Twenty-five years ago, with South Africa still in the wretched grip of apartheid, Paul Simon brought the musicians he collaborated with on Graceland to a London stage. That Royal Albert Hall gig was beset by protest at Simon’s breaking of the South African cultural boycott.
The debate about whether his work with South Africa’s best black musicians was justified continues, as the recent documentary Under African Skies proved. But a quarter of a century’s breathing room has led everyone to agree on one thing - Graceland is a masterpiece.
Which is why the announcement that Simon was bringing many of the ensemble who created the album to Hyde Park was greeted with joy, rather than hand-wringing.
Tonight - perhaps wary of the curfew that struck Bruce Springsteen the previous night – he arrives on stage early, playing non-Graceland hits such as “Kodachrome” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”. His slight demeanour only gives a clue as to the ambition of the evening.
The first tell is a guest spot from Jimmy Cliff. He takes over from Simon for “The Harder They Come”, “Many Rivers to Cross” and a version of “Vietnam”, which soon merges into “Mother and Child Reunion” (which Simon recorded with Cliff’s backing band).
More hits (“Me and Julio…”, “Slip Slidin’ Away”) follow, before the Graceland reunion is set in swing by the arrival of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose signature co-ordinated kicks and vocal swandives punctuate their own “Nomathemba” and Graceland’s “Homeless”.
The Graceland band, featuring the glorious bass of Bakithi Kumalo and Ray Phiri’s guitar, then powered through much of the album before Hugh Masekela arrives on stage. His powerful lament, “Stimela” and “ Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)” serving as a reminder of the true context of the Graceland controversy.
After the last of these guest breaks, Simon returns for “Gumboots”, “Graceland” and the first song to really bring to crowd to life – “You Can Call Me Al”. It’s all unfathomably tight. The only criticism – and it’s a harsh one – is that Simon’s light tone just can’t compete with the other singers. It would have been nice too to have heard Graceland in order, maybe.
If Simon had been slightly upstaged by some of his guests he made up for it with a one-man encore of “The Sound of Silence” that reduced the 60,000-odd crowd to a fitting hush.
There are almost too many elements to take in to consider as a single concert – it’s more a rolling Afropop revue than a headline set, but this was fitting swansong for a great album, nevertheless.