What were the odds that the Recording Academy would honor the woman that many consider the greatest living female songwriter, Joni Mitchell, and great living male songwriter, Paul Simon, within a week’s time of one another? And yet that’s what happened as last Friday’s pre-Grammys MusiCares tribute to Mitchell in Las Vegas was followed Wednesday in Los Angeles with “Homeward Bound: A Grammy Salute to the Songs of Paul Simon,” both with spectacularly curated lineups worthy of the feted. And although the Mitchell night is not set to be publicly aired, the good news for fans is that the Simon salute was filmed for a future CBS broadcast and is destined to be one of the highlights of the music-TV year.
The taping at L.A.’s Pantages Theatre, which was open to the public, had a significant portion of its lineup announced when tickets first went on sale, including Dave Matthews, Billy Porter, Brad Paisley, Rhiannon Giddens, Angélique Kidjo, Little Big Town, Trombone Shorty, Shaggy, Take 6 and Irma Thomas. But the roster was significantly filled out with additional performers Wednesday, including Stevie Wonder, the Jonas Brothers, Eric Church, Jimmy Cliff, Ledisi, the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, Garth Brooks harmonizing with Trisha Yearwood, and Eric Idle in tandem with Puddles Pity Party.
Presenters included Oprah Winfrey, Dustin Hoffman (who introduced “Mrs. Robinson,” naturally), Woody Harrelson, Herbie Hancock and Sophia Carson. Previously recorded performances by Sting and Bonnie Raitt appeared on the big screen during the live show. One guest who had been billed in the first announcement, Brandi Carlile, had to bow out from an in-person appearance, although it’s believed she will be part of the show when it airs later this year.
Carlile, if she had appeared, would have been one of three performers to be featured at both the Mitchell tribute last week and the Simon show this week. Those remaining that were pulling performance double-duty between the two lovefests were Kidjo, who took part in a “Graceland”/South-African-themed segment alongside Matthews and Take 6, and Porter, who managed to bring down the house on both occasions, this time with a full-gospel run-through of “Loves Me Like a Rock,” also with help from Take 6.
Near the end of the 195-minute taping, Winfrey made her surprise appearance to introduce a climactic three-song set by the honoree of the night, and made it clear a social outing of any sort remained the exception and not the rule for her, even this far into the pandemic. “I am out in an enclosed space, with people are not my family, for the first time since March 2020,” Winfrey declared at the outset. Addressing Simon, and alluding to the lyrics of “The Boy in the Bubble,” she said, “Your music has indeed brought us miracle and wonder.”
The exceptionally well-chosen program had its playlist largely chosen by executive producer Ken Ehrlich, who produced the Grammys for 40 years and who has long done the same for the annual “Grammy Salute” tapings, including tributes to Elton John, Whitney Houston, the Bee Gees and the Beatles. The last of these to take place before a live audience, the Grammys’ salute to Prince, went down a little over two years ago, just before lockdown. While most of these have taken place at the L.A. Convention Center, where production elements are usually already in play from the preceding Grammys, that ceremony taking place in Vegas this year allowed producers to set up shop for the Grammy Salute at a different location, the Pantages, the ornate ex-movie palace whose elegance Ehrlich remarked he was enjoying as a Grammy-special setting for the first time in decades.
Focusing on different genres Simon has touched on over the last 60 years led to some obvious but highly potent matchups of artist and material, like reggae legend Cliff teaming with Shaggy for “Mother and Child Reunion,” and Trombone Shorty and Thomas joining forces for a rendition of “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” that included a full-on parade back and forth across the stage (with portions of the audience who anticipated this bringing out their own white hankerchiefs to wave, New Orleans-style). Porter doing “Loves Me Like a Rock” for all the traditional, Jessy Dixon-augmented gospel it was worth might have been more of a surprise, but he dedicated the mother-themed classic to his own mom and noted, “I grew up Pentecostal, grew up gay, and grew up loving life.”
For the three-song finale, Simon — who quit the road with a farewell tour in 2018, but has made occasional live appearances since — opened with a full-band version of “Graceland” and closed with a spookily solo “Sounds of Silence.” What came between was a moment for the ages, with Giddens, one of the greatest voices America has, singing lead and playing banjo on “American Tune,” while Simon merely provided expert finger-picking guitar accompaniment. Giddens, who has frequently explored the music of slavery and its offshoots, changed the lyrics to “we didn’t… come on the Mayflower,” with the meaning of that shift unmistakable. It was proof, just like the whole evening, of how surprisingly adaptable Simon’s songs have been, even if their poetry was just peculiar enough that it was always difficult to imagine them belonging to anyone else when he was at the mic.
As for what Monty Python’s Idle and an enormous clown did with Simon’s music on the least reverent side of the spectrum, that may be something best left to be discovered on its own when the show airs at a time TBD later this year. Variety will have complete coverage of the show then.