Report: Paul Simon Live in St. Louis

 

At the
Fox Theatre on November 15, he proved he was still crazy after all these years.

 

By Steve Pick

So
Beautiful or So What
, Paul Simon’s release earlier this year, is a
front-runner for best album of 2011. Filled with songs of insight, beauty,
humor, and vivacity, So Beautiful or So
What
is on the short list of records that stand with the best of an artists
career nearly 50 years after they first recorded. On tour to ostensibly promote
this achievement, Paul Simon somewhat perversely chose to play only four of his
new songs in concert. However, there can be no complaints about a single one of
the other 22 selections pulled from his extensive catalogue.

 

Simon stands with Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan as 60s icons
who still work hard at creating new music. But unlike McCartney, who in concert
delivers the old hits with passion yet textbook adherence to the original
recording, or Dylan, who seemingly randomly rearranges favorite songs to
sometimes brilliant effect but without always being recognizable, Simon remains
engaged with his material. The most familiar songs, such as “The Sound of
Silence” or “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” were given thoughtful and tasteful
new renditions without losing any of the luster they had displayed for decades.

 

Simon is not one to take chances unprepared; each night of
this latest tour, he has played pretty much the exact same songs in the exact
same order. Having given careful consideration to the ways he wanted to play
off his hits with his new songs, and connect themes and images across the
years, Simon sticks to the game plan night after night. The result was an
evening of music which marvelously flowed together. Slow songs alternated with
fast ones, leading to an explosive dance party at precisely the proper moment.

 

The band Simon has assembled for this tour is astonishing.
Given the variety of rhythmic styles Simon has incorporated into his music over
the years – reggae, zydeco, South African dance pop, Brazilian drum patterns,
70s jazzy studio sophistication – there can be few musicians capable of so
perfectly capturing the spirit of each. Simon gave each of his players a chance
to shine, but none hogged the spotlight. This band is as aware as their leader
that the presentation of the songs is the most important  part of this show. Props must be given to
Vincent Nguini on guitar, Jim Oblon on drums, Mick Rossi on piano and
keyboards, Andrew Snitzer on saxophone and keyboards, Bakithi Kumalo (who has
played with Simon since Graceland in 1986) on bass , Mark Stewart on guitar and
baritone sax, Jamey Haddad on percussion, and Tony Cedras on several
instruments, including trumpet to form a powerful horn section with Stewart and
Snitzer.

 

While most songs were given shiny new treatments, material
from Graceland,
which will be celebrated next year with a tour in honor of its 25th anniversary (which was really this year) was played as close to the fashion of
the recorded versions as possible. “The Boy in the Bubble” opened the show, and
“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “Gumboots,” and “Graceland”
itself proved this band could be as supple and sinuous as the South African
musicians who played on the original album. Surprisingly, however, the song
which received the biggest response was “That Was Your Mother,” the zydeco
number which was revved up to a fever pitch. As this was a rare song on which
Simon played no instruments, he was even inspired to do a little jig onstage,
which possibly helped encourage the crowd to jump to its feet for the first of
several times during the show.

 

The new material was received well. “Dazzling Blue” was as
sweet and limber as the recorded version, and benefited from guest fiddler Gabe
Witcher of opening act Punch Brothers, who played on the album. “The
Afterlife,” built on an irresistible African groove, is one of the funniest
songs Simon has ever written, imagining a bureaucratic Heaven and a God which
boils down to either “Be Bop a Lula” or “Ooh Poppa Do.”  “Rewrite” is another funny one, albeit with a
more serious subtext about repairing the mistakes of a lifetime, and the live
version was given a sparser treatment, with some lovely guitar playing from all
three ax-wielders. “Love is Eternal Sacred Light,” your typical pop song about
the Big Bang, God, and suicide bombing, is one of the finest things Simon has
ever written, and its inclusion in the set was a terrific way of proving he
hasn’t stopped asking the big questions after all these years.

 

Even with a show lasting just around two hours, there was no
way Simon could play everybody’s favorite songs, so it was perhaps curious that
he did a few cover versions. Each was so delightful, however, that nobody could
complain. A medley of “Mystery Train” (with homage being paid more to Junior
Parker’s original than to Elvis Presley’s more familiar version) and “Wheels,”
a classic instrumental by Chet Atkins, was a wonderful breath-taking after one
of Simon’s most serious and lovely originals, “Hearts and Bones.” As part of
the encore, Simon did an exquisite take on “Here Comes the Sun,” at the end of
which he said, “Thanks, George, for writing such a great song.” And for the
second-to-last song of the night, the band went wild on a version of Bo
Diddley’s “Pretty Thing,” sung by Oblon and featuring an ebullient Kumalo on
kettle drum and a verse of African vocals.

 

The rest of the show was all hits, all the time. “50 Ways to
Leave Your Lover” was slowed down and funked up, making the song slightly more
sinister than it originally seemed. “Mother and Child Reunion” (aka the first
reggae song many Americans ever heard) was heavenly, especially with Cedras
playing a sweet trumpet, but it did miss the female backing vocals from the
original. “Slip Slidin’ Away” was an interesting merger of the original
arrangement with the African-inspired bass drum throb. “The Obvious Child,”
from Rhythm of the Saints, took the
original Olodum drum beat from Brazil
and amped it up into the most exhilarating song of the night. “The Only Living
Boy in New York”
was the only Simon and Garfunkel song played, and it was lovely enough that his
partner’s voice wasn’t even missed. “Kodachrome” was marred by the audience
clapping along much more stiffly than the band was playing, and “Still Crazy
After All These Years” ended the entire show with a beautiful version of one of
Simon’s most perfectly crafted songs.

 

For his first encore, however, Simon stood on the stage
completely alone to perform “The Sound of Silence.” At one time, Simon was
almost as brilliant a finger-picking guitarist as he is a songwriter, and this
rendition reminded us of his skills. He started by playing the exquisite melody
with perfect grace, then began to sing the familiar words welcoming his old pal
darkness and describing his dream of desolation and isolation. At first, Simon
sang this at a slight remove, seeming to recall his youthful worries as
something no longer a concern. But, as he moved into the description of walking
alone in his dream, you could feel the song filling him up and filling the room
until it exploded in a flash of neon light which, in this case, connected him
to his audience, to the people who have loved this song for more than 45 years.
It was the sound of history, of understanding, of love and beauty and anything
but silence.

 

 

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