(Photos by Paul Zollo)
Paul Simon at the Pantages was a joyous event, as the venue is one of Hollywood’s first and most ornate movie palaces, replete with awe-inspiring Art Deco wonderment throughout. And the man didn’t disappoint. At 69, his voice is remarkably as strong as ever – he sounds more vocally unchained and youthful as ever, singing with passion and purity, delivering a career’s worth of glorious songs, from 1964’s “The Sound of Silence” to new songs from the remarkable recently released So Beautiful or So What. It was the title song of that album, wrapped as it is around a strong guitar riff and a powerfully propulsive groove – and delivered by Simon with much pointed soul – that was one of the evening’s highlights.
The problem with a Simon concert is that the man has written so many great songs – many of which are classics – that it’s simply impossible to do every one everyone wants to hear, and still weave in new material and some unexpected gems. So we didn’t get “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “You Can Call Me Al,” “The Boxer” or “American Tune,” and yet we did get great Simon’s work from the very start to the present, spanning decades, including songs which were hits long ago, such as the effervescent “Kodachrome” (now referring to an artifact of the past – color film – remember that?), as well as songs that were never hits, but which are very potent, especially “Peace Like a River,” from his first solo outing in 1970 – which resounds with even more power, perhaps, than when it first emerged. Also his most touching song ever for his former partner Art Garfunkel, “The Only Living Boy In New York,” was delivered with much love by Simon on his 12-string. From Graceland he included a few album tracks, all energized by great triple guitar work and powerful grooves, including “Crazy Love, Vol. II” which opened the show, “Gumboots,” the first song he wrote for Graceland, and “That Was Your Mother,” which exploded into a great New Orleans Dixieland closing jam, with everyone soloing joyously at once. The momentous “Boy In The Bubble” fueled by the huge bass & snare slams and serious accordion, was chilling.
His 8-piece band is remarkable. It centers around the “masterful Mark Stewart” as Simon introduced him, who serves as ostensible music director, and is a genuine musical monster – he leads the band, signaling endings and such, while also playing electric and acoustic guitar, including those intricately intertwined African guitar figures that have been a mainstay of Simon’s music since Graceland (now 26 years old!), as well as clean retro Les Paul lines, distorted guitar hero leads and more. He also played some homemade flutes, and beautiful arco cello on “Love & Hard Times” (unlike most multi-instrumentalists who also play cello, Stewart plays with the rich tone of a real cellist) as well as joining the horn section – with electric guitar still strapped on – on bari sax. The wonderful Cameroonian guitarist Vince Nguini (“his majesty,” Paul called him, in reference to his saintly, lanky figure adorned in long robes and baseball cap) entwined African guitar lines flawlessly with Stewart throughout, as well as his own chromatic flourishes. Even when he’s on fire, Vince never breaks a sweat; he has a zen calm, at one with rhythm but completely focused. He also added some rich low tones to harmony vocals.
New pianist Mick Rossi – who plays elegant acoustic piano on “Love and Hard Times” on the new album – recommended by Simon’s pal Phillip Glass – played beautifully on that song, as well as on “Still Crazy” and others which feature piano. And Tony Cedras – on keys and percussion – was a great utility player, tirelessly switching percussion instruments and keys throughout each tune. Also from Graceland is the great Bakithi Kumalo on bass – and though he didn’t get his famous bass solo in this show on “You Can Call Me Al” — his mammoth bubbling tone fueled “Boy In The Bubble” and “Late In The Evening” – locking ideally with drummer Jim Oblon to create a formidable rhythm section throughout the evening. Oblon was robust throughout, capturing the often quirky tapestry drumming of many of the post-Graceland songs, while also keeping subtle reins on quieter tunes, like “Still Crazy.” Though he didn’t match Steve Gadd’s famous martial snare figure on “50 Ways” identically, he made it his own.
New songs like “The Afterlife” were greatly charged by a strong groove built on Paul’s 12-string guitar rhythm and vocal phrasing, while “Rewrite” burst with an immediacy even more captivating than the studio version, and was the only song on the new album greeted by knowing applause by the audience. “Love and Hard Times,” the stunning ballad from the new album, was performed with just Paul on acoustic, Rossi on piano and Stewart on cello – and was beautiful. It was one of the most hushed moments of the night, and it was haunting.
Simon played a few surprising covers, including a soulful “Mystery Train,” which he’s often said is one of his favorite songs, Jimmy Cliff’s buoyant “Vietnam,” (segueing seamlessly into a dynamic “Mother and Children Reunion,” which remains one of his most forceful and mysterious songs), and best of all, a tender “Here Comes The Sun,” reminding us that Simon was one of the only non-Beatles to ever perform the song with George Harrison – as they did on SNL in 1976.
“The Obvious Child,” from Rhythm of the Saints, which matches a exceedingly propulsive groove to a tenderly mysterious lyric, like “Mother and Child Reunion,” was a pure delight, one of his greatest fusions of rhythm and melody. But most poignant of all was one of his often unsung masterpieces, “Hearts and Bones,” a love story that’s perhaps his most intimate, propelled by a quiet rhythmic insistence on triangle and various percussive instruments, with Simon outlining its lovely foundational riff on acoustic guitar. “You take two bodies and you twirl them into one/their hearts and their bones/and they won’t come undone…” he sings in the final verse of what is maybe his most beautiful love song, and one of the night’s most emotional moments.
He performed six songs in the encore, of which “The Sound of Silence” – mostly solo Simon – was the first. Singing the melody which Garfunkel sang on the record to his lower harmony, he introduced a new melodic twist on one line in each verse, but unlike Dylan and others who often trainwreck beloved melodies with unnecessary divergences, his variation was thoughtful and right, enriching the now iconic splendor of this song. He also delighted the crowd by pairing two rhythmic classics: “Kodachrome” and “Gone At Last,” as well as the great Latin/New York horn-powered celebration of “Late In The Evening,” ending with “Still Crazy After All These Years,” with its great gleaming sax solo in the bridge.
Though Simon rarely speaks on stage, his songs – and his voice – are such a beloved part of our shared experience, that he spoke through his music. Some of these songs have been a cherished part of our lives forever, it seems – while others are brand-new, but capable of standing boldly with the others. Though one leaves a Simon show often hungering for those great songs which weren’t included, this one was a thoroughly fulfilling journey through the decades with one of the greatest songwriters America has ever known. This is just the start of his 42-show tour through America and Europe – if you happen to catch him in your city, you’re in for a treat.