At the Troubadour Saturday night, they’d all come to look for Americana… or, make that America, but close enough. The Americana Music Association was putting on its annual Grammy Eve tribute to a legend, with this year’s honoree being Paul Simon, one of the most influential and least imitable of poet laureates. It went — yes — late in the evening, even though more than half of the artists taking the stage were Grammy nominees who were due to be downtown the following afternoon for the pre-telecast awards proceedings.
Milling on the floor of the West Hollywood club during rehearsals, one of the singer-songwriter greats on hand, Rodney Crowell, had thoughts about Simon’s place in the pantheon. “It’s like, if you’re gonna have Mt. Rushmore, it’s Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, the Beatles — as one — and Paul. There’s some people I listen to their music for entertainment, which I do for Paul, too, but he’s one that I listen to for education. Because there’s a lot to be learned there, constantly. I don’t want to be like him, but I want to access what he accesses to do what I do. So it’s almost like a meditation, to pay attention. And he just gets better.”
Crowell was referencing the fact that, at 82, Simon is still writing and recording new music, and indeed, his latest album, “Seven Psalms,” was up for best folk album on Sunday, placing the bard in the company of all these Grammy nominees who were paying him homage the night before.
Jackson Browne, who was also on the bill Saturday, called Simon’s latest release “one of his great albums; ‘Seven Psalms’ is one of my two favorite albums from this past year, along with ‘Weathervanes’” — that being the latest from Jason Isbell, yet another major name sharing the tribute bill with Browne and Crowell. “His motivation is something to behold. He really continues to do really strong, important work and never rest on his laurels.”
Simon did not go on to win the folk album award Sunday; it went instead to a live album by woman-of-the-moment Joni Mitchell. But the Troubadour lineup did include eight artists who went on to prevail in their respective categories: Isbell, Allison Russell, Gaby Moreno, Molly Tuttle, Natalia Lafourcade, Bobby Rush, Larkin Poe and Blind Boys of Alabama. (Another winner, Brandy Clark, was scheduled to perform at the Troubadour but had to bow out.) Others who were nominated this year and came to the club to pay musical homage to Simon included Crowell, Rufus Wainwright, Madison Cunningham, Silvana Estrada, Ruthie Foster, Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, and Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show. Rounding out Saturday’s cast of singers: Dwight Yoakam, Andrew Bird, Marcus King, Brett Dennen, John Vincent III, Johnnyswim, and Susanna Hoffs with Grace Bowers.
It’s a deep bench, to say the least, that Americana can claim when the association that bears the genre’s name can pull primarily from a list of current Grammy nominees in roots categories and have more than enough extraordinary talents to do Paul Simon complete justice. Simon’s catalog runs deep, too, obviously. This wasn’t just the best of all the tribute shows the Americana Music Association has put on annually at the Troubadour since 2013; it’s very much in the running for the best all-around tribute show I’ve ever seen. That’s a testament to the acumen of the producers and cast, but also to the possibility that Simon might be the greatest and most important songwriter alive. (A hedging emphasis on the word might.) You might prefer to listen to the records of the other great rock, soul and country recording artists, but no one really compares to Simon when you’re looking at the very specific category of world-class poets who play music and happen to have a populist streak. It takes a very particular village to get the interpretations of that right, and AmericanaFest had just such an able congregation at the ready.
The Americana Music Association has been putting on these annual pre-Grammy tribute shows since 2013, with past honorees including John Prine, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Glenn Frey and Phil Everly, all of them as spectacular as they have been hard to get a ticket for. If Saturday’s tribute to Simon bested them all, it’s not just because of the honoree’s catalog towering above even everyone else’s, or the lack of the draw in this particular crop of visiting Grammy nominees.
It also had something to do with Americana expanding its already big tent. Usually, the Grammy categories for the artists that fall under its aegis are country, blues, folk, American roots and roots gospel. But this year, there were three artists who are best known in the Latin music world — Moreno, who’s an old friend to the Americana world, and two more who haven’t been associated with it until now, Lafourcade and Estrada. These three women provided powerful highlights during Saturday’s Simon tribute. The biggest ovation of the night went to Estrada, who sang a version of “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” that was bone-rattling in its volume and soul-shaking in its nuance.
Meanwhile, Lafourcade’s rendering of a latter-day Simon album cut, “You’re the One,” might have been the most strictly fun number, as she treated it with the sense of mischief it calls for (aided by the house band’s drummer, Mark Strepo, who seemed able to miraculously capture any of the million domestic or foreign rhythms Simon employed in his career). Moreno participated in a call-and-response with Lafourcade on “You’re the One,” and then stepped in front on her own for a “Late in the Evening” that felt even more invitingly tropical than the insinuations Simon first baked into the tune.
Latin Americana? After seeing these three have their border-crossing way with Simon, there was little doubting that this is really a thing, or needs to become one quickly.
But the more expected forms of Americana were also on powerful display during the show, starting with the show-opening Blind Boys of Alabama reviving the gospel of “Loves Me Like a Rock,” followed by Isbell, 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden and fiddler Sara Watson making “Kodachrome” into a bluegrass number it’d never been before, or at least not this good, if anyone had ever attempted it.
Later, Ruthie Foster and Bobby Rush led the troupe in R&B or blues versions of “Slip Slidin’ Away and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” that represented the culmination of Simon at his most groove-alicious. Rufus Wainwright turned “Bridge Over Troubled Water” into something that felt like an aria, or else a great Broadway 11:00 number.
And one of the show’s other great climaxes came from Yoakam’s gorgeous reading of “The Boxer.” Taking it from Latin-tinged folk to the edge of hillbilly music sounds like it might be a recipe for something campy, but of course Dwight doesn’t do camp. And it’s hard to exactly describe how his turning the chorus into slightly more of a yodel, and the addition of some steel guitar, made a country “Boxer” feel like something so right.
The show was produced, as ever, by Michelle Aquilato and Jed Hilly, the Americana Music Association’s executive director. Hanging in the famed Troubadour bar after the show, Hilly (who oversees the AMA from Nashville) talked about the history of the pre-Grammy tributes, and what gave this one some different flavors.
“Every year Michelle and I sit down and talk about what we’re doing with Ken Levitan,” the Vector Management figure who has a big hand in the Americana world and is one of the founders of the annual show. “One thing we consistently try to do to complement the Grammys, and Paul’s nominated for a Grammy, deservedly so, so we wanted to honor him. Having Dwight and Rufus and Jackson and Rodney, that support that they’ve always given us makes for a really great community. Simon’s catalog is beyond reproach, and the beauty of tonight was that everybody chose their own song.”
Hilly continued, “Something that was beautiful about tonight was how Natalie Lafourcade reached out to us and wanted to do a Paul Simon song. Of course that impact that he had was truly global, or at least spanned the Americas. And having her was fantastic, and along with Gaby and Silvana, this was a very fresh look at what the Americana Music Association does. As Gaby said, these are major league stars that my world doesn’t know. And it was so interesting that it works the other way, too. There’s a gal here with Silvana who didn’t know who Jackson Browne was, just like. by contrast, someone in the Latin American community will be like, ‘How do you not know who Natalie Lafourcade is?’ She’s a Grammy winner, Latin Grammy winner… I mean, she’s a fucking major star! I love the cross-exposure, and I love that all of them wanted to be part of this. That’s the greatest compliment.”
In the bar earlier in the afternoon, Yoakam and Chris Hillman were holding court at a temporary recording setup for their SiriusXM programs (along with co-interviewer Bill Bentley), grabbing the guest singers as they passed through for rehearsals, for Q&As to run in the future.
On a break from recording episodes, Yoakam explained what Simon means to him, and it wasn’t the usual “bard for a generation” answer.
“As much as I love his songwriting, I love his attention to detail in how he made his records. The ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ album is one of the seminal moments of recording ever, in terms of the elegance of that album and delivering music in a profound way at that moment in time. … So for me, it’s also Paul’s genius in production. Even the opening of ‘Cecilia’ with the weird tape loop that he had, from what I understand, there was a reel-to-reel tape recorder that he and Art had been recording on while they were out in L.A. writing some songs. He got back to New York and evidently the tape head was out oif sync and so it created this out of phase thing that, when they played it back, it was useless as a piece of audio. But he used the meter and it became the loop for ‘Cecilia.’ So anyway, I’m a huge fan of all the sonics that Paul Simon brought to American rock-pop music.”
Out on the floor, Jackson Browne talked about what the song he’d picked for the night, “I Am a Rock, meant to him. “That song meant a lot to me when it first came out. It just changed everything,” he said, “because the acoustic guitar and because of the economy of the lyrics. It was a really strong idea, to portray somebody that’s barricaded in this sort of false idea of strength, and to do it so sensitively. It’s a neat trick.”
Later on, Browne remained just as impressed. “You know, ‘Graceland’ — what the hell! ‘Rhythm of the Saints’— these are amazing forays he made into the world, where accomplished artists from the United States stay in their world that they’ve succeeded in.” He remained taken aback by the power of 2023’s “Seven Psalms,” even though its reflections on mortality made it far from commercial fare. “It’s because of the subject, because of that peering over the edge of the abyss. But they’re all astonishing songs.”
Contemplating Simon’s ability to speak poetically, and yet reach the average music fan — something that is felt in his own work, too, of course — Browne said, “His melodies and his grasp with the language are just unparalleled, you know? But he creates and inhabits characters that he can speak from. He doesn’t talk down and none of his characters are hokey. I think there’s just a vulnerability in his voice and his singing and his approach that belies his intellect.”
Full setlist for “An Americana Pre-Grammy Salute to Paul Simon” at the Troubadour, Feb. 3, 2024:
Blind Boys of Alabama, “Loves Me Like a Rock”
Jason Isbell and Sadler Vaden, “Kodachrome”
Molly Tuttle and Ketch Secor, “Mrs. Robinson”
Natalie Lafourcade, “You’re the One”
Bobby Rush, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”
Ruthie Foster, “Slip Slidin’ Away”
John Vincent III, “The Only Living Boy in New York City”
Brett Dennen, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”
Larkin Poe, “Paranoid Blues”
Susanna Hoffs with Grace Bowers, “Hazy Shade of Winter”
Gaby Moreno, “Late in the Evening”
Silvana Estrada, “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”
Sean and Sara Watkins, “Hurricane Eye”
Madison Cunningham, “Kathy’s Song”
Andrew Bird and Alan Hampton, “American Tune”
Johnnyswim, “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War”
Marcus King, “America”
Allison Russell, “The Sound of Silence”
Dwight Yoakam, “The Boxer”
Jackson Browne, “I Am a Rock”
Rufus Wainwright, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Rodney Crowell, “Graceland”
Finale, “You Can Call Me Al”