My first encounter with Paul Simon’s 1984 album Graceland was in a university music history classroom. We were so deeply engrossed in discussing the album’s depiction of other and the ethics of appropriation that I actually didn’t really listen to much of the music. Saturday night at the Registry, I got a chance to hear what I had missed the first time round.
It turns out that Paul Simon is a rather gifted songwriter. Consecutive dispatches from the Department Of The Bleeding Obvious are considered poor form for a reviewer but sometimes we have to take one for the team. Guitarist Kevin Ramessar is exceptional.
Saturday’s concert — called Return To Graceland — was a tribute to Simon in the best possible sense. The group re-invented rather than re-created Simon’s songs, making the evening a musical event in itself rather than a trip to the museum.
The band consisted of Ramessar on guitar, Paul DeLong on drums, Matthew Lima on bass and saxophonist Jeff King, as well as a pianist and violinist whose names I’m embarrassed to admit I forgot to write down.
Throughout the evening, the idea was to use Graceland as a jumping off point from which to explore the entire Simon songbook. Although the music was never jazzy, extended solos by most all the band members except Lima were the norm. Most of the time, they seemed like completely natural extensions of the song, quite a feat considering how well-known the originals are.
The pianist was the most jazz-influenced, although he revealed his classical training in one of his most-used improvisational devices: octaves.
Rather curiously, the violinist used a mute throughout the evening, which made his instrument sound more like a soprano saxophone than a fiddle. The smooth texture was blended well in the ensemble but the brightness of an unmuted instrument would have been a nice contrast on occasion.
One of the most mesmerizing arrangements was Scarborough Fair. Ramessar showed some of his classical skills, intertwining the lines horizontally rather than in a vertical manner more typical of chorded guitar. The heavily reverbed false harmonics in the violin solo were also a nice touch.
Giselle Sanderson joined the group for 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover and Gone At Last. Her voice is immediately arresting and these two songs were some of the best of the night. The band plays well together but they outdid themselves in Gone At Last, transforming it from the hillbilly picking of the original to the slick gospel rock you might find on the Gaither Gospel Hour.
Ramessar’s alternate harmonization of Bridge Over Troubled Water shows that he knows his way around a theory textbook as well as he does a fretboard. It was just the right blend of new and familiar and succeeded in making me hear an old classic like it was the first time.