Vector Arena; Auckland
Monday, April 4
It’s baffling that so many people will write Paul Simon off because they’ve heard a few of the radio hits. But then, it’s also baffling that there were people in the audience at this gig that complained about not enough Simon & Garfunkel material. And it was baffling that people jumped to defend Rodriguez – who was not at all good – because he was 70. Paul Simon is 70.
What was not baffling was his killer band launching into Gumboots, one of several great set-pieces from the Graceland album. What was also not baffling was that Paul Simon sounded amazing. But it was impressive to hear him singing songs without the need to change keys, to transmogrify them in the hope that most of the audience wouldn’t notice anyway. No, this was a great set by one of the world’s great songwriters. A living legend.
This was also a set where the pan-global musical collective shifted effortlessly, easily, through a world pop/jazz/funk fusion to take in African and Indian and South American music, to stop by New Orleans, to brush up against zydeco and layer in Lafayette’s funky gumbo. Every member of the band a multi-instrumentalist, the pianist also a percussionist, the guitarist also a saxophonist, it was a masterclass of playing to match the masterclass in songwriting that has been Paul Simon’s career to date.
The two songs from So Beautiful Or So What were well chosen, Dazzling Blue deeply meditative, tranquil as it moved through musical flavours. And the title track from Paul Simon’s most recent album has gained something in its live version, still whiplash-taut with that boomerang riff but there’s something bigger about the song in performance. It’s gained a few pounds and is looking great – healthy, happy – as a result.
And even if some of the songs are a bit hokey stepping out of the 1970s (and very early 1980s) and I’m thinking 50 Ways To Leave Your Love, Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard and Late In The Evening in particular – and I’m only thinking lyrically when I call them hokey, at least the impeccable feel carries them over the line and into this new millennium. Later on Kodachrome will retain its nausea-inducing levels of irritability but it works as a happy-happy/joy-joy feel-good encore – and that’s fair enough. And as it segues into Gone At Last in a medley-version you have to be thankful for getting to hear Gone At Last, so perfect, so very good; it almost made Kodachrome worth it.
Paul Simon has regularly used his music to talk about the songs and sounds that he heard as a boy, music that captivates him still. You hear it in the lyrics. You hear it in the music he uses. For anyone still insistent on calling him a show-pony who globe-trots about stealing music from various cultures, think of the way he has recreated that music – always within the context of a pop song – and offered it up to audiences previously unfamiliar (in some cases, anyway) with the original source. And it’s not just the world music stuff; he’s been a gospel and doo-wop fanatic since he was a child and that permeates so much of his music.
In that sense the concert was about the spiritual/philosophical journey and Hearts And Bones was, again, deeply meditative, hypnotic – masterful. And on to Slip Slidin’ Away and My Little Town – which was one of the album-track highlights in and around the big, big hits.
It’s 10 songs before we get anything from Simon & Garfunkel (unless you’re counting My Little Town, which you can, kinda…but shouldn’t, really) And so to a lush, loping, lovely Only Living Boy In New York, its cinematic sweep now obvious (took later-in-life inclusion in some movies for this song’s chief quality of a soul-stirring nostalgia to stand proudly).
I love how so many of the best Paul Simon songs are slyly evil. He can roll them out in the concert and it’s almost like nobody notices. Only Living Boy, Hearts and Bones, That Was Your Mother, Crazy Love, Vol. II – all great songs, all nailed on the night. All dark and sinister.
Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes and Late In The Evening was a super-good way to finish the main set; what a one-two for the geeky white-guy dancing-lite.
First encore is the second S&G song, Paul Simon solo – no band – for the requisite run-through of The Sound Of Silence. He’s a far better guitarist than most of you ever thought; better still than many of you remembered. And though he’s flanked by two really great guitarists for the night he takes little moments when he finds them to remind that he has flourishes. He has moves. He has tricks. His solo version of The Sound of Silence revitalises a song that could well seem a clunker some half-century on if served up by rote.
And then it’s to the aforementioned Kodachrome/Gone At Last medley which was good for the second half. Tolerable for the batshit-stupid first half.
His cover of The Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun probably wasn’t necessary. But hey. By this point it’s clearly a long encore for a long, kick-ass show. So who really cares?
You Can Call Me Al and Graceland are sublime reminders of the impact and ubiquity of that album – it was (and is) infectious dance music for pop music buyers of that time. Nothing wrong with that. And the title track in particular stands up.
Another superfluous cover with Bo Diddley’s Pretty Thing, but it’s about the spirit of the journey still. And then opening act Rufus Wainwright is out for a version of The Boxer. Three S&G songs only. All that was required I say. Rufus really does have a lovely voice. So this was nice.
We’re already at 22 songs but Still Crazy After All These Years makes an appearance – that sax solo just bursts; fairly well explodes. It’s glorious. Yes, yes, it’s a tone and feel and sound and look of any 1980s TV showband. But it pops. In the best possible way.
And then The Boy In The Bubble. Big. Bold. Beautiful.
This band turns on a dime. This band jumps through any hoop. This band can replace Phoebe Snow and The Jessy Dixon Singers, can replace a South American percussion army, can replace Ladysmith Black Mambazo, can replace Los Lobos; in fact during the live version of So Beautiful Or So What I think of how they sound like Ry Cooder and Los Lobos working with Paul Simon. There’s almost some Tom Waitsian magic in that grove-that’s-not-a-groove-but-is-a-groove thing there.
The drummer is the silent hero doing so much heavy lifting. Well silent is the wrong word. But stoic. He’s somewhere between Steve Gadd and Ronnie Tutt and that’s a good place for him to be and a good place for him to take the audience.
So, Paul Simon hardly talked. Who cares? That’s not why you go to a gig. Sad if you need the validation of a touring musician telling you he likes you and your town (Paul Simon sorta did that anyway in one of his brief banter bits).
What was more important was that he played a phenomenal set, touching in on the best tunes from his career, recasting some, reshaping some – serving others as if they were slipped straight from the record and it was impossible to believe – almost – that some 40 years might have passed. What was important was that the pianist dissolved My Little Town into a blur of borderline-indulgent but brilliant mad soloing. What was important was how The Obvious Child smiled and lurched and that a cover of Mystery Train showed off an Elvis-influence to this band’s sound. Just another string to the bow. A debt to James Burton. What was important was hearing 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover as the third song in. A hint at how there was so much more to come, there had to be if that was just tossed out third. What was important was a nine-song encore that was positively explosive and offered light and shade, acoustic and electric, solo and full band; it was, in a way, its own show. A bonus show.
The version of Hearts And Bones sits with me still. Extraordinary song. And yet a straight – straight-ahead – reading of it was mind-blowing to see and hear live.
Rufus Wainwright’s solo set featured the songs you would expect given that space. He closed with Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk (natch). He played his cover of Hallelujah (of course). And he played Out Of The Game and I’m Going To A Town. His voice is amazing. It’s a remarkable instrument; one that could wow any audience – you would hope anyway. Anyone else notice there was something about Rufus’ banter and song introductions? He just had a way of finishing off any explanation with a mention of his lifestyle, or an overt gay theme; done in such a way, I think, to play with what he figured a slightly homophobic audience. A taunt. A tease. I don’t feel I’m imagining it. So good on him I say. Plenty of spunk, hey!
Goddamn what a show.