A Familiarly Distinctive Voice: Harper Simon, November 23 at Huckleberry’s Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 19 November 2009 09:36

Harper SimonRolling Stone began its positive four-sentence review this way: "At 37, Harper Simon apparently doesn't mind taking after his pops, Paul, who used to showcase the young, guitar-playing Harper when he was touring on Graceland."

On the one hand, that's mean. Living up to a legacy is tough enough -- just ask anybody with an older sibling -- but it's especially hard when that legacy belongs to a revered pop icon. And can Harper help that he bears a facial resemblance to his father, or that his singing voice and phrasing sound awfully familiar? Of course not.

On the other hand, he's asking for it. Paul Simon is credited as a co-writer on three tracks on Harper Simon, plays guitar on another, and "Wishes & Stars" has the gorgeous light harmonies his father specializes in. The jokey "Tennessee" puts the elder's trademark wit in a country context.

Yet it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Harper Simon -- performing a Daytrotter.com show on Monday at Huckleberry's -- based on his genes. His debut, released last month, is a quietly adventurous and accomplished work, spanning genres and generations. Employing senior-citizen Nashville session players with intimidating credits (Dylan, Cash, Presley, McCartney, and many more) alongside his contemporaries, Simon has made an album specific to its primary singer, all over the place and yet surprisingly cohesive. It's tight and concise but feels relaxed, natural, and easy.

"I wanted to work with the guys that were brought into the project through [co-producer] Bob Johnston, people like [harmonica player] Charlie McCoy and [pianist Hargus] 'Pig' Robbins and [steel guitarist] Lloyd Green. And I wanted to see what happens when I mix them up with ... people from my world, people from the alternative-rock scene. ... It didn't seem to me that anybody had really done that before."

It didn't quite turn out as envisioned. The plan was to record the basic tracks in Nashville with the session guys and overdub with the younger generation, but Simon emerged from Nashville with too much material.

"Those guys work so fast that I ended up with 20 backing tracks," Simon said this week. "I just threw any musical idea I had at them. ... I was used to doing maybe a track a day, but they're used to doing three tracks a day." He left, he said, with "an abundance of backing tracks, the majority of which did not have songs written over them."

Simon felt overwhelmed.

"That may have had something to do with why my dad came on and wrote a couple songs, because I was so swamped with all the tracks," he said. "I was trying to solve the problems all the time, but there were so many of them ... . I was digging my way out, and he just sort of helps me out there for a minute on one of the tracks. I think it felt good for him to be able to put aside his own problem-solving for his own album he was working on and focus on somebody else's. Sometimes that's easier."

Harper Simon had envisioned "Ha Ha" as a largely instrumental interlude, but some ethereal throwaway vocals by Petra Haden stirred something in his dad. "He got inspired, and something about the 'ha ha's made him run off and write that song over it," Harper said. "And then I liked it."

The album benefits from other collaborations, as well. Simon asked the Booker Prize-winning poet and novelist Ben Okri -- a friend -- to send him a poem, and the result is "Wishes & Stars." "I just suspected that his poetry might work; it had a lyrical quality," Simon said. "A lot of modern poetry doesn't in my opinion. ... It doesn't sing."

Simon said his debut was patched together over two years, and added that it's only been with his current live band that he's found the sound he was seeking from the start. The indie-music all-star group features keyboardist Gregg Foreman and bassist Erik Paparazzi (of Cat Power's Dirty Delta Blues outfit), drummer Russell Simins (of the Blues Explosion), and guitarist Mike Bloom (of Rilo Kiley and the band of its singer, Jenny Lewis).

"These songs are now completely reinterpreted," Simon said. "It's going to sound entirely different. I hope it won't be too disappointing."

Harper Simon will perform on Monday, November 23 at Huckleberry's (223 18th Street in Rock Island). Viking Moses and Golden Ghost are also on the bill, and the all-ages show starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $8.

For more information on Simon, visit MySpace.com/harpersimon.

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