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Bootleg Country: Paul Simon – 02/14/87

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When I was an early teen, say 14, I got a little compact stereo for Christmas. It has a radio, tape deck, and a record player. I was very interested in this little device as my parents' record player had died many years before.

My mother, ever the child of the sixties, had an astounding record collection of great early rock and roll (I am sad to say it has since been lost in a flood). The Beatles, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Sonny and Cher, the Rascals, Beach Boys, Loving’ Spoonful, you name it — if it was a hit in the 1960s, she probably had it on vinyl.

This was also the point in my life when I began to take music seriously. Certainly I had enjoyed music prior to this. I used to tape Casey Casem’s Weekly Top 40 show as well as the local stations' nightly top 10 requests. But I would often record over those tapes with whatever songs were new and popular. Music was something fluffy and fun, like candy that was to be enjoyed and discarded afterwards.

Now with all of this great music at my fingertips, I began to really understand the depth and reach of what music could be. For the first time, I began to really digest the poetry of Dylan, the guttural sex of the Stones, and the sheer brilliance of The Beatles. This was more than just throw away pop music, it was important.

I spent many hours sitting inside my room, lying flat on my back in my bed, devouring this new music. Most of these songs I had heard previously. Mother listened to Oldies radio and so much of what I was now listening to wasn’t new at all. I had heard all of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits separately many times over the years. Yet, as odd as it may sound, I had never put together that they were all his.

As much as I might now scoff at Greatest Hits albums, the 10 songs put together on Dylan’s version was life changing to this little boy. I couldn’t believe one person had sung so much greatness.

It was Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel who made the biggest impression on me. Something about the sheer force of their songwriting knocked the breath out of me.

To this day, I can remember listening to "The Boxer" late one night. As I had done many times before, I turned off the lights and set the volume down low as to allow the music to lull me asleep — except I couldn’t sleep because my mind kept listening. I couldn’t stop, the song was too forceful to allow such a thing as sleep. The music, as it has done many a time since, kept me awake and begging for more.

02/14/87
Rutfaro Stadium
Harare, Zimbabwe
Etree Link for Setlist

When I first started dating the girl who was to become my wife, I gave her three CDs as a means to share my musical obsession. They weren’t necessarily my all time favorite CDs, though they would certainly be high on the list, but albums I thought she would never have heard and that would shed some light into music that moved me.

Those albums were Willie Nelson’s Stardust, Nanci Griffith’s One Fair Summer Evening, and Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Graceland is an album of sheer joy to me. It is filled with great pop songcraft as well as  astounding vocals and rhythms from South Africa. It also helped bring "World Music" to America.

This show is a song-by-song recreation of the album, complete with a cacophony of South African musicians who provide their own myriad of sounds.

In fact, it is the African performances that make the bootleg worth listening to. Simon certainly performs with adequacy, but there is nothing here that really outshines the album. Part of the problem is that he only plays songs off of Graceland. To be a really great performance, to me, you need to play songs spanning your entire career, not just one album.

Maybe Simon wanted to highlight only his newest album. Perhaps he wanted to showcase the African musicians and singers for the entire show. It seems to me this could have been done better by arranging a few older songs to include the singers. I can imagine an absolutely astounding African vocal arrangement of “April Come She Will” and a mesmerizing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” But for whatever reason, we don’t get any of that, just Graceland and a number of what I can only guess are African originals.

It is there that the discs shine. The South African performers create sounds with their voices and instruments that are out of this world (or at least out of this part of the world). It is mystifying.

Unfortunately the mix of Simon and the South Africans is a little underwhelming. I have heard marvelous things about this tour, and I suspect had I been in the audience I would be saying similar marvelous things. But to these ears, the tape doesn’t hold up to the hype.

It is hard to point at anything particularly wrong with this set, but when I think of Paul Simon performing Graceland live in South Africa with performers from the area, I get all goose pimply and when I listen to the discs, I keep waiting for something more.

It is a good set, with good music. It’s just that when compared to, say, the Grateful Dead circa 1977 or Dylan in the 60’s or Bela Fleck in any year, this set just doesn’t have the same magic.

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About Mat Brewster

  • Vern Halen

    I’ve always had problems with Graceland – is this an example of artistic development or clutching at straws because you’ve run out of your own ideas? Yes it’s done well, but so are the Ladysmith Black Mambazo albums of the same era. Who was riding whom’s coattails here, or is it a true collaboration of artists from different cultures?