June 1, 2016
“These are the days of miracle and wonder.” That repeated line from the opening song to his 1986 landmark Graceland also applies, as others have written, to the man’s career. It was also the opening song of Simon’s appearance here at the historic Hollywood Bowl, where he appeared last time on a double bill with another fairly impressive songwriter named Bob Dylan.
But tonight belonged all to Simon. And miracles and wonders abounded, in the remarkable fluency and passion of his massive band – so large Simon looked like a man in the midst of a small but thriving musical village – and in the remarkable range of his material. From early acoustic-guitar based gems such as “Sound of Silence” and “Homeward Bound,” he led us through every facet of his singular musical journey – beyond those early standards into the mysterious ska wisdom of “Mother and Child Reunion,” from his first post-Simon & Garfunkel album, as well as the great narrative of “Duncan” through the title song of “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” to the exhilarating street celebration of “Late In The Evening” (from One Trick Pony) and beyond.
But perhaps the evening’s most exhilarating moments were selections from his newest album, including the title song, “Stranger To Stranger,” which is one of the most poignant love songs he’s yet composed, as well as two other charged and delightful journeys: “The Werewolf” and “Wristband.”
That musical village contains musicians he’s worked with for decades, and others who have recently joined. Every one of them is a stunning musician. The newest shining star is accordion-wizard Joel Guzman, furtively hip in hat and shades, whose playing all evening – starting with the famous opening riffs of “Boy In The Bubble” – was simply exhilarating. Bringing as much fun and fluid virtuoso soul to the button-accordion as David Hidalgo, with Los Lobos and Bob Dylan, brings, he lends a shiny harmonic shimmer and swell to all he touches. “In many ways, it’s the perfect instrument,” Dylan said of his accordion usage on recent albums. “It’s percussive and orchestrative at the same time.”
Simon’s always gone to the finest musicians this world has to offer. From icons such as Steve Gadd, Toots Thielemans, Stephane Grappelli and Phil Woods, he moved onto the greatest musicians he discovered around the world. So there is Bakithi Kumalo, who first got our attention with his fleetly lyrical bass solo on “You Can Call Me Al” and other fretless bass playing on Graceland, and he took two – not one – solo on that great song.
Also still in the band along is the amazing Vince Nguini, from the Cameroons, whose signature riffs colored all of Rhythm of the Saints, the follow-up to Graceland, and has added a richly rhythmic finger-style electric guitar sheen to much of Simon’s recorded and live work ever since.
Then there is Mark Stewart, a great multi-instrumentalist who covered vocals, electric guitar, slide guitar, baritone sax, and wooden flute. When Simon discussed onstage the inception of “Rewrite,” from his previous album So Beautiful Or So What, as a rhythmic finger tapping on acoustic guitar wed to a wildly fast and unrestrained acoustic guitar flourish, it was Stewart who played it. On the record it sounds like a sped-up result of several parts, as it’s too fast for most humans to play. But there is Stewart playing it, and flawlessly each time.
Mark Rossi played delightful piano and organ, injecting jazzy flights into unexpected places and a treated piano on one song that was percussive and harmonic at the same time. Jamey Haddad covered all manner of percussion, and even took over on drums at times, while the great drummer Jim Osborn –when not laying down famous drum patters such as the martial signature of “50 Ways” switched over to slide guitar.
In addition to Guzman’s chapeau, Bakhiti, Paul and Vince also wore hats. Paul’s ensemble was more jaunty than ever – a purple velvet jacket with a forest green hat.
Paul also had a wonderful horn section, with beautiful spirited parts throughout, and poignant solos, especially the muted trumpet solo in the center of “Stranger To Stranger.”
We even received one of Simon’s most complex and exhilarating songs, “The Cool Cool River,” from Rhythm of the Saints, which was introduced by the usually silent Vince, who spoke of its essential rhythm and 9/8 time signature before launching into this amazingly soulful though complex groove, featuring his fleetly fluid eminence on the electric strings.
Vince also introduced a great joke into the proceedings. Touching on the unwarranted controversy surrounding Simon’s use of African musicians on Graceland, Vince mentioned Simon’s journeys and the way he traveled the world to find music he “exploited.” Simon whispered in his ear at that moment, and Vince corrected himself, saying, “explored.” The crowd roared with laughter. If that was intentional, Vince –a true and humble king of rhythm – delivered it with impeccable timing.
Simon sang “Stranger to Stranger,” the title song from his newest masterpiece, with much transcendent love. He delivered its great underhanded expression of pure love at its most human, in its chorus: “I’m just jittery, I’m just jittery, it’s just a way of dealing with my joy…” sans guitar, with his arms opened wide. This man once considered the “king of alienation” – the same one who long ago declared himself so isolated as to be an island in “I Am A Rock” — now sings with deep, unapologetic ardor. He sang this new essential love song with such pure love, this song to his wife of many years now, Edie Brickell, that is was stunning. How many other songwriters or artists, as this stage of their career, have written such a culminating song, a song which lifts the heart even after hearing this unbroken chain of classics? That Simon continues to define himself, and to enrich this songbook of unbound riches, is both unprecedented and inspirational.
Like Dylan, who continues to rewrite famous songs even decades past their inception, Simon does this as well, changing the famous first-person present-tense “The Boxer” into third-person past-tense: “He was just a poor boy with a story seldom told.” Little changes abound, such as in “Late In The Evening” in which the character still steps outside a club to “smoke a jay” (which always receives applause), but now plays rhythm guitar – like Paul – rather than lead.
And instead of everything seeming “just to boom,” instead everything went “zoom, zoom.” Like most artists forever aspiring to perfection, he continues to tinker and adjust so many moons beyond his songs’ season of creation. Years ago he said none of his songs were perfect, though some came closer to others. You can hear him still pushing towards that place of purity, reflecting what Martha Graham once called “the divine dissatisfaction” of being an artist in the world, the endless reach for perfection.
He changes both melodies and chords as well. The former not that unusual, considering he has sung “The Sound of Silence” now for more than a half-century, and when with Garfunkel sang a lower harmony to his melody. On it now he changes both the phrasing and the tune many times solo – the poet and the one-man band making a rare return – but never interferes with its message of intentional obliviousness, which seems more relevant now than ever.
And in “Slip Slidin’ Away,” which is one of his simplest songs harmonically, he extends the chords – adding a sub-dominant into the chorus (B7 in G major) which gives it a whole other dimension – as well as other passing chords. Well, as Dylan said, these things (songs) aren’t written in stone. (Though to us, when a Simon or Dylan writes them and records them, they are).
Simon, when planning a concert, has the rare dilemma among modern songwriters of having so many famous songs – both hits and beloved album-cuts – that he can’t do all of them, and still weave in classics from recent albums and new songs. But to exclude “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which remains the most famous song he’s ever written – an undeniable standard – is extreme. Sure, it’s more famous for the triumphant vocal of his former partner. But Simon has sung this beautifully himself for so many years, and it’s such a beloved song of true friendship that we did mourn its exclusion.
And in truth there are so many other classics he excluded that one seems like a petulant Deadhead after one of their marathon shows reciting a litany of absent gems. But now more than ever we could have used “American Tune” and certainly that other great ballad of this country, used by Bernie Sanders even, “America.” The list goes on, and all tremendously Simon-singular songs which would come alive with this amazing band, such as “Mrs. Robinson,” “Scarborough Fair” and “Kodachrome.” (I won’t even suggest the inclusion of less-famous but deeply beloved songs here, such as “Jonah,” “Hearts and Bones,” “Something So Right,” “Night Game,” “She Moves On,” “Gumboots,” “Love and Hard Times,” “Think Too Much, B.” “The Vampires,” or “Old.”)
But such is the dynamic dilemma of Simon in this world, this songwriter who has injected soulful songs of substance into every decade, and repeatedly, since his debut in the early Sixties. We did get the funny and cosmic folk tale “Duncan” about sexual awakening and other cosmic lessons, from his first solo album, introduced with the beautiful Peruvian textures and tunes of “El Condor Pasa,” from Bridge Over Troubled Water.
And, as mentioned, we did get “Cool, Cool River” which remains one of his most explosive and yet redemptive songs ever, with the staggering lyric laid over that 9/8 rhythmic groove both ancient and modern. Poetic lyrics of urban angst (“moves like a fist through traffic…”) end with an ultimately hopeful and cathartic conclusion:
“And I believe in the future
We shall suffer no more
Maybe not in my lifetime
But in yours I feel sure…
“The speeding planet burns
I’m used to that
My life’s so common it disappears
And sometimes, even music,
cannot substitute for tears.”
From “The Cool, Cool River,” by Paul Simon
What he did deliver does more than compensate for anything missing (except for “Bridge,” which Simon fans tell me he has played at other recent shows). This musician known for gentle guitar-based ballads at first has written so many big band songs of pure exultation, that a Simon show always rocks as much as it sails. There’s “Late In The Evening” with its great New York-charged horn passages, as well as “You Can Call Me Al,” which weds one of his funniest and most mysterious lyrics with one of his most compelling musical refrains. The crowd was on its feet for both. Dancing.
He came back for three encores, ultimately calming down the crowd with his solo rendition of “The Sound of Silence” before it was done. The crowd was happy. Noticing legendary Doors drummer John Densmore in the audience, I asked him for his thoughts on the show. “Amazing,” he said. “I just saw [Simon] in Memphis. Those songs, this band. Man. Does not get better.”