Photo: Chris Walter / Contributor
Joni Mitchell's Performance At Newport Folk 2022 Was Monumental. But Let's Not Forget Paul Simon Singing "The Sound of Silence."
Joni Mitchell's weathered performance of her 1960s classic "Both Sides, Now" at the festival was a historic moment. But Paul Simon singing "The Sound of Silence" was just as major — and invites a fresh examination of his legacy.
Of all the surprise guests at Newport Folk 2022, Joni Mitchell got the most ink. And that's not only to be expected; it's richly deserved.
Here's a woman who started out by blowing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's minds to smithereens, reinvented herself five or six times like Miles Davis, played some of the furthest-out guitar anybody ever heard and wrote a handful of songs that can be genuinely considered perfect. (Looking at you, "Both Sides Now" — and not just because CODA kicked the classic back into the mainstream.)
Plus, she won nine GRAMMYs and was nominated for 17 — and was MusiCares' Person Of The Year in 2022, received with a lavish gala and star-studded, pre-GRAMMYs tribute concert.
And after everything, that the childhood polio survivor pulled through a 2015 brain aneurysm, retaught herself to play guitar, and stood at Newport Folk 2022 singing a few of those perfect songs with her adoring collaborators is something like proof of the existence of miracles.
But while any discussion of the surprises at Newport will naturally begin with Mitchell, it's tended to obfuscate another transformative moment from the weekend: Paul Simon stepping out of semi-retirement to sing "Graceland," "American Tune" and "The Boxer" with an assortment of famous friends, among them Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.
Simon's appearance went theoretically toe-to-toe in importance with Mitchell's — he ended his set with a spine-chilling, solo performance of "The Sound of Silence." Much like Mitchell's tune, he wrote it young — and it's developed majestic new dimensions across the decades.
Why might some receive Simon's appearance with less fanfare than Mitchell's — aside from her challenges and attendant time off? It's worth examining Simon's place in the contemporary music world — and his critical cachet within.
Despite winning 16 GRAMMYs, being nominated for 35, receiving a lavish GRAMMY Salute tribute concert in 2022and never making a bad album, a couple of narratives of questionable practices have followed him around — both of them regarding his 1986 masterpiece, Graceland.
Framing Simon Today
The first regarded his violation of the international boycott against South Africa regarding their vile apartheid policies — a picket line Simon crossed not because he sided with the oppressors, but because he believed nobody should stop him from collaborating with musicians he loved and respected.
"I knew I would be criticized if I went, even though I wasn't going to record for the government of Pretoria or to perform for segregated audiences," Simon told the New York Times in 1986. "I was following my musical instincts in wanting to work with people whose music I greatly admired."
As Simon added, he consulted with Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte about it, due to their deep ties to the South African musical community; both men gave Simon their blessing. This didn't come close to extinguishing the firestorm, though; even Linda Ronstadt received blowback for merely appearing on it.
The second asterisk on his legacy comes from his supposed treatment of Los Lobos, from whom he's been said to have stolen the Graceland track "All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints." The veracity of this story mostly comes from Los Lobos member Steve Berlin's eyewitness account.
As Berlin alleged to Rock Cellar, during the sessions, "Rather than engage us, Paul would just stare at us like we were animals in a zoo or something." And when his ears pricked up at a composition Los Lobos were working on, Simon asked if he could build on it. Which meant the Chicano rockers were shocked at the ensuing record-sleeve credits: "Words and Music by Paul Simon."
"We're asking and asking, then finally six months later we hear from Paul and he says, 'Sue me. See what happens.'" Berlin continued. "That's a direct quote, so that gives you an indication of what kind of guy he is."
These kinds of stories don't follow around Mitchell, whose standing has only exploded in scale with no sign of letting up. This is not only for her incredible musical accomplishments, but also for giving a generation of confessional singer/songwriters — many of them women — a voice, mainly with her watershed album Blue.
But still, Simon is correctly viewed as an innovator, a wordsmith and a titan — part of which has been kicked up by the reaction to a provocative op-ed.
In 2021, Simon was thrust back in the conversation thanks to a piece in NBC News THINK, framing Simon's decision to sell his catalog for $250 million as a futile attempt to be remembered centuries after his death.
"[Neil] Young and Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Paul Simon — all giants in their day — will be no more than footnotes, at best, to Dylan and the Beatles," writer Jeff Slate declared. This prognostication inspired explosive debate; YouTube giant Rick Beato spent an entire episode skewering Slate, and John Mayer decidedly planted his flag on Simon's side.
"I'm one of Simon's descendents," the seven-time GRAMMY winner wrote on Instagram. "And for as long as I live I will make sure he's never forgotten."
And it was that same animating force that led Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats to throw an entire "American Tune Revue" at Newport Folk 2022, with everyone from Natalie Merchant to Lukas Nelson to the Silk Road Ensemble present to enshrine him in the Tower of Song.
So, that's more or less where Simon sits these days — which is to say nothing of the millions who continue to revere his songbook. But, back to "The Sound of Silence": Why did it matter when he wrote it, and why were rapt audience members reduced to tears when he sang the song at Newport?
A Vision Softly Creeping
Imagine a 21-year-old Simon, softly fingerpicking an acoustic guitar in the reverberating bathroom of his family's Queens home. He had a spectral melody in mind, but the words hadn't come yet.
But when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963 — just over a month after Simon's 22nd birthday — a line came to his lips, staggering in its power and simplicity. "Hello, darkness, my old friend," he sings. "I've come to talk with you again."
Does the rest of the song live up to that monumental opener? That's up for debate, but the lines that spill forth still pack a poetic radiance, from Gospels-like blasts of light to scrawled prophecies in tenement halls. But it ultimately curls in on itself — silence, and the shadow, conquer all.
It was the electrified, Byrdsy arrangement of the song that landed Simon and Garfunkel a deal with Columbia Records, became a monster hit and ultimately laid the groundwork for Simon's entire legacy. But the stripped-down version on the Old Friends boxed set is the one to cherish, illuminating the pair's otherworldly harmonies and Simon's spooky, fingerpicked voicings.
When things grow unremittingly glum — which has never stopped happening since 1963 — "The Sound of Silence" still feels like a fitting companion. The tune's cinematic legacy alone is worthy of its own article, from driving home The Graduate's theme of ennui and disconnectedness to augmenting the despair of a rainy graveyard scene in Watchmen.
And back in the real world, Simon performed "The Sound of Silence" on Ground Zero on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 — an unspeakable slaughter that had transpired just a few subway stops away from his apartment.
A few years later, one of the most public and resonant 21st-century usages of "The Sound of Silence" came by way of Disturbed — if you think the nu-metallers aren't for you, you still need to behold this magisterial cover.
They performed it on Conan while singer David Draiman was literally down with the sickness; his vocal, in equal parts honeyed and thunderous, still spurred YouTube commenters to request it at their funeral. And in life, many commented, they sought solace in that performance when grief or pain or abandonment felt insurmountable.
Disturbed received the most tremendous honor possible: an approving email from Simon himself. "Really powerful performance on Conan the other day. First time I'd seen you do it live. Nice. Thanks," he wrote. "Mr. Simon, I am honored beyond words," Draiman responded. "We only hoped to pay homage and honor to the brilliance of one of the greatest songwriters of all time."
So that's why it was so moving to watch an 80-year-old Simon strip "The Sound of Silence" to its essence — murmuring the lyrics sans Garfunkel as thousands watched awestruck, while the sun set in pastel hues over the Atlantic Ocean. Because we've all had a long sit with Death for private communion.
But when it's tempting to abandon the light and go the other way, "The Sound of Silence" helps us refuse to give up hope. That's the ultimate power of a song, delivered by one of the greatest to ever pick up a guitar and a pen.
And much like Mitchell of his generation, we must all be grateful to be able to sit at Simon's feet, open our hearts and minds, and listen. And right then: the silence is shattered.
Jon Stewart to LL Cool J: Who has hosted the GRAMMYs?
From Andy Williams and Whoopi Goldberg to Jon Stewart and LL Cool J, GRAMMY hosts have been a varied cast
When LL Cool J takes the stage to open the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards, nobody's going to question his hosting credentials. The two-time GRAMMY-winning rapper, also star of "NCIS: Los Angeles," is a multiplatform dynamo. Plus he's experienced — he led last year's GRAMMY extravaganza at Staples Center.
The producers of Music's Biggest Night haven't always relied on the kind of superstar who can swing deftly from a concert stage to a TV set to shepherd millions of viewers through the telecast, though. Before LL Cool J got the nod in 2012, the GRAMMYs went hostless for several years. And before that — from the first nontelevised ceremony in 1959, with political comedian Mort Sahl, to 2005, when GRAMMY winner Queen Latifah was at the helm — an assortment of talents have played the role of GRAMMY host.
If they have anything in common, it may be along the lines of what a combined 50-plus years of Record and Song Of The Year awards share: they're all hugely recognizable. And more than a little influential.
Hosts, like the winning recordings, have been notable for the way they engaged (Paul Simon, host at the 23rd GRAMMY Awards in 1981, performed his relentlessly catchy "Late In The Evening"), or for the doses of poignancy they brought to the proceedings (just last year at the 54th GRAMMY Awards, LL Cool J led a prayer for the late Whitney Houston). Some captured the zeitgeist and, like certain songs, will go down in GRAMMY history for catching people off guard.
Take Jon Stewart.
Stewart, along with Garry Shandling and Paul Reiser before him, fits the category of GRAMMY comedian hosts, an era that spans from 1987, when Billy Crystal began his three-year run, to 2002, when Stewart hosted for a second year. Stewart's entrance onto the 44th Annual GRAMMY stage on Feb. 27, 2002, was less than grand: At the end of an opening skit in which he tussled with a pretend airportlike security team – a riff on the pumped-up security measures that swept the country soon after Sept. 11 — he was stripped, forcibly, down to his boxers.
Because the GRAMMYs are well-versed in the ways of rock stars, their fashion sense included, the show is only nominally a black-tie event (at least since the mid-'60s, when, pre-televised, it was held in hotel ballrooms on both coasts). Boxers only, though, was a bolder-than-usual fashion statement.
At times, GRAMMY hosts such as Kelsey Grammer have been caught off guard. The TV actor, who hosted the 40th annual show in 1998, had to figure out what to make of the shirtless stage crasher who forever will be known as "Soy Bomb" because of those same two words, inexplicably painted across his bare chest. Soy Bomb, neé Michael Portnoy, memorably interrupted Bob Dylan's performance of "Love Sick," from his Album Of The Year-winning Time Out Of Mind, that night. Grammer — though he played a psychologist on TV at the time — was as confused by the stunt as everyone else.
Before comedy became a staple at GRAMMY telecasts, hosts were tapped for their own musical accomplishments. Andy Williams, a '60s superstar for indelible hits such as "Moon River" as well as his two TV variety series, hosted the first seven live shows, starting in 1971 with the 13th Annual GRAMMY Awards.
In 1978, for the 20th Annual GRAMMY Awards, Williams gave way to John Denver, then in his recording prime. Like Williams, Denver went on to become a regular — he hosted five more times, winding up his tenure in 1985. But his run was not without interruptions. Country star Kenny Rogers hosted in 1980, at the 22nd Annual GRAMMY Awards, and went on to host again six years later. Denver also put his hosting duties on hiatus in 1981, at the 23rd Annual GRAMMYs, when Simon signed on.
Williams is the only one of those early musical chart-toppers not to have won a GRAMMY himself, though he was nominated several times. In all, since the first broadcast, seven hosts have won GRAMMYs. Besides Denver, Rogers and Simon, Stewart won Best Comedy Album for 2004's The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Presents … America: A Citizens Guide To Democracy Inaction and Best Spoken Word Album for his 2010 release The Daily With Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The Audiobook); Whoopi Goldberg, who hosted the 34th Annual GRAMMYs in 1992, during the comedian-as-host phase and won for Best Comedy Recording for her 1985 album Whoopi Goldberg — Original Broadway Show Recording; Queen Latifah, who hosted in 2005 and won Best Rap Solo Performance in 1994 for "U.N.I.T.Y."; and current host LL Cool J, who won Best Rap Solo Performance in 1991 for "Mama Said Knock You Out" and in 1996 for "Hey Lover." DeGeneres is vying to become the eighth with a current 55th GRAMMY nomination for Best Spoken Word Album. Simon has given the most acceptance speeches — he's won 16 GRAMMYs.
While GRAMMY hosts have a knack for scoring GRAMMYs themselves, that isn't the only thing connecting them, achievement-wise. Several have gone on to host other awards broadcasts, too — most notably Crystal, who has hosted the Academy Awards a whopping nine times. Goldberg and Stewart have also been Oscar hosts, though, and so has DeGeneres, who hosted the 38th and 39th Annual GRAMMYs in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Rosie O'Donnell — another veteran of the era of comedic GRAMMY hosts for her 1999–2000 stint — has been a regular host of the Tony Awards. And Queen Latifah has helmed the People's Choice Awards and the BET Awards.
No matter what they went on to do, or how many stages they won awards on themselves, each has proved an essential, memorable part of Music's Biggest Night.
(Tammy La Gorce is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times, and on All Music Guide and Amazon.com.)
Wild At The GRAMMYs: It's Miller Time
David Wild has written for the GRAMMY Awards since 2001. He is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, a blogger for Huffington Post and an Emmy-nominated TV writer. Wild's most recent book, He Is…I Say: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Neil Diamond, is now in paperback. Follow him on Twitter.
The GRAMMY Awards broadcast is the biggest show on earth — or at least the biggest show on television. At least that's the way it looks from my admittedly subjective and sweaty point of view in the GRAMMY trenches.
Think about it for just a moment: There are more moving parts on the GRAMMY show than any other television event that I can think of. See, most of the big TV events are based around actors walking out on a stage in a theater and speaking, and then showing film or video clips. Other shows may feature a number of performances, but no show features more performances than the GRAMMYs. And in search of great GRAMMY moments, performers tend to push things to the limit on the GRAMMY stage, and sometimes slightly over the limit too.
Capturing all of those moving parts on camera in an artful and appropriate way is largely the job of the person in the truck calling all the shots for the camera operators attempting to cover all the musical action — namely, the director.
For the last 29 years, my friend Walter C. Miller has directed the GRAMMY Awards television show. That's not a typo — that's a fact: 29 years. That means every great GRAMMY moment most of us remember, we remember the way Walter wanted us to remember it. I've personally been there and witnessed him take every performance seriously, from Eminem and Elton John, to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and Prince and Beyoncé. "You get to be a part of a lot of musical history on the GRAMMYs," Walter told me recently. His historic track record is remarkable for any business, but much more so in an entertainment industry where survival is more often measured in intervals of 15 minutes than 30 years.
When GRAMMY Co-Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich first brought me in to help write the GRAMMY show a decade ago, he introduced me to Walter, who immediately insulted me in some witty yet somehow warm way. Being a lifelong Don Rickles fan, I liked the guy immediately. He is super sharp with a long lifetime of stories and a singular ability to tell them with fresh wit and the sting of truth. Just between us, Walter reminded me of my father. I remember seeing another director friend after meeting Walter and asking if he knew who Walter was. "Yes, David, Walter Miller basically invented live television,” he told me.
Having Walter on the GRAMMY team has meant the world to all of us lucky enough to work with him.
"I've learned so much from Walter," says Ken Ehrlich. "Wally had been and continues to be like a brother and a father to me. It's been like Butch and Sundance, and we're always ready to yell 'St' and jump off the mountain together."
"In his 30 years with the GRAMMY Awards, Walter Miller has not only created the look for our show, but for all other music award shows too," says GRAMMY Co-Executive Producer John Cossette. "He created the template for everyone else to follow."
In recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to find myself down in Nashville working as the writer for the Country Music Association Awards, another very big and distinguished show Walter executive produced and asked me to write after we first met at the GRAMMY Awards. One Sunday afternoon, the two of us had a few hours off in Music City, and decided to go see the new George Clooney movie Good Night And Good Luck. As we left the movie theater, I stupidly said something to Walter like, "Wow, can you imagine being in TV then." Walter looked at me, and said, "David, I was."
And so he was.
This year, Walter decided it was time for him to step back from directing the show, and he's been consulting on the show instead. Another legendary TV director, Louis J. Horvitz will be in the truck calling all those camera shots, and I have no doubt he'll do a great job. "Walter is the king of live television event directors," Louis told me the other day. "He's one of the founders of the whole form."
This year, Walter is also quite rightly receiving the Recording Academy's prestigious Trustees Award. He's earned it, because every time you look at the GRAMMYs for these past 30 years, you could rest assured that the great Walter C. Miller was there.
Walter C. Miller is still here, and thank God for that — and for him. The King lives. Long Live The King.
(Click here to read Wild's other GRAMMY blog installments.)
Photo: Douglas Mason/Getty Images
Newport Folk Festival 2022 Recap: Taj Mahal, Brandi Carlile With Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon & A Crowdsurfing Singer
After taking two years off from their normal format, Newport Folk Festival returned with much heart. From Rhiannon Giddens' soul-stirring performance to special guest appearances by Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, GRAMMY.com recaps three days of joy.
Newport Folk Festival is so much more than just another music event. At its heart, it's actually a family reunion — both on stage and off — with moments you simply will not experience anywhere else. As Christopher Capotosto, the festival's chief creative officer told GRAMMY.com, "We don't make the magic that is Newport; the artists do that."
But the Newport team does make and hold the sacred space to foster that magic. The artists know that, and so does the audience. And, after taking two years off from their normal format due to the pandemic, the 2022 Newport Folk Festival was as magic-filled as ever. Here are some highlights:
The Living Legends
Newport came out blazing by giving Lee Fields the first Fort Stage set of the weekend. Reminding the 10,000 folkies in attendance why he's nicknamed "Little JB," the legendary soul man worked through songs from across his 53-year career, being sure to touch on his latest single, "Ordinary Lives."
At one point, he seemed to sing so hard that his mic cable detached. Pro that he is, Fields quickly sorted it out and got right back to asking the crowd, "Where's the party?" while he scanned the sea of revelers dancing before him.
Later in the day, Taj Mahal returned to Newport’s Fort Stage for the first time in 34 years. Like Fields, Mahal proved that he's still got it, as he treated the audience to classics like "Queen Bee" and "Corinna." Although Mahal has been singing his hits for seven decades now, they never get old.
Even though Newport Folk Festival is known for far more than folk, singer/songwriters still stand at the heart of the event. This year, that torch was held high by Anaïs Mitchell, John Craigie, Madi Diaz and the Dead Tongues, each of whom brought new releases to vibrant, beautiful and occasionally hilarious life.
Mitchell was also supposed to perform with Bonny Light Horseman, but the band had to cancel their set a couple of days prior. In its stead, Mitchell led "Clusterfolk," with Natalie Merchant, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Lukas Nelson, Robert Ellis, and others all chipping in with a song or, in Merchant's case, "Legacy artists get two songs," Merchant said, much to the delight of the Quad Stage's packed house.
Friday's audience at the Quad Stage witnessed two incredibly special performances. First, Arooj Aftab blended stunning art and sardonic wit with songs from her gorgeous Vulture Prince album. The Pakistani singer (whose songs are primarily in Urdu) told the captivated crowd, "These songs are about being drunk and not in love, in case you couldn't tell." Aftab closed her utterly mesmerizing set with "Mohabbat," her 2022 GRAMMY-winning "banger," as she likes to call it.
Rhiannon Giddens and the Silk Road Ensemble took to the same stage a few hours later and owned the day with their rendition of "O Death." It was hard to know how they could follow themselves after that opener, but the group somehow continued to raise the musical bar, with each ensemble member having moments to shine.
The Rabble Rousers
If Rhiannon Giddens won Friday, Adia Victoria made an early case for her own victory on Saturday. Victoria set the Fort Stage ablaze with a blistering set that sparked off with "Far From Dixie" and went on to include more from her stellar A Southern Gothic album. This might've also been the only performance of the weekend that included a crowd surfing singer.
Joy Oladokun moved mountains of emotions during her time on the Quad Stage Sunday afternoon, introducing "I See America" with a teary speech about how it's simply not okay that trans and queer kids are no longer safe in this country. But Oladokun didn't just leave it there, she channeled her rage against the right-wing machine, moving from "I See America" directly into a bit of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," her fans responding in appropriate grunge fashion by bouncing up and down.
The Soul Restorers
Sunday morning started strong with a Spiritual Helpline Gospel Revue curated and led by Phil Cook with the Guitarheels plus special guests Sister Lena Mae Perry (who is 83 years old), Thomas Rhyant, the Union (Leslie Gardner and Simone Appleby), and others
Cook met these astounding gospel singers in North Carolina and is working with them to release live records through his indie label. And live is most definitely how they should be experienced. After a thoroughly rousing set that included gospel classics like "You’ve Got A Friend/Precious Lord" and "I Don't Feel Noways Tired," the group invited some onlookers (Natalie Merchant and Valerie June, among them) to join for the soul-giving finale of "This Little Light of Mine." To borrow from Cook, everyone left that performance feeling better than they did before it.
The Surprise Guests
The closing sets on Saturday and Sunday of every Newport Folk Festival famously include special surprise guests that attendees spend their weekend trying to surmise. This year, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats recruited Paul Simon to make his Newport debut by joining their American Tune Revue (which also featured Marcus Mumford, Lee Fields, Courtney Marie Andrews, Lukas Nelson, Adia Victoria, Natalie Merchant, and others).
Together, the group thrilled the crowd with Simon classics like "Cecilia," "You Can Call Me Al," "Homeward Bound" and many more. Simon then joined the band for "Graceland," before duetting with Rhiannon Giddens on an updated version of "American Tune." Against a glorious Newport sunset, a solo Simon closed the evening with "The Sound of Silence."
It's hard to imagine that Brandi Carlile could somehow match that magic on Sunday night, but she darn well did by bringing Joni Mitchell to Newport for the first time since 1969. Along with Wynonna, Taylor Goldsmith, Celisse, Allison Russell, Sista Strings, Lucius and others, Carlile recreated the "Joni Jams" which she has been organizing at Joni's house for the past few years. The musicians all sat in a semicircle with Mitchell at the summit sporting a glass of wine and a huge smile. Everyone took turns — Mitchell included — singing songs from her catalog, along with a few standards.
Mitchell eased into it all, singing a line here and there, eventually playing an instrumental version of "Just Like This Train," which Carlile proclaimed was her best attempt yet. Before the night had ended, the stunned audience had heard "Both Sides Now," "Come in from the Cold," "A Case of You," “Carey” and "The Circle Game," among others, from one of the most brilliant artists of our time who, very likely, was responsible for introducing so many to folk music in the first place.
Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage
Rebuild Texas Benefit With Willie Nelson, Paul Simon
Stellar line-up for next week's "Harvey Can't Mess With Texas" concert has won more than 50 GRAMMYs overall
The stellar line-up for next week's RebuildTX.org "Harvey Can't Mess With Texas: A Benefit Concert for Hurricane Harvey Relief" has won more than 50 GRAMMY Awards between them, headlined by Willie Nelson and Paul Simon. Other performers include Asleep At The Wheel, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, and more. How's that for Big Texas?
Tickets are now on sale for this biggest-ever Texas live benefit to be held on Sept. 22 in Austin. Funds will go toward the Rebuild Texas Fund, set up by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
"This fund was created to help rebuild all of the communities — big and small — that have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey," said Michael Dell. "We will be rebuilding for years to come."
"We have an opportunity to do good by being our best, and that means putting on a show and having a good time," said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. "Let's show the world what it means to be the Live Music Capital of the World in the greatest state in the Union. I'll be there and hope to see you, too."
The benefit will be broadcast on Tegna's 11 local Texas stations and will livestream via YouTube. During the stream, Google has reportedly committed to matching the first $500,000 in donations.