Honey or vinegar. The carrot or the stick. Art or politics.
Over an extraordinary weekend in London, two groups of emissaries from America brought drastically distinct ways of relating to international constituencies, approaches that cast into sharp relief Robert Frost’s timeless poem about diverging roads in the metaphorical wood.
Along one path came President Trump, whose visit to Britain en route to his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin motivated thousands to take to the streets of the English capital in protest.
His commitment to the politics of disruption was on display yet again in an interview he gave to the British tabloid the Sun that was seen as damaging the U.S. relationship with British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Down the other path, however, came three beloved veteran American musicians: Paul Simon, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, who gathered Sunday in Hyde Park before an estimated 60,000 fans, harmoniously united in their admiration for artistry that transcends political and geographical boundaries.
The performance closed the annual two-weekend British Summer Time-Hyde Park festival, which began July 6 with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters — who must have taken a certain pride in the Floyd-like giant balloon that flew over London during Trump’s visit, satirizing him as a diaper-clad infant — and also featured headlining performances by Eric Clapton, Bruno Mars, the Cure and Michael Bublé.
Simon’s stop was part of his Homeward Bound Farewell Tour, the London visit carrying special resonance, given the formative years he spent here in the early ’60s.
“I can’t begin to say how much this means to me,” Simon, 76, said near the end of his 2½-hour set, just before singing “Homeward Bound,” an early song inspired by his travels abroad and his yearning to return home.
Neither Simon, Taylor nor Raitt mentioned Trump by name, but each alluded to the divisive effect he has had at home and abroad, and sought to quietly assure the thousands spilling out in front of the festival’s main stage that he does not speak for everyone in the U.S.
“I feel I have to say something, there are so many of you out there,” Taylor, 70, said in the middle of his hour-long set. “There is another America than the one that is represented by that other guy… and it has a soul and it is coming back.” He also gently celebrated cultural diversity during his performance of his 1975 hit “Mexico,” for which his band’s horn players donned mariachi hats.
Raitt said simply, “I’m really glad you-know-who left so I won’t have to sing within earshot.” At one point, she cited early shows in which she shared bills with blues greats including Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and Skip James by way of introducing her own deft solo acoustic rendition of James’ deliciously dark blues “Devil Got My Woman.”
Simon is on the road celebrating a career that reaches back more than half a century, and he predominantly kept the focus on his remarkably deep catalog spanning his early work with partner Art Garfunkel and his relentlessly exploratory solo career after they parted ways in 1970.
Many of his songs eloquently capture the struggles Americans experienced in the 1960s and ’70s through the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution and the civil rights and women’s movements.
But in place of the unbridled anger and invective common from politicians and voters in recent years, the three artists have long used music to help listeners process difficult feelings, whether loss, hurt, disappointment and disillusionment or heartbreak
The solution expressed in song after song was love, illustrated handily by the show’s musical sign language interpreters, whose most common gesture was the double-handed shape of a heart.
There’s hardly a sadder song than Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” inspired by the suicide of a lover, in which he sings “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain / I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end / I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend / But I always thought that I’d see you again.”
Simon also grappled with the loss of ideals in “American Tune,” one of his cornerstone songs he has added to the farewell tour set since bypassing it during his opening-night show at the Hollywood Bowl in May. He introduced it with a short and sweet reference to the tumultuous atmosphere around the world today, saying, “Strange times, huh? Don’t give up.”
Written during the Watergate scandal of President Nixon’s administration, “American Tune” continues to feel topical: “I don’t know a soul that’s not been battered / I don’t have a friend who feels at ease / I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered / Or driven to its knees.”
Where Simon originally followed that by singing, “But it’s all right, it’s all right,” on Sunday, he changed “it’s” to “we’re,” making the sentiment far more personal, inclusive and immediate.
He also has added “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to the set, another song he skipped at the first Bowl show. In one of several disarmingly conversational song introductions, he said he had “given the song away” — presumably referring to Garfunkel’s definitive solo vocal on the recording — and subsequently rarely performed it.
“I felt somewhat distanced from it, as if it wasn’t my song. Tonight, on this final tour, I am going to reclaim my lost child.”
A percolating new arrangement performed by the yMusic ensemble that’s a key component of his 15-member band backing him gave Simon a fresh perspective on the song that removed any hint of nostalgia and allowed its power and beauty to emerge anew.
Like much of Taylor’s early ’70s work, Simon’s “Bridge” delivered salve to a wounded generation with a message of spiritual, not didactically religious, reassurance: “When you’re down and out / When you’re on the street / When evening falls so hard / I will comfort you / I’ll take your part / When darkness comes / And pain is all around.”
It was another example of art that strives not for targets to blame for anyone’s suffering, but for a shared understanding of the human condition. Rather than exploiting superficial differences, Simon and his fellow artists underscored how an insightful exploration of human flaws can lead to the discovery of another road.
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