Viewers won’t go wrong watching the two-hour entirety of “Homeward Bound: A Grammy Salute to the Songs of Paul Simon” tonight on CBS (or, in days to come, streaming on Paramount+). But if you have only about a 10-minute stretch to spare for televised non-holiday music in the days leading up to Christmas, maybe make it the closing act of this special — especially the generational handoff number that has one master, Rhiannon Giddens, movingly joining another. As Giddens and Simon perform “American Tune,” you may feel like you’ve gone off to find America, and actually kinda succeeded in that search, over the course of just one number.
Everything else about the telecast — which was filmed before a live audience at Hollywood’s Pantages back in April (see Variety‘s next-day coverage here) — feels immaculately chosen by producer Ken Ehrlich, if hardly marked by left-field surprises. There are no sops to the youth vote, except for the inclusion of the Jonas Brothers reviving “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” which, with all due respect to their respect for one of the greats, probably clocks in as the least essential performance here. But it’s fine that they didn’t bring in, like, Gayle for the occasion. With a Paul Simon, you pretty much want something closer to a peer-on-peer review panel, which you’re definitely getting when one of the guests of honor is Stevie Wonder, the only guy who won more album of the year Grammys in the 1970s (three) than the pair of album trophies Simon picked up during that same decade. None of the other guests quite count as actual ’60s-era contemporaries the way Wonder does, but with other frequent awardees like Bonnie Raitt also on board, it feels like Old Home Week when it comes to this “Salute” almost secondarily serving as a tribute to the Grammys themselves.
It may or may not seem surprising that some of the best stretches of the show come from Simon’s 1987 album of the year winner, “Graceland” — it’s shocking only if you didn’t believe that Rickey Minor would be able to assemble a band capable of playing that stuff to its maximum African-continent potential. Minor also plays bass in the 17-piece house band he’s assembled, and you may find yourself wondering how the hell he was able to play the signature bass parts on “You Can Call Me Al” so expertly, until it’s announced — from on high, by final presenter Oprah Winfrey — that “the last living member of the ‘Graceland’ band,” Bakithi Kumalo, is also present in the ensemble. Besides Simon’s own version of “Graceland’s” title track near the end, the record that might be the landmark album of the ’80s is represented by Take 6 channeling Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the a cappella “Homeless” and Angélique Kidjo and fellow South African native Dave Matthews bringing figurative swagger and literal strutting to “Under African Skies” and “Al.”
There are other moments in the show where things get as multi-culti as they’re ever going to in honor of anyone who one of the Yankees’ biggest fans, like putting Jimmy Cliff and Shaggy in tandem service to “Mother and Child Reunion,” arguably the first reggae song to become a real staple of American pop life. Showing off Simon’s ecumenical as well as ethnological diversity, his passing early-’70s interest in Black gospel has the mama-deifying “Loves Me Like a Rock” revived by the combination of Take Six and Billy Porter — the latter not known for his impact on the Christian charts, but as Porter puts it about his converging interests, “I grew up Pentecostal, I’m also gay, and I’m in love with life.” His trip to New Orleans for “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” gets the most suitable possible casting, covered here by Trombone Shorty and Irma Thomas, the other guest with a pedigree as long as Simon’s and Stevie’s.
Ironically, maybe, Simon dipped over the course of his career into just about any and every genre that counts as one of the building blocks of rock ‘n roll without ever quite identifiably rock ‘n’ rolling, per se, but that gap is taken up in the special by Susanna Hoffs bringing back the Bangles’ hit cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter,” possibly the one time Simon was ever associated — by proxy — with headbanging as well as the stuff of headshrinkers.
For all that representation of his genre exploration, the bulk of the two hours goes, not unreasonably, to stars treating his singer-songwriter essentiality in a singer-songwriter fashion. The country artists are tops at putting a spin on the songs that suggests other old-school writers or singers: Garth Brooks, joined in flawless harmony by Trisha Yearwood, offers “The Boxer” sort of by way of Don McLean, while Eric Church slightly reinvents “America” as a Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb tune.
One of Simon’s great gifts as a songwriter, which also happens to be part-and-parcel with why it’s sometimes difficult to fully convey his brilliance to younger generations, is his knack — especially with his some of his early, post-Simon & Garfunkel solo work in the ’70s — for wedding some of the trickiest, most insightful and sometimes most melancholy lyricism pop has ever seen to deceptively cheerful melodies that represented the apex of what “adult contemporary” songs could be. That’s evident here as Little Big Town cheerfully takes on “Slip Slidin’ Away,” a sad song that only becomes sadder when, as edited for broadcast here, it leaves off the cosmic shrug of the concluding verse and just ends on the heartbreaking one about a divorced dad making a stealth visit to his sleeping kid. They shouldn’t be smiling, really, but it’s hard to blame them — the easy-like-Sunday-morning-ness of the tune elicits feel-good brain chemistry even before the group harmonies get layered on.
But Simon also had his moments, to be sure, when songs announced themselves as profundities, and delivered. Which is how the stark one-two punch that ends the show impacts so powerfully following so many selections that were feeling, well, groovier.
The band packs up after “Graceland” (in real life, anyway — the super-tight editing is not about to allow for the portrayal of Pantages set changes) and Giddens comes out to join Simon, or to be joined by him, as his sole contribution to “American Tune” is as an instrumental accompanist. It’s a stunning rendition, one those of us who saw the live taping in April have been waiting eight months for the rest of the world to hear. (The two of them did also perform it in tandem at the Newport Folk Festival in July, so it hasn’t gone completely unheard in the interval.)
Giddens invests the classic song with enough fresh meaning that you could almost believe it was she who was born to sing it, not Simon. No small part of that is how a key couplet in the last stretch has been changed to make the ballad no longer a white man’s blues, with “Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower / We come on the ship that sailed the moon” to “We didn’t come here on the Mayflower / We came on a ship in a blood red moon.” Having been credited for the change when the song was first played earlier this year, Giddens was quick to point out it was Simon’s own doing, not hers. But regardless of its inspiration, the sight of Giddens singing these new lyrics while she plays the banjo — as she often points out, a crucial slave instrument — as Simon picks along on his acoustic adds some changing-of-the-guard text and subtext to a tune that already stood at the pinnacle of American song in its first form.
Even without those tweaks, “American Tune” stands as something that speaks to the American experiment more profoundly in this political climate than ever. “I don’t have a friend that feels at ease,” Giddens sings, and you know she isn’t lying. (The “you can’t be forever blessed”/”get some rest” rhyme may also have some special resonance for anyone who’s habitually reading headlines about the state of the nation going right into Christmas week.) When Simon sings it, you tend to imagine that the arc of the universe leans toward a kind of sad resignation; when Giddens adds her gravitas, you believe that the change might still come after all.
Rather than return to a celebratory note to go out on, the telecast ends with Simon, solo, singing “The Sound of Silence.” His shows ended on that non-bang, too, before he retired from the road three years ago, so maybe choosing so somber a note to have this special go out on is not a full-on risk. It still feels touching, in more ways than can be fully explained, seeing Simon approach the end of his career with a tune that defined youthful alienation at its beginning, now alluding to a deeper, better-earned state of silenzio. But as this special shows, in barely scratching the surface of what may be the most legitimately poetic of all great American songbooks, Simon’s is a voice that will never really grow silent.