Photos by Kyra Kverno
I go to concerts for a living, and Paul Simon’s performance was the best I’ve seen in years.
First, Simon has such a catalogue of good music that he could play only his hits for days. Whether drawing from his early works with Art Garfunkel, like “Homeward Bound” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” his early solo days like “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” his early explorations into African harmonies and rhythms, like “Diamonds on the Sholes of Her Shoes,” or on “Wristband” and “The Werewolf,” from his latest album, Stranger to Stranger, Simon’s genius—not taking the word lightly, here—is obvious to even the most casual listener.
Simon came out with a non-symphonic orchestra, not a band, and acted as a conductor more than a bandleader, despite wearing a guitar for most of the performance. It wasn’t until the eighth or ninth song, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” that the spotlight shifted to Simon himself, and the already enthusiastic crowd went wild. Horns! Percussion! Legs splayed, guitar aimed like an automatic weapon, Simon had the crowd on its feet, just like a rock star should.
Some artists recreate their hits onstage, maybe adding a guitar solo to create a 4:30-version, and other artists (Bob Dylan comes to mind) can play an old hit for 4:30 before you figure out which song it actually is. Paul Simon hits that sweet spot where nostalgia and discovery marry. “Homeward Bound,” for example, got a slightly country flavor, and enough changes in the melody to keep it as fresh as the day we fell in love with the song. “Slip Slidin’ Away,” originally released some 40 years ago, in 1975, gained gravitas when interpreted by a man in his mid-70s, rather than the lighter tone it had when he wrote it, in his physical prime. Always fascinated by rhythms, many of Simon’s fresh takes come not only from melodic changes but inventive time signatures and percussion. One fantastical piano piece reminiscent of “Flight of the Bumblebee” was in 9/8 time, and “Duncan”—like many Simon songs, a tale of something lost and found, or the reverse—paired kick drum and floor toms, while the intro to “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” started ever so slowly, and progressed to a sound resembling early R&B, but with Ladysmith Black Mambazo harmonies and hand gestures.
Approaching the 20th song, Simon slipped out of his jacket, grabbed a pennywhistle and took off with “You Can Call Me Al,” to a sea of shining faces and gray heads bobbing. It turned out to be the last song, but not for long. Two encores and another eight songs later (including a tribute to the late Scotty Moore and “That’s Alright Mama,”) the night concluded with the classic Simon song of loss, “The Boxer,” and “American Tune,” performed solo on his acoustic guitar, simply done and simply perfect for a Fourth of July weekend.
As he said from the stage, this performance was kind of a time warp, since Simon began his success all those years ago in Kew Gardens, Queens, not far from Forest Hills. The bad news includes the fact that it was Paul Simon’s penultimate swan song, and would have been his very last US concert if demand hadn’t been so great that he added another show. I’m hoping a combination of the crowd’s reaction and Simon’s questing nature will reverse that disquieting decision, and we may see this particular great onstage again.