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.