Diamonds on the soles of their shoes: Bay Area artists start a dance party in the street with 'Graceland' tribute

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Fanfare Zambelta, with UnderCover's Lyz Luke.
PHOTO BY DON ALBONICO

By Jeff Kaliss

For Paul Simon’s 1986 hit album Graceland, both its production and its long-time success moved across boundaries of space, time, and genre. The movement continued this past weekend inside the San Francisco Jewish Community Center’s Kanbar Hall, where the quarterly UnderCover project and Faultline Studios presented a tantalizing tribute to Graceland, with each of 11 groups/artists performing one of the album’s 11 tracks.A bit about the album: Simon, recovering from an artistic slump and a failed marriage to Carrie Fisher (aka Princess Leia), had been turned on in the mid-1980s to the black South African pop music genre known as township jive, an infectious stew of early rock, jazz, and tribal syncopation. The songwriting and arrangements on Graceland formed an homage to a variety of South African music, and to that nation’s musicians, including Zulu Sipho Mchunu and his white bandmate Johnny Clegg. Simon traveled to the source of those sounds, recording input to the album from the a cappella township men’s choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo and others. As on his future albums showcasing world music, Simon had no problem integrating material and musicians from his own country, who on Graceland included jazzmen Randy Brecker and Steve Gadd, the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, the Rubin family of Zydeco fame, and members of Los Lobos.

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Fely Tchaco. Photo by Steve Roby.

Following Simon’s example, the Oakland-based Rob Shelton, serving as music director for Friday and Saturday’s Graceland tribute concerts, culled an eclectic array from the Bay Area’s xenophillic talent pool; they were emceed throughout the evening by ebullient UnderCover founder Lyz Luke. As on Simon’s Graceland, horns and vocals played major roles throughout the evening. First up was Fanfare Zambaleta, a Balkan brass band who buoyed "The Boy in the Bubble," the album’s opening track, on bursts of trumpet and euphonium. By contrast, the album’s title tune was given to guitarist and singer John Vanderslice, the closest thing to the songwriter’s solo act. Also changing from act-to-act throughout the evening were the projections on a large screen behind the performers, assembled by Elia Vargas. Zambelata got pulsing patterns; Vanderslice was backed by scenes of a road trip.

Fely Tchaco took "I Know What I Know" to a different but sympathetic corner of the vast African continent — her native Ivory Coast — dancing as well as singing, with booty-shaking impetus from conga player Paul Sonnabend and rest of her band. Mexican-born Diana Gameros put a folksy, slightly Latinized tinge on "Gumboots," the song which first turned Simon towards South Africa and one of the few on the album not written by him. Music director Shelton appeared on keyboards with DRMS in their somewhat loungey version of "Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes." Bill Baird, rather resembling Dana Carvey in a poncho, did "You Can Call Me Al," but I wouldn’t know what to call his mixture of musical madness and madcap theater.

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John Vanderslice. Photo by Don Albonico.

The Afrofunk Experience put "Under African Skies" under their soulful spell, with Sandy House and David James trading vocals. Sung by the thrilling, all-male, all-adult Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the album, "Homeless" had been co-written and arranged by that group’s leader, Joseph Shabalala. For UnderCover’s tribute, it was rearranged by Kevin Fox, Deke Sharon, and Eric Hagmann for the wide-ranged voices at various of points of puberty, constituting Fox’s Oakland-based Pacific Boychoir. They preserved the heavenly magic and the partly Zulu lyrics of Ladysmith, and brought tears to the eyes of proud parents and others.

Guy Fox and his quartet kept the "crazy" in "Crazy Love," rocking up a storm. But it wasn’t they who triggered the fire alarm which temporarily drove audience and musicians onto the sidewalks Saturday evening. It was, reportedly, a rabbi, "kosherizing" the premises with a blowtorch. Outdoors, the pre-Pesach spirits stayed high, even among the goyim, and the music continued in informal festival mode.
After a blessing from the fire department, everyone returned to the Kanbar, where the Trio Zincalo, with vocalist Katie Clover, evoked the Hot Club de France with their take on "That Was Your Mother." The Midtown Social closed the show with their soul-shaking send-up of "All Around the World Or the Myth of Fingerprints," summoning the rest of the evening’s performers to join them on stage and the audience to dance in the aisles.

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Afrofunk Experience. Photo by Steve Roby.

The Graceland tribute will hop across the Bay to the Freight & Salvage this coming weekend, Sat/19 and Sun/20, performances added after the JCCSF shows quickly sold out. There's also a recorded album of the tribute, mixed and mastered by Faultline Studios' Yosh! (an UnderCover co-presenter) -- but for any vital fan of Paul Simon and the vast menagerie of Bay Area talent, seeing this live is highly recommended.

Ed note: San Francisco journalist Jeff Kaliss, author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone, has been a fan of UnderCover since consulting on their Sly tribute show in January.

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