Woodstock Times May 4, 1995
KLEINERT/JAMES ARTS CENTER
When he walked out, unannounced, with a satchel before Saturday night’s performance at the Kleinert, John Simon was making a sly comment. He turned on the lamps in the living-room set and plopped his rucksack onto a footstool next to the piano bench he settled on beside a borrowed Baldwin grand piano. Simon then leisurely withdrew a cup and thermos to make himself a spot of tea with honey prior to tinkering with the ivories and locating some sour notes, which he then corrected with a tuning wrench drawn from the same bag. Finished, the “workman tuner” then packed up his kit and strolled offstage to await the announcement of songwriter/entertainer, John Simon.
His little charade cut a bit deeper than Victor Borge-style shenanigans by underlining the near-anonymity of a layer of popular artists on the southside of legend. Simon has been better known for the hand he lent to others during the years he produced “monster hit” albums by more than a score of household names. His own solo records of the early ‘70s were almost forgotten when he turned his attention to raising a family, rather than becoming a “rock’nroll martyr” (as he explained his disappearance from the scene in response to a later question from the audience). Now, with the kids grown and with matured hair that is graying at the temples and has the benefit of drying more quickly after a shower than it used to, Simon is finally ready to take his shot at martyrdom.
Chances are this decision was stimulated by the success of his first release in almost two decades, On The Street, issued here by Vanguard Records but originally commissioned by the Japanese corporation, Pioneer/LDC, which was reacting to a core of Simon’s “crazy fans” in Japan who never did forget the artist. Following its 1992 appearance in that country, the album was ranked with Eric Clapton’s Unplugged and a Peter Gabriel lp as the year’s three best records.
Simon’s compositions, which sometimes flirt with show music and fringewack jazz, belong in that nebulous musical realm reserved from the chart-skip-ping orbits of rarebreed folks like Van Dyke Parks or Mason Williams. He’s capable of irony in shades more subtle than Randy Newman and heartstring stroking less self-possessed than Jimmy Webb.
An uptempo biographical spoof opened Simon’s song package, followed by several stirring tunes from an upcoming album, the wry “Everybody Thinks That I Left Town” and the powerful “Touch Your Heart.” The former reflects the plight of a composer so busy at home, perhaps, that everybody thinks he’s “in L.A. or dead,” whichever is most remote to the Northeastern mind. The latter, which starts out with emotions raised by a subway trumpeter playing stunningly “in the face of Armageddon,” builds into an appreciation of life’s most precious
little things. It was one of a number of clues in the wit-peppered evening to indicate Simon’s songwriting powers are still on the rise.
As the songs unfurled, telling of the “kindest kind of dreams” or the caprice of fortune, each wrought its won landscape of mood and texture. Against the flashing red, black and white backdrop of a dramatic Ernest Frazier painting, Simon attacked the keyboard with raucous grace and sophistication, raising his stretchmarked voice to the contour of his melodies. He reached back to his first album for the enigmatic fantasy teaser “Song Of Elves” and “Motorcycle Man,” and even offered an expanded version of “Did you See?” with a brilliant new movement and verse that makes the song more than twice what it ever was.
After a bouncing, jiving instrumental called “Rest My Voice,” Simon presented the tender “She Chose Me” (another indication that the album shaping up will be a blockbuster), and called a brief intermission. A voice from the din of rising listeners was heard to say, “If someone wrote a song like that for me, I’d faint.”
High points on the second half were scored by the jazz-toned “One Lucky Break”; the rollicking “Two Ways Of Looking At The Same Thing,” a gripping song about the homeless, and the title tune of the last album, which has a chorus like a fast tide and on which Simon was helped with on the CD by Levon, Rick and Garth.
Other memorable entries included “Demon Love,” a story song suggestive of elaborate production and “One Fork, One Plate,” which demonstrates there’s nothing trite about loneliness. “Dreamland,” a whimsical ballad, declares, “Ask me how I know there’s a God/Because he made the Land of Nod…Dreamland.”
The humor-dusting curlicue signature touches of garnish on pieces like “Piano Playing Fool” found classical root when Simon tried his hands at Mozart’s maybe counterfeit Sonata 19 and a feverish Bach invention. Simon encored with his ode to Samaritan morality, “Friend To the End,” and a sarcastic tall tale from his Journey album, “Slim Pickins In The Kitchen.”
Throughout the performance, Simon displayed waggish drollery in his banter and a jocular, peevish gentility to toward spontaneous and unexpected audience interplay. “Shall we talk some more or would you like to hear some more music?” he inquired with professorially arched brow after one exchange. Pointed observation and easy-handed self-deprecation studded the showcase. This local episode in the overdue Return of John Simon implies, overall, that he has been kept busy during his lengthy public absence by long and gentle hours of exploring human complexity and honing his own wit. ++