Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Homeward Bound

There aren't many musicians as accomplished and distinguished as Paul Simon. Only by teaming up with a singer as angelic as Art Garfunkel could he be considered the "lesser" vocalist in any group. He, like Joni Mitchell, quickly became as or more interested in odd chords, voicings and changes than lyrical explorations. And his backing musicians were never less the creamiest of the cream of the crop. But like Eric Clapton post-Cream/Blind Faith, he never really collaborated with a musician who could truly push him as only a legitimate equal could.

Which brings us to the following clip. I don't know the backstory of how or why Paul Simon invited George Harrison to join him on Saturday Night Live, but the pair played a pair of songs, both of which are gems. George was never the strongest singer—it's no insult to say he was no Lennon or McCartney or Garfunkel—but his rough, nasally voice blends gorgeously with Paul Simon's much purer croon. But even more than the pleasant novelty of his different timbre, it's the freedom of his phrasing that lifts this performance into the realm of something truly special.

As the hours and hours of early live Beatles performances make crystal clear, George could not only harmonize beautifully, but he could do so—as could they all—with impossibly perfect timing, all three singers synchronizing absolutely flawlessly.

He doesn't do that here, not even close. Instead, he feels free to lag a bit behind the beat at times, and add little flourishes here and there. And although I'm not enough of a Paul Simon scholar to be able to state definitely, I'm pretty sure this is one of the very, very few times any of his post-Garfunkel partners felt free enough do so. Which, of course, he should have. Because here's the thing: Paul Simon is a hugely important musician, and insanely talented and accomplished. And he can stack his catalog up against absolutely anyone in the history of the music with confidence.

Except that George could pull out "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Taxman" and "If I Needed Someone" and so on and so forth and oh by the way I was in the fucking Beatles did I mention that? And he wins.

Now, I get the impression that George would sooner have pulled out one of his own molars than actually do or say any of that. But the point is, of course, that he didn't have to. There was never any need to, 'cuz everyone always knew it at all times.

Which is how you get a performance like this. George's verse is ever so lovely, the way he plays ever so slightly with the melody, although, really, it's more the way his phrasing is so very him. The way he toys with the dynamics here and there, getting softer or louder, and his timbre, getting rougher or smoother, and most of all the way he sings the title the second time after Simon joins in again, the little roulade he drops, is just subtly spectacular. How he weaves in and out of Simon's vocals so assuredly...it's just...well, listen.

Just check out that "oooh...sweet!" look Paul gets on his face at 2:30, as George plays his little blues run to close things out; it's clear Simon himself knows something special just happened.

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