tour of ‘Graceland’, taking in ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’, ‘Crazy Love vol II’, a positively transcendental rendition of ‘Graceland’ and the glorious, rousing opening accordion chords of ‘The Boy in the Bubble’. While it was not possible to reconvene ‘Graceland’s entire original musical ensemble (“some were unavoidably unable to take part in this reunion concert due to being dead”, as the Telegraph so elegantly put it), there was obvious delight on the faces of all the musicians, young and old, to be playing such joyous music again – not least because in the years since it was written and first played, apartheid had finally ended.

By now the sun had departed, and alone under stage lights Simon whispered ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘The Boxer’ and finally ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’. They said it was crazy to make an album like ‘Graceland’, but Simon and the millions of listeners turned on to this wonderful music from Africa 25 years ago have proved them wrong.

 

Originally published at Clash Music, July 2012.

Psychedelic Furs @ Highbury Garage

Psychedelic Furs
Psychedelic Furs

“When did you first see them live?”
-“1986”
-“Sometime in the ’70s”
-“At Glastonbury about twenty years ago”

Tonight’s crowd at the Highbury Garage has been around a bit – watching the stage is a landscape of widow’s peaks and thick trunks. There are men in plaid, with beer bellies and thick necks, a man in a battered original Cure t-shirt, and scores of men and women with a free pass from their significant others to come and wallow in nostalgia for an evening.

The Psychedelic Furs, led by brothers Richard and Tim Butler, were formed in 1977 and released their eponymous debut album in 1980. They’ve been gigging, bar some years in the wilderness, for thirty-five years, and some fans here have probably been coming to watch them for as long.

They kick off with the clattering, motorised ‘Into You like a Train’ from their breakthrough second album, ‘Talk Talk Talk’. Their early sound is tight and bass-driven, claustrophobic with flanged guitars, shrieking sax and Richard’s hoarse, evidently British, atonal singing voice. It just works, a lesson in how to pull off that style, unlike modern pretenders (The Drums, I’m looking at you. Find a singer).

Richard is a sinuous, writhing, grinning golem, still with the gaunt cheeks of his youth. Replete in head-to-toe black, a waistcoat, and heavy black-rimmed spectacles he looks like a successful graphic design consultant. Tim stalks the stage with his bass from behind dark glasses looking for all the world like Andrew Eldritch after a few good meals, and still managing to conjure up a little of the menace from the Furs’ punkier days.

The crowd are more than willing, their flesh discovering strength perhaps forgotten. Better-known hits like ‘Mr Jones’ and ‘Pretty in Pink’ are met with roars of approval, while a hundred similarly bespectacled faces mouth words they didn’t realise they remembered.

The more synth-heavy art-rock sounds of their later albums still please, with ‘Love My Way’ and the sublime saxophone of ‘Heartbeat’ provoking men in their ‘50s to roar out the words alongside girls young enough to be their daughters. Furious renditions of ‘India’ and ‘President Gas’ set off widespread moshing down the front and brings the set to a close after a respectable 90 minutes.

What’s our problem with ageing rock stars? No one tells BB King, Fats Waller, or Dave Brubeck to stay at home and age gracefully. Perhaps it’s the words “rock” and “star” that are so inflexible, that allow so little leeway for age and maturity over youth and exuberance. In his fifty-seventh year, Richard may be nearly superannuated but remains super-animated, miming lyrics with constantly moving hands, clearly enjoying himself as he high-fives fans down the front. Mars Williams – besides Tim the only other member from the ’80s lineups – looks like an immaculate bluesman in suit and shades, his sax soaring. With youngsters in the crowd as well as first-time-arounders, it’s clear that not only can the Psychedelic Furs can still knock out a show, but that their post-punk heritage lives on in the countless revivalists of the last decade inspired by them and their ilk.

To hell with the naysayers. How do you want to earn a living in your later years? Maturity is for wine and cheese.

 

Originally published at Clash Music, July 2012.