A genuinely classic album enjoys that status across the generations, a wide-ranging appeal clearly visible in the crowd in Hyde Park to see Paul Simon mark the (slightly late) 25th anniversary of his 1986 masterpiece, Graceland.
There were those old enough to remember the furore surrounding Simon’s decision to break a UN-approved cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa to record in the country. Then there were those, like me, for whom it meant nothing more controversial than the soundtrack to another long family car journey, and an even younger group, fresh to Graceland’s zinging combination of township funk and surreal New York lyrical chatter.
Simon eased his way towards the album over a three hour set and then switched things around to allow for a joyous You Can Call Me Al finale. The slightly incongruous Cajun stomp of That was Your Mother appeared earlier on, in a segment that also included the breezy strum of Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard (complete with endearingly feeble whistling solo) and the carnival beats of The Obvious Child.
Full immersion in the music was hindered by low volume levels, even right beside the mid-audience speakers where I was standing. People could talk without raising their voices, and Simon’s singing was often drowned out by the less than perfect attempts of those nearby joining in. In a different year, this would have been a perfect headlining set for Glastonbury, which has a hundred times more atmosphere and doesn’t create a huge gap in the middle of the field by penning better-off ticket holders into a separate “golden circle”.
Happy to hand the spotlight to others, Simon brought on reggae great Jimmy Cliff for a few of Cliff’s songs – not quite a clash of legends to match the previous evening’s Springsteen/McCartney duets here, but welcome nonetheless. He also left the political side to trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who sang of conditions in Johannesburg gold mines and Nelson Mandela, but added: “We just want you to shake some serious booty here.”
Shake we did, when Simon’s main band was replaced by the original South African musicians of the 1987 Graceland tour – including high-kicking a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo – and those familiar melodies tumbled forth. Gumboots, Under African Skies, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes – glittering tunes that have long outlived their difficult birth to spread pure joy for decades.