- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

This time, Paul Simon was first choice.

The beloved singer-songwriter, who dutifully filled in as 2002 Kennedy Center Honoree after a certain other pop music legend named Paul bailed out, took home the Library of Congress’ first Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

And, my word, does Mr. Simon have a few popular songs.

An insanely talented cast of performers paid tribute to one of pop’s most eclectic songbooks at the Warner Theatre on Wednesday night for a television special that will air June 27 on PBS. Whether faithful or friskily off-kilter, their interpretations were a fitting showcase for what master of ceremonies Bob Costas called “the sheer scope” of Mr. Simon’s work.

Let’s talk about scope: If the stiff, chunky, postmodern piano stylings of composer Philip Glass weren’t your cup of tea (he essayed “The Sound of Silence”), “Sesame Street’s” Grover and Elmo beamed in on videoscreen for a deliriously juvenile “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).”

With the exception of an impish F-bomb thrown into the lyrics of “Still Crazy After All These Years” (we wouldn’t want PBS’ bleep-button fingers to atrophy, now would we?) soft-rocker James Taylor hewed to the sheet music for that tune as well as “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

Texan Lyle Lovett, meanwhile, jazzily retooled the verses of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” before reverting to the more familiar chug of the song’s classic refrain.

Yolanda Adams and Jessy Dixon nearly upstaged everyone with the roof-tearing gospel of “Gone at Last.”

Satin-voiced jazz singer Dianne Reeves, who ditched the house band for a pared-down piano-bass-and-drums combo, cleverly twinned Mr. Simon’s ballad “Something So Right” with a classic by prize namesakes George and Ira Gershwin, “Our Love is Here to Stay.”

Shuffle out, shuffle in: Stephen “Son of Bob” Marley proved a perfect Caribbean fit for “Mother and Child Reunion,” while esteemed poet Billy Collins read aloud some verse that, as far as this philistine can tell, had something to do with the singers and friends-of-Paul Dixie Hummingbirds being far more uplifting than the saintly austerity of Catholic liturgy and iconography.

Don’t forget Cajun music: Accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco lent his funky joie de vivre to “That Was Your Mother,” a gem from Mr. Simon’s 1986 watershed album, “Graceland.”

And Mr. Simon wasn’t too shabby himself: After more than two hours of music, he emerged with Stevie Wonder for a buoyant “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” and graciously ceded the spotlight to Art Garfunkel (“my dear friend and partner in arguments,” joshed Mr. Simon) for a goose-pimply “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Mr. Simon, 65, seems like such an unlikely vessel for such worldly ebullience and rhythm. But there was Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African singing collective that lent its traditional idiom to the “Graceland” album, embracing the pale New Yorker as though he were a lost cousin. The group performed the hauntingly expressive a cappella number “Homeless” and later joined Mr. Simon for “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”

Latin superstar Marc Anthony nailed a well-chosen “Late In the Evening” (equal parts blues and salsa) as well as the Andean-inspired Simon and Garfunkel hit, “El Condor Pasa (If I Could).”

A well-behaved Washington audience tolerated the uneven pace of the production, plagued as it occasionally was by technical gremlins and hiccups of stage direction. The folksy collective of Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin and Jerry Douglas were allowed a redo of “The Boxer” — which, amazingly, produced the same howl of feedback, at precisely the same moment, as it did on the first go-round.

“Saturday Night Live” maestro Lorne Michaels, who lives across the hall from Mr. Simon in what must be one very posh Manhattan apartment complex, was intentionally funny, as was a drier-than-Arizona Charles Grodin.

“What’s it like to live next to a genius?” queried the former, in spoken tribute. “Don’t ask me. Ask Paul.” Mr. Grodin noted that the oft-covered “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is perfect for moments where “emotion is called for.”

You think?

Perhaps the only disappointment of the evening was the absence of Mr. Simon’s 1999 tour mate, Bob Dylan.

But he’s no doubt on the short list for next year’s Gershwin Prize.

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