A Celebration of Paul Simon’s Graceland Live – Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Tribute acts devoted to a favourite popstar or band are fairly standard but less common is a tribute show dedicated to a particular album. Josh Turner’s latest concert, performed for only the second time at the Shepherd Bush Empire, is a homage to Paul Simon’s Graceland album written in 1986 when the artist visited apartheid South Africa and collaborated with local musicians to develop a collection of songs that hold cult status for fans of the singer.

But Turner makes the audience wait to hear any of it and fills the first half of the show, which runs at over 80-minutes, with a selection of earlier Paul Simon numbers interspersed with performances by The South African Gospel Choir who sing a selection of their own music. It is a sadly disjoined and oddly constructed first half that not only feels overlong but abruptly switches between Turner’s willowy vocals that replicate Simons’ country and American folk sound and the evocative chants and harmonies of South African music.

Two songs of each genre are performed on rotation and both have their individual charm but somehow never quite merge to build a coherent context for Simons’ album or really provide a convincing reason to construct the show in this way. In between Turner provides biographical details about Paul Simon and the influences on his songs, but they never help the audience to understand how Graceland came to exist.

It is notable that the show description fails to mention the entire first part of A Celebration of Paul Simon’s Graceland – Live and it isn’t until the second half that Turner finally brings the two musical styles together by faithfully performing every song in the exact order it appears on the record. And Turner provides a little more context to the creation of the album in the studio with lyrics added later in America.

Particularly good here are ‘You Can Call Me Al’ in which pockets of spontaneous dancing develops across the audience – the song they’ve clearly all been waiting for – which Turner delivers very well, while the more overtly African-influenced numbers ‘Homeless’ with its long opening synchronisations and acapella delivery as well as ‘Under African Skies’ are beautifully performed by the choir.

Yet as the 2.5-hour concert draws to a close, you feel Turner could have been bolder in his structure, replacing the mixed effect of Act One and integrating the pure South African songs with the music from the album. Most of the audience will have heard these numbers hundreds of times so this show needs to focus less on the biography of Paul Simon and instead tell the story of the album by showing how the artist was influenced by the music he heard and playing it alongside the songs it inspired.

Turner replicates Simons’ vocals pretty well but the linking passages could say much more about his own attachment to the music – it’s admirably pure in its approach but shaking-up the playlist to explain why this album has particular resonance for him would add value and putting the big dance number at the end would ensure a rousing finale. It’s a solid tribute to Paul Simon that will please fans, but it needs to feel more like Turner’s show.

Reviewed on 14 October 2019 | Image: Contributed

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Admirably pure

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