Most reviews I write tend to be almost entirely in the third person. It’s easier to get my points across and make it seem like the reader was present at the show. I write objectively and paint a picture of the crowd, the songs played and the interactions with fans. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the review from the show much like this one. Growing up, a majority of the music I listened to included Joshua Tree-era U2, Johnny Cash’s greatest hits and Paul Simon’s Graceland, so naturally I have a real affinity for the folk legend. As I learned more about the man, I loved his solo work more than I ever liked his early work with Art Garfunkel, not that it wasn’t beautiful it’s just the lush worldly pop was so irresistible. Getting the chance to cover the legend will easily be a highlight of my life and I was honoured to do so.
As the house lights finally dimmed in the Sony Centre and the nine membered backing band came on stage, they started to play Proof, an instrumental number from Simon’s 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints without the front man. As they jammed out the song the audience grew in excitement for the man of the hour. After Proof finished Simon strolled out on stage armed with an acoustic guitar and right away gets a thunderous standing ovation making the man take bows before he has even sung a single note. For a crowd of mostly rich elderly couples (the tickets were ridiculously expensive) they seemed to have quite a bit of passion and energy. The first song Simon led the band in was The Boy in the Bubble from his landmark 1986 Graceland album. When he was not playing his guitar throughout the night Simon would motion and act out the words of his songs with his hands in a playful manner.
The night continued with hit after hit including 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, a song that came out early in Simon’s solo career that first showed signs of his sense of humour that would become more prominent in his most recent releases. This version of the song featured horn blasts and an organ solo giving a real southern feel to the song that is a more stoic song at parts. For the zydeco infused That Was Your Mother, Simon ditched his guitar, which gave him the ability to dance around on stage. It seemed like every band member was versatile enough to play many instruments regardless if they were in the same family or not. The percussionist played a frottoir, which is a Cajun style washboard that is worn around the neck as they strum it to create a unique sound to counter the drummer. The accordion and sax players both got loud cheers when they played solos as a gleeful Simon watched on.
Simon who is now 74 has more energy than a lot of his peers. In his heyday with Garfunkel the duo rivaled only Lennon/McCartney for their lyrics, I’d argue that Simon’s songbooks have not only aged better but was always the better songwriter. Another peer who rivaled The Beatles was The Beach Boys as each band tried to one up their projects musically. Having seen Brian Wilson twice (once solo and once with The Beach Boys) it is great to see the contrast in the two. While both have lush full bands, Wilson’s was there to recreate the original sounds as heard on record while Simon, knowing it is impossible to mimic some of the songs as they were, he reimagined a lot of them. Another stark difference was that Wilson seemed catatonic at times, unsure where he was with his microphone turned down low for large chunks of the show making the whole ordeal seem depressing and exploitive as Simon was a true showman and having real fun on stage.
By the time Simon got around to Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard the audience was bouncing in their seats ready to burst at any moment. While some artists have trouble remaining relative in their later years, Simon has turned into an elder statesman worthy of paying attention to. Just this year he released his 13th solo album, Stranger to Stranger, his first in five years. He played the title track along with two others The Werewolf and Wristband all of which show case how his observational style has become even more humourous as he ages. The music eschews a more jazzy style compared to his world pop inspirations of his earlier post folk work. On The Werewolf the guitar player even busted out a didgeridoo to give the song a campy horror movie feel to it.
As the main set was winding down the slow the opening to Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes started minus the backing vocals originally recorded by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. When the song kicked into high gear post intro the crowd erupted and a single wave by Simon had everyone jumping up on their feet to dance, some even running towards the front of the stage. The stage lights flickered on and off like bright white diamonds glittering in the sun. The song hit peak intensity with a duel drum solo from the percussionist and drummer that was very satisfying. The intensity continued right into You Can Call Me Al, a fan favourite where everyone sang along to the famous chorus. While Simon is no longer able to hit the highest notes, he made due, plus it’s not like anyone was quiet enough to truly analyze his range. Simon’s bass player had all the lights go down except a spotlight where he recreated the slap bass solo sending everyone into a frenzy. Just by listening to the crowd you might think they were teenage girls at a boy band concert by how much cheering and dancing was going on. That ended the main set and it might be the best 1-2 punch of a show I’ve ever seen.
As the band left the stage, the cheering reached an almost deafening level, begging Simon and his crew to come back out as not a single person returned to their seats. After the first song a fan gave him a bouquet of flowers. For the Graceland song I Know What I Know it seemed even more upbeat with a calypso feel instead of the afro-pop it is on record the song also didn’t have any backing vocals like the other Graceland cuts. At one point the guitarist played a solo that sounded almost exactly like the Ritchie Valens song La Bamba.
The band went off stage and came back out for a second encore, which if you had looked at the set lists of his recent shows was entirely planned. Not that anyone had sat down or stopped cheering; the second encore felt earned and justified. Having previously played two Simon and Garfunkel songs earlier in the set it wasn’t a shock to hear more, but those were deep cuts, this time they were hits. Paul Simon stood alone on stage strumming along to the 1970 song The Boxer and when the first chorus kicked in the rest of the band joined him on stage making the transition from the old to the new seamlessly. The night finished off in triumphant fashion with the seminal 1966 folk song Sound of Silence, possibly the best and most well known song in the Simon and Garfunkel catalog. The band left Simon again as the quiet and powerful song took control of the audience. Some people sung along in a hushed manner, but the intimacy of the show was palpable. On a personal note I closed my eyes during the song and felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with the impact of hearing this song live.
Paul Simon had been a bucket list artist to see, and not only did he exceed my lofty expectations it might very well have been the best show I have every seen, easily the tops of an already great year in which I’ve seen David Gilmour, Tame Impala, Muse and other great shows. It was a rewarding performance and one that will be as indelible of a memory as is my memories of listening to his music from a young age.