October 19, 2011
Seventy years is a long time. Some countries in history did not manage to make it that long. Paul Simon, however, has endured. From teenage troubadour in Queens to one-half of the biggest folk-rock duo ever to solo superstar, he has maintained a steady output and enjoyed critical and commercial success. Case in point: 6,000 or so people gathered to enjoy a celebratory evening of world beat-inflected pop classics.
Simon and his eight-piece band took the stage to an enthusiastic cheer and wasted no time. They dove right into an accordion- and percussion-led take on “The Boy in the Bubble” from 1986's Graceland. The song is one of his more musically straightforward of the period, but the lyrics are evocatively stream-of-consciousness, a disconcerting tale of confusion and awe in the face of modern times. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” on the other hand, is one of Simon's most direct tunes, with quiet, soul-tinged backing and tongue-in-cheek advice to those in romantic entanglements looking for a (preferably rhyming) way out. Some funky wah-wah guitar added some welcome flair to the slightly unassuming tune.
“Hello, my friends,” Simon chimed. “I am not being presumptuous, am I? Is there anyone out there who doesn't love me?” Of course, no one responded in the affirmative, but he added, “I would put myself in that group.” He followed his self-deprecating patter with the title track from his new album So Beautiful or So What. It had a mournful, meditative feel and one of the only flute lines you will hear in 2011 that doesn't come off as completely superfluous. It was a nice example of the vitality of the cagey rock veteran, and a crowd member yelled out “Happy Birthday, Paul!” reminding everyone just how veteran he is now.
A projected image of the original single's artwork accompanied “Mother and Child Reunion.” The early solo tune sounded light and fresh nearly 40 years after its release, and the reggae-centric feel obviously influenced younger artists like the English Beat and No Doubt. “Hearts and Bones,” from the eponymously-titled 1983 album, was a highlight. It rode a shuffling, percussion-heavy rhythm and proved that many singer-songwriters could have learned a thing or two from Mr. Simon about fitting a ton of words into a song without seeming like a chore (we're looking your way, Mr. Springsteen). He and his supple set of musicians continued the beat right into a lively, Elvis-inspired rendition of “Mystery Train.”
Acoustic maven Simon went electric for “Slip Slidin' Away,” even though its gentle grooves needed no amping up. This particular track isn't played every hour of every day on classic rock radio like most of his singles, but it's one of his most detailed character studies and a personal favorite. Following closely on its heels was new song “Rewrite,” throwback (conscious or not) to the '80s Afro-pop stylings that expanded Simon's fan base exponentially. Hopefully, it will do the same now for the skinny, pale kids listening to Vampire Weekend and Sufjan Stevens (who owes pretty much his entire career to Simon and Garfunkel's “The Boxer”).
Speaking of Garfunkel, the band reached even further back in the catalog to perform Simon's song about him from their Bridge Over Troubled Water album: “The Only Living Boy in New York.” The song also appears on the Garden State soundtrack, but don't hold that against it; it's still great. Even better was “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” The a cappella intro was sweetly harmonized, and then the song exploded in a polyrhythmic swirl of percussion, horns and clean guitar. Simon's voice was slightly overwhelmed in the din, but the song rocked anyway.
After a quick, bowing thank you and breather offstage, Simon returned for a haunting solo acoustic version of “The Sound of Silence,” which was on the soundtrack to another, slightly better movie about a wayward young man. After 45 years, one might think this track would be tired, but it most certainly is not. It still sounds like the loneliest winter's walk through an empty city. The most surprising choice of the evening was a cover of “Here Comes the Sun.” It provided an interesting window into musical inspiration, as the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel clearly influenced each other in the primes.
After one more valediction, the second encore commenced with “Still Crazy After All These Years.” The sprightly number seemed to hold particular resonance for the older crowd, and the organ was employed to excellent effect. The final hurrah came with “You Can Call Me Al.” A joyous, intercontinental ditty that can make even Chevy Chase look cool for five minutes, it got everyone in the crowd dancing (some better than others). It was perhaps a bit surprising that Simon avoided politics the entire night, but I guess sometimes the musical medium really is the message.
Muscle Shoals, Ala. natives (and actual sisters) the Secret Sisters opened the evening with a set steeped in folk, classic country and close harmony. Laura and Lydia Rogers have a beautiful interplay onstage and a story behind every song. If you were to look up “just happy to be here” in the dictionary, you'd see these two Southern sweethearts who mixed covers of Skeeter Davis and Hank Williams with plaintive originals and effusive thanks to the crowd, Paul Simon, their record label and the entire nation of Australia. “When we first wrote this song, I hated it. Then people asked us to record it, and now it's become one of our favorites,” Laura admitted before “Tennessee Me.” It was a pretty and lonesome tale of love lost, and it points the way to an interesting and worthwhile future built upon the best elements of the past.
Personal Bias: I have been a Paul Simon fanatic since I was in diapers.
The Crowd: People who have been Paul Simon fans since the '60s, and then me.
Overheard in the Crowd: Girl: “Our section is really thinning out.” Guy: “Yeah, all the old guys are getting up to piss at the same time.”
Random Notebook Dump: The baritone sax onstage was about as tall as Mr. Simon himself.
1. The Boy in the Bubble
2. Dazzling Blue
3. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
4. So Beautiful or So What
5. Mother and Child Reunion
6. That Was Your Mother
7. Hearts and Bones
8. Mystery Train (Junior Parker cover)
9. Slip Slidin' Away
11. Peace Like a River
12. The Obvious Child
13. The Only Living Boy in New York
14. The Afterlife
15. Questions for the Angels
16. Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
18. The Sound of Silence
20. Here Comes the Sun
21. Crazy Love, Vol. II
22. Late in the Evening
23. Still Crazy After All These Years
24. You Can Call Me Al