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With 'As Above, So Below,' Sampa The Great Is Ready To Be An Ambassador For Herself
Sampa the Great in a still from "Never Forget"

Photo courtesy of BIZ 3 Publicity

interview

With 'As Above, So Below,' Sampa The Great Is Ready To Be An Ambassador For Herself

When Zambian rapper Sampa the Great reached a level of success unthinkable to most, many viewed her as an avatar for her nation. But as always, the supremacy of artistic freedom wins out — and that's all she's concerned with on 'As Above, So Below.'

GRAMMYs/Sep 8, 2022 - 02:19 pm

Is there any killer of creativity like the pressure to please everybody? Ask Sampa the Great, a Zambian-born rapper who had a banner year in 2019.

Due to the power of its production and lyricism, her single "Final Form" reached that fever pitch of internet attention where strangers made awestruck reaction videos. She swept a variety of awards ceremonies, including the ARIA Awards and the Australian Music Prize.

Through it all, Sampa the Great was dubbed a trailblazer — and more concerningly, something of an ambassador for the landlocked Zambia on the world stage. For a young person who simply wanted to be creative and see the world, this generated an unsustainable degree of weight on her shoulders.

"There's a huge pressure to be perfect, which is just not even real as a human being," the artist born Sampa Tempo tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom, from an isolated Zambian farm. "It takes out the fun from actually expressing yourself and doing music, which was the main intention growing up and why I wanted to do music in the first place.

A peculiar sort of relief came by way of the pandemic, which spurred Sampa to move back to Zambia from her residence in Australia. With shows and tours on pause, she found inspiration in returning to where she'd initially dreamt of dedicating her life to art.

While hunkered down with everyone else, Sampa reconnected with her old network of friends, family and collaborators. The eventual result was As Above, So Below, Sampa the Great's new album, which drops on Sept. 9 via Loma Vista. With songs like the Botswana-influenced "Bona" and the Angélique Kidjo-assisted "Let Me Be Great," the album reflects Sampa's newfound sense of grounding, rejuvenation and recentering — and ultimately serves as her "self-love note."

Read on for a candid interview with Sampa about the genesis of As Above, So Below, the tension between her introverted and extroverted sides, and why the album was a personal watershed — one that makes her feel like she can express anything from here.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Nice to meet you, Sampa. Where are you located currently?

I'm in Zambia right now, on a farm two hours away from the city. There's nature around me — no cows, though, no animals. It's pretty serene — pretty quiet. A good environment to rest from tour.

That sounds mind-clearing!

Yeah, a hundred percent.

Do you generally prefer those environments when you're off the road? Somewhere where your brain isn't bombarded?

Definitely — especially after a tour like this. It just helps me recenter and calm down. I'm pretty much an introvert. I don't know how I've lied to everybody that I'm an extrovert and like loud things and loud surroundings! Quiet and serene is my vibe.

How do you pull that larger-than-life persona out of yourself?

I think it comes from the family that I'm from. We are a very expressive family. We love telling stories. We love putting you into the mindframe of the story, and that just comes with being very dramatic with the way we tell our stories. Everything is loud. Everything is extra.

And then, musically, nothing stops at the studio. You want to be able to continue the story outside of the studio and bring people into an experience. So, it's not hard. I think the hard part is actually convincing myself to go back into the introvert space and actually rest and be reclusive. The extrovert — that's like default.

Musical parents?

I'd say yes. They'd say it's just a hobby, but I think that's still "musical." Dad loved playing piano and was a DJ. Mom loved dancing — ballroom, surprisingly. But, yeah, both kind of landed at just being hobbies.

SampaTheGreat

Sampa the Great. Photo: Travys Owen

So, I imagine, when you started really taking this seriously, it wasn't a jarring change, but a smooth incline.

Oh my god. The opposite. The total opposite!

Tell me about that.

I mean, it was a lot of convincing. Like I said, music is seen as a hobby here. Traditionally, music is played everywhere — gatherings, celebrations. It's just a given. So, to try and pursue it as a career is just something that's like, "Why would you do that when we do it anyway?"

And on top of that, [from] parents in this generation, it's like, "Can this thing sustain you?" I don't think a lot of our parents had the advantage of doing that they were passionate about. It was more about doing something that would earn you money, sustain you, and keep your family safe.

Now, I get to actually do something I'm passionate about and pursue my art as a career, which is something they've never done before. So, it took a lot of convincing to be like, "I want to do music as a career. Not only that, I want to be a rapper and a woman. [Dryly] Yay."

So, yeah, it took a lot of convincing, but they're on board now.

Well, I think that concern transcends cultures. What was the first song you created that your parents really loved?

I did a song called "Mona Lisa" where I sort of sampled a Zambian nursery rhyme and finessed hip-hop in it. And I remember sending it to my dad, and he was like, "This is really good."

And he doesn't listen to hip-hop! He doesn't really know what I'm saying; I rap too fast. But he was really proud that I added traditional elements into my music.

If your parents don't like a song you make, do they tell you?

Oh my god, do they tell me. [Laughs.] The majority of the songs, because I curse. "Final Form," which everyone's raving about, Mom hates it. She hates the fact that I say "f—" a lot. One time, she told me to take it off of YouTube, and I was like, "I can't really do that."

"It's got millions of views, Mom!"

Yeah. They don't really like cursing, but, again, it's the way I express [myself]. So, they've gotten used to it.

Tell me about the on-ramp to As Above, So Below. What was going on in your life and career that led you to write these particular songs?

So, the pandemic had just hit. This was three years ago. I was in Melbourne, Australia, and everything was being shut down — tours and shows being canceled. I reiterate all the time that I'm actually Zambian and based in Australia. So, if I'm not there for a reason, then I have to come back.

My sister's a uni student as well. They were sending students back home because Australia was about to shut down borders. My whole life had fallen in front of me. The industry that I fought so hard to be in looked like it wasn't going to be there next week.

It was kind of this intense moment in time where I was like, "OK, what do I do outside of my career?" And more importantly, "Who am I outside of my career?"

So, I relocated back to Zambia. I came to see my dad. My dad got COVID; I made sure he was OK. And at this point, I couldn't even get back to Australia because the borders were closed.

I was sitting in this house in Botswana, thinking, "Yo, it's wild that this is the place where I actually dreamt of being an artist." It was wild that I was back in the places where I dreamt of all these things that I actually got to do in Australia. What a 360 moment that was. [I thought], "Now, I actually can't go back to Australia and do these things. Why don't I do them here?"

So, a 15-year goal shrunk into a five-year goal, where I was trying to create a project, create these music videos in a place where our industry was still growing, but still do it at the level I'd done before — and try to showcase the amazing talent that is in my country and the continent, basically.

SampaTheGreat

Sampa the Great. Photo: Travys Owen

How did things take shape from there?

So, I was sitting down and talking to a friend who I'd watched just nail music and be[come] an amazing artist. We were talking about the way we love the music that comes from our country. Why didn't we try and expand it? I was like, "That's a really good idea."

Because for the majority of my career, I've been trying to recreate the music I heard growing up — not expand it. And that's because I'm working with people outside of my country who didn't grow up on that music, so they don't know that music.

We see it as an opportunity to work on the project together [despite our different backgrounds]. I'm like, "Sweet, sweet," and we just start talking about where we are in life.

I find myself in a different headspace, because I'm no longer in a country where I really had to fight to get my place, but also fight for people who were like me — the young Black artists like me who weren't seen or who were underground.

I subconsciously put on this huge pressure to be an ambassador for people like me, to be perfect in the way I speak in the projects that I do, because I'm now winning awards and being the first Black woman to do this, that and the third. With that, you're like, "OK, if I'm the first, it looks like I'm an ambassador for a whole community of people."

There's a huge pressure to be perfect, which is just not even real as a human being.

No young person should have to carry that weight.

What's worse is it takes out the fun from actually expressing yourself and doing music, which was the main intention growing up and why I wanted to do music in the first place.

So, a beautiful thing happened where I got to relocate back home. As uncertain and scary as it was, I got to work with artists I saw growing up. Then, I got to journey back to the young Sampa, who dreamed of being an artist, and revert to the reasons why I wanted to be an artist in the first place.

A lot of that armor and pressure I put on myself when I was in Australia started to shed away. I started really getting into the fact that I wanted to express who I was — and be an ambassador for me for once.

Then, it turned into this beautiful journey of expression and experimentation — no holds barred, and not feeling like I had to be a certain way in order to represent people perfectly.

What burst from that was one of my [most] fearless, transparent and authentic projects to date. I don't feel like I have to be a certain way for anyone. I can just be who I am 100 percent, which feels like something that's easy to do. But depending on who and where you are as an artist, things get more complex.

Being back home, I don't have to represent being the first African [to accomplish something in particular], because there are Africans everywhere. I just have to represent being an artist.

At the core of hip-hop is a certain sense of "I don't give a damn what you think." How do you tap into that feeling — of freedom from being a spokesperson, or even what your mom thinks of you cursing?

You get frustrated with not enjoying something you're passionate about. It reaches a certain point where you're like, "I'm actually not enjoying this experience, because I'm trying too hard to make it something that it's not, and it's affecting the creative process.

That's usually the catalyst — to be like, "Well, if I can't create, I can't live." So, I have to drop that pressure, or drop whatever I think would make a good artist to whoever I'm trying to represent, and just actually create.

Tell me about the sound of the record — how you wanted it to hit the listener.

Ingredients. Every spice known to man, in one bowl of soup, and you drink that and experience all these different spices in one go.

For me, it became a thing [where] we were throwing in everything we'd been inspired by from music — whether [it was] hip-hop, folk music from Zambia, Kalindula, because you get to a place where, again, you're really tired of trying to represent one thing.

I'm constantly explaining that I'm Zambian, or trying to defend who I am and where I'm from. It became exhausting, and less [about] proving that in this project, and more [about] bringing every influence that I'm inspired by, putting that into one part, and giving you a well-rounded mixture of genres.

I'm sensing frustration with the limitations of identity. We're in an extremely identity-obsessed time — gender, racial background, sexual preference. Then, you cross-pollinate that with the music industry, where everything — and everyone — is categorized and labeled for consumption. It seems to me like you're just a person who wants to be creative and have fun.

A hundred percent. I mean, who wants to constantly defend their humanness? So, I became less of that. Especially three years ago, that was the main focus — trying to defend this. That's very tiring, and it affects the music I create. It just became more about being expressive.

SampaTheGreat

Sampa the Great. Photo courtesy of BIZ 3.

Give me a line on the album that sums up everything we're talking about — if there is one.

I'd probably go to a song like "Can I Live?", which is a more vulnerable song on the album. I express how as artists, we actually just want to be loved, if we get down to the nitty-gritty. We want to express ourselves, we want to connect with people, and we want to be loved like everybody else.

But in doing so, I think we're throwing this expectation into the world of people reflecting that back to us. And that's just not going to be the case. Your job as an artist is to express your lived experience and leave it at that — not expect any love from anyone else, or expect anyone else to make you feel whole.

I think in my past projects, in trying to make sure I represent people and make sure people are seen, the source of all that was to make sure to be loved, basically. And you can't do that. The main journey is to love [one]self. You actually have to love who this is as an artist before you expect anyone else to love you.

Now that you've experienced this full-circle moment, what's immediately ahead of you?

Oh, man. I just broke so many walls in terms of what I was willing to show and express, because I thought I had to be a certain way. It doesn't feel like there are any limits in the way I can express [myself].

Not only in music, but even venturing into film. Film has always been a huge love for me, and I think we visually show the stories of these songs beautifully. That's something that I'm ready to venture on into and tell more stories through that avenue. But there are no limits.

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Press Play: Watch Ibrahim Maalouf Spotlight His Improvisatory Powers In Energetic Performance of "Right Time"
Ibrahim Maalouf

Photo courtesy of the Recording Academy

Press Play: Watch Ibrahim Maalouf Spotlight His Improvisatory Powers In Energetic Performance of "Right Time"

Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf showcases his improvisation skills in this instrumental performance of "Right Time," a hip-hop track from his latest album, 'Capacity To Love.'

GRAMMYs/Jan 26, 2023 - 05:35 pm

Since the initiation of his solo career, Lebanese instrumentalist Ibrahim Maalouf has strived to diversify music with his trumpeting.

The musician found his start performing at international jazz and classical competitions. After quickly becoming one of the most decorated trumpeters, Maalouf began his career as a soloist, where he could transcend the bounds of traditional genres. His skillful, unique improvisation caught the attention of artists globally, including Afrobeats singer Angélique Kidjo.

Together, they released Queen of Sheba, which snagged Maalouf his very first GRAMMY nomination in the Best Global Music Album category at the 2023 GRAMMYs and made him the first Lebanese instrumentalist to be nominated in GRAMMY history.

In this episode of Press Play, Maalouf performs an instrumental version of "Right Time," an upbeat hip-hop track on his latest album, Capacity to Love. Accompanied by an electric guitar and saxophone, Maalouf plays the track's melody, originally sung by Erick the Architect from the Flatbush Zombies.

Maalouf then trades off with the saxophonist, as the two musicians deliver an impressive, improvised solo.

Capacity to Love is Maalouf's fifteenth studio album and first self-produced project. The genre-bending release features collaborations with pop singer J.P. Cooper, rapper D Smoke, New Orleans funk band Tank & the Bangas, and more.

Press play on the video above to watch Ibrahim Maalouf's performance of "Right Time," and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Denzel Curry Keeps It Simple On The Road With Toiletry Essentials And Healthy Snacks
Denzel Curry

Photo: Adrian Villagomez

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Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Denzel Curry Keeps It Simple On The Road With Toiletry Essentials And Healthy Snacks

Rapper Denzel Curry shares the list of items he needs to be his best self on stage — all of which can be found on the shelves of any corner pharmacy.

GRAMMYs/Jan 3, 2023 - 06:00 pm

It doesn't take a whole lot for Denzel Curry to be happy when he's on tour. The rapper says his must-haves are all simple items that help him look his best and feel good, even after a night of going all out on stage.

In this episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas, Curry says that toiletry items are at the top of the list when he considers what he needs on tour — and he also likes to find healthy ways to satisfy his sweet tooth, too.

"My current tour rider has deodorant, lotion, some snacks like fruit or dried mango," he lists. "First of all, I just like mango. But the reason why I like dried mango is 'cause it's sweeter. It kinda feels like candy, but it's not really candy."

Lotion is a key component of Curry's tour rider because it keeps his skin looking and feeling its best when he's on stage, he goes on to explain. "I don't wanna be ashy. You know what ashy is? It means that it looks like your elbows and your knees are just pretty much white or looking kinda dusty. I can't be looking all dusty like a mummy, you feel me?" he adds with a laugh.

A Denzel Curry show is an immersive experience, he says — so much so that he always walks off stage covered in sweat, and immediately needs to change into something dry. Along with delivering a high-energy show, Curry makes sure he gets up close and personal with his fans. The rapper remembers one particular recent show where he brought not one but two fans on stage to sing his song "RICKY" with him.

"I brought a fan on stage, he had a sign that said '[I wanna] sing 'RICKY' with you'... Then there was another fan that had the same sign, and I brought him on stage as well," Curry recalls. "He got to the stage a little bit late, we were literally on the last hook, and he ended up just killing it. I gave the mic to him... and he killed it."

Press play on the video above to learn more about how Curry's tour essentials help him create a live show that's an epic experience for all involved, and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.

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8 Highlights From "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon"
Paul Simon with Take 6

Photo: Getty Images for the Recording Academy

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8 Highlights From "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon"

Paul Simon's GRAMMYs bash included moments of vulnerability, generation-straddling duets and plenty of other surprises. Stream it on demand on Paramount+ and read on for eight highlights.

GRAMMYs/Dec 22, 2022 - 03:51 pm

Many tribute shows for legacy artists end in a plume of confetti and a feel-good singalong. But not Paul Simon's.

At the end of the songbook-spanning "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Tribute To Paul Simon," the only person on the darkened stage was the man of the hour. Sure, the audience had been baby-driven through the Simon and Garfunkel years, into the solo wilderness, through Graceland, and so forth. But all these roads led to darkness.

Because Simon then played the song that he wrote alone, in a bathroom, after JFK was shot.

It doesn't matter that Simon always ends gigs with "The Sound of Silence." After this commensurately cuddly and incisive tribute show, it was bracing to watch him render his entire career an ouroboros. 

That "The Sound of Silence" felt like such a fitting cap to a night of jubilation speaks to Simon's multitudes. The Jonas Brothers coolly gliding through "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," juxtaposed with the ache of Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood's "The Boxer," rubbing up against Dave Matthews getting goofy and kinetic with "You Can Call Me Al," and so on and so forth.

The intoxicating jumble of emotions onstage at "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Tribute To Paul Simon" did justice to his songbook's emotional landscape — sometimes smooth, other times turbulent, defined by distance and longing as much as intimacy and fraternity.

Here were eight highlights from the telecast on Dec. 21 — which you can watch on demand on Paramount+ now.

Read More: Watch Jonas Brothers, Brad Paisley, Billy Porter, Shaggy & More Discuss The Legacy And Impact Of Paul Simon Backstage At "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To Paul Simon"

Woody Harrelson's Lovably Bumbling Speech

After Brad Paisley's rollicking opening with "Kodachrome," the momentum cheekily ground to a halt as Harrelson dove into a rambling, weirdly moving monologue.

"The songs of Paul Simon really are like old friends," the cowboy-hatted "The Hunger Games" star remarked, interpolating one of his song titles and crooning the opening verse.

Harrelson went on to recount a melancholic story from college, where the spiritually unmoored future star clung to Simon songs like a liferaft. We can all relate, Woody.

Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood's Pitch-Perfect "The Boxer"

Brooks has always been one of the most humble megastars in the business, praising his wife Trisha Yearwood — and his forebears — a country mile more than his own. (Speaking to GRAMMY.com, he described being "married to somebody 10 times more talented than you.")

The crack ensemble could have made "The Boxer" into a spectacle and gotten away with it, but Brooks wisely demurred.

Instead, the pair stripped down the proceedings to guitar and two voices; Brooks provided an aching counterpoint to Yearwood.

Billy Porter's Heart-Rending "Loves Me Like A Rock"

The "Pose" star blew the roof off of Joni Mitchell's MusiCares Person Of The Year gala in 2022 with "Both Sides Now," so it was clear he would bring napalm for a Simon party. 

Given the gospel-ish intro, one would think he was about to destroy the universe with "Bridge Over Troubled Water." 

Instead, he picked a song of tremendous personal significance, "Loves Me Like a Rock," and dedicated it to his mother. The universe: destroyed anyway.

Stevie Wonder & Ledisi's "Bridge Over Troubled Water"

The question remained: who would get dibs on the still-astonishing "Bridge Over Troubled Water"? A song of that magnitude is not to be treated lightly.

So the producers gave it to generational genius Wonder, who'd bridged numberless troubled waters with socially conscious masterpieces like Songs in the Key of Life.

But he wouldn't do it alone: R&B great Ledisi brought the vocal pyrotechnics, imbuing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with the grandiosity it needed to take off.

Jimmy Cliff & Shaggy Brought Jamaican Vibes With "Mother & Child Reunion"

Simon embraced the sounds of South Africa with his 1986 blockbuster Graceland, yet his island connection is criminally underdiscussed; since the '60s, Jamaican artists have enthusiastically covered his songs.

For instance, it's impossible to imagine a "Mother and Child Reunion" not recorded in Kingston, pulsing with the energy of Simon's surroundings.

Enter genre luminaries Jimmy Cliff and Shaggy, who flipped the tribute into a bona fide reggae party.

Take 6 Dug Deep With "Homeless"

Leave it to the Recording Academy to avoid superficiality in these events: Mitchell's aforementioned MusiCares tribute included beyond-deep cuts like "Urge for Going" and "If." 

Most remember "Homeless" as Ladysmith Black Mambazo unaccompanied vocal cooldown after bangers like "You Can Call Me Al"; eight-time GRAMMY-winning vocal group Take 6 did a radiant, affectionate rendition.

When Simon took the stage at the end of the night, he was visibly blown away. Touchingly, he shouted out his late guitarist, Joseph Shabalala, who founded Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

"Imagine a guy born in Ladysmith, South Africa, [who] writes a song in Zulu and it's sung here by an American group, singing his words in his language," Simon remarked. "It would have brought tears to his eyes."

Angélique Kidjo & Dave Matthews' Love Letter To Africa

Graceland was Simon's commercial zenith, so it was only appropriate that it be the energetic apogee of this tribute show.

Doubly so, that this section be helmed by two African artists: Angélique Kidjo, hailing from Benin, and Dave Matthews, born in Johannesburg.

"Under African Skies," which Simon originally sang with Linda Ronstadt is a natural choice — not only simply as a regional ode, but due to its still-evocative melody and poeticism.

"This is the story of how we begin to remember/ This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein" drew new power from Kidjo's lungs. 

Afterward, Matthews — a quintessential ham — threw his whole body into Simon's wonderful, strange hit, "You Can Call Me Al."

The Master Himself Took The Stage

With his still-gleaming tenor and still-undersung acoustic guitar mastery, Simon brought the night home with "Graceland," a Rhiannon Giddens-assisted "American Tune" and "The Sound of Silence."

At 81, Simon remains a magnetic performer; even though this is something of a stock sequence for when he plays brief one-off sets, it's simply a pleasure to watch the master work.

Then, the sobering conclusion: "Hello darkness, my old friend," Simon sang, stark and weary. With the world's usual litany of darknesses raging outside, he remains the best shepherd through nightmares we've got.

And as the audience beheld Simon, they seemed to silently say: Talk with us again.

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