Paul Simon Hard Rock Live, Hollywood Tuesday, December 6, 2011
At age 70 Paul Simon belongs to an elite abut aging artistic fraternity whose membership also includes Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Kris Kristofferson, singer/songwriters whose work is ingrained in the very fiber of popular culture. These are artists whose revered reputations and esteemed pedigrees elevate any encounter beyond that of mere entertainment and into realms reserved for great masters who have the power to enthrall, inspire and evoke memories and emotions on an scale that only the most hallowed musicians ever achieve. Even with a solo career now in its fifth decade, the music Simon made with partner Art Garfunkel still remains a vital part of the soundtrack to his audience’s lives, a tethered connection that remains as vital and vibrant now as it ever was before.
Consequently, there’s little doubt there were some in the sell-out crowd at Tuesday night’s concert at Hard Rock Live who would have preferred to have seen Simon with his old partner in tow. He attempted to placate those fans only marginally with token renditions of the duo’s gilded staples “Only Living Boy in New York City” and “The Sounds of Silence,” the latter of which was performed solo and predictably reserved for the first of two encores. Likewise, giddy standards like “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Late in the Evening,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, “Kodachrome” and “Graceland ” also elicited enthusiastic reactions with a crowd that made it apparent they were eager for some nostalgia. Fortunately for the faithful, Simon seemed eager to oblige; with a tour that’s touting a new two disc retrospective, Paul Simon Songwriter, the set list cherry-picked songs from all phases of his career. Only a couple of selections from his latest offering of all new music, the well-received So Beautiful Or So What, were also included, although with a catalogue as vast and beloved as his, he wisely chose to diversify the set to embrace the obvious crowd pleasers along with the occasional song that was perhaps less known. Among the few surprises he had in store was a heartfelt cover of “Here Comes the Sun,” which he famously once performed on “Saturday Night Live” in the company of its composer, George Harrison.
Simon may be older than the average rock star at this point, but he still retains a spry posture that belies any assumption about age. Slight in stature but assertive and authoritative in his presence, he even allowed himself to sometimes strut about, acting more the showman than the semi-serious artiste that he often portrays for the public. The essential jubilation in much of his music comes through in concert much more so than on record, given that his versatile eight-piece backing band — Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, guitarist/drummer Jim Oblon, pianist Mick Rossi, saxophonist/ keyboardist Andrew Snitzer, bassist Bakithi Kumalo, guitarist Mark Stewart, master percussionist Jamey Haddad and multi-instrumentalist Tony Cedras – seem adept at adjusting the timbre and tempo for sounds that range from inspirational ballads to the zest of zydecho, some cool, casual swing and frequent hints of archetypical pop and rock. The profundity of Simon’s lyrics – so prevelant in songs such as “My Little Town” amd “Still Crazy After All These Years,” the sixth and final encore – is still evident of course, but the rich, vibrant and fastidious arrangements as well as an inherent sense of celebration emitted from both the man and his music, gave the performance its true sense of purpose. In song after song – be it the arch loneliness of “Only Living Boy in New York City,” the reverential revival of “Love Is Eternal” or the inherent urgency of “My Little Town” – Simon brought the material full circle, bringing out both richness and nuance while charming his audience in the process.
“It’s good to have a couple thousand new friends,” he joked early on, one of the few times he addressed the crowd at length. “I’m happy to be here. Of course, I say that every night. But sometimes there’s something that occurs between the band and the audience, a transfer of energy that ultimately determines whether I really am or not. So we’ll have to take that up later.” Those holding their breath in anticipation never got to hear his final verdict, but judging from both the performance and the way it was received, the appreciation was profound.