Caffé Lena, Friday, August 5
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – Once tilted toward traditional folk (think Margaret MacArthur and her dulcimer) and solo acoustic artists, Caffé Lena’s schedule was, into the late 1980s, annually lifted out of the summer doldrums and infused with the folk-rock energy Neil Shulman and Rex Fowler and brought from New York City, backed by North Country bassist Fred Holman (McKendree Spring, etc.).
Aztec Two-Step – yes, the name Schulman and Fowler uses is a joke that maybe got a little out of control but, heck it was 1972 – celebrated with a 40th anniversary concert at the Caffé Friday, August 5. They followed it with a second show, their annotated tribute to the music of Simon & Garfunkel hosted by radio veteran and author of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends, Pete Fornatale.
Programming has grown more inventive as listeners’ tastes have become more expansive. Aztec Two-Step showed that it is still vital.
For the sake of context … we should note that while major record labels warmed to folk-rock and pop duets in the late 1960s into the early 1970s in an effort to duplicate the success of S&G – Paul Rickolt and producer Jac Holzman’s Elektra label, which signed Aztec Two-Step, had already issued records by Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Oscar Brand, Ed McCurdy, and Theodore Bikel. Aztec Two-Step got off on the right foot.
The Simon & Garfunkel tribute wasn’t just a bunch of covers. Between songs, Fornatale provided a narrative history of the duo and the folk scene around them.
Simon & Garfunkel, Fornatale noted, proved they could rock with the Bookends LP. Shulman and Fowler covered its “A Hazy Shade of Winter” – perhaps not among the most well-known S&G tunes among the current generation … and maybe even a little challenging in the way of poetics.
The tribute set also included such well-known S&G classics as “The Boxer”, “The Sounds of Silence”, “Scarborough Fair”, “Mrs. Robinson”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “The Loneliest Boy in New York,” “I Am a Rock”, etc. They also threw in a Paul Simon spin-off (“Red Rubber Ball”) and their own signature tunes including the rocking “The Persecution & Resurrection of Dean Moriarty (On the Road)” which – well that gives me an idea. A Caffé Lena song of the year list. Aztec Two-Step’s Kerouac song would’ve been on that list at one point.
Now – why is it important to have a Simon & Garfunkel tribute show on the folk circuit? That should be obvious. The duo’s six albums combined sensitivity, depth and wisdom of folk – and the spirit of inner revolution — to a global audience at a time of great change. Pop songwriting, to that point, had been trite, clichéd, and childlike.
Aztec Two-Step plays the hell out of the Simon & Garfunkel songbook. They harmonize well, they’re smart and funny but hardly insensitive, their guitar playing is great and, just as important, their musical education and the places they played their early gigs was a shared path with S&G – which has sort tempered their sensibilities so that they can do such a show with credibility and creativity instead of just putting on costumes, figuratively speaking.