The neck of my Guitar
Paul Simon's still vital San Jose Mercury News, CA

Posted on Sat, Oct. 07, 2006

Paul Simon´s still vital after all these years
By Tony Hicks

Between the fourth song ´50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,´ and fifth song ´Slip Slidin´ Away´ at UC Berkeley´s Greek Theatre on a chilly Friday night, a stage hand pushed a very tall heat lamp toward the edge of the stage.

Right next to the very vertically challenged Paul Simon, who looked up and did a straight-faced double take.

´Hilarious,´ he said, deadpan.

That´s Simon in a nutshell. The things that come out of his mouth, whether it´s folk, pop, Zydeco, Caribbean or African music, seem so unlikely because he seems so unlikely ´ even after being on the charts for nearly 50 years. He wore a purple sweatshirt, jeans and a hat on Friday ´ like a guy might wear while he´s out watering the lawn or browsing garage sales. It´s a perfect set-up for an old dog to throw out a few new tricks.

Simon´s expression Friday night came through music, made with a superb seven-piece band of musicians who can handle just about every form of music known to humankind. Simon doesn´t need to be spectacular. Instead, he keeps the set moving along with a well-balanced mix of songs from his long career, all of which brim with laid-back, ever-present rhythm and dynamics.

You can tell a Simon solo song from the older Simon & Garfunkel stuff, not only by the added instrumentation but by Simon´s vocal cadence, which tends to dance around the melody in a scat-ish kind of way before dropping back into the downbeat on choruses. Just so you remember the hook.

It´s so much easier to appreciate Simon live, when one can actually see how many instruments (and instrument-switching) go into aligning the stars in one of his songs, while other bands and songwriters could easily denigrate into a mish-mash of noise. He was vocally dry at times, which somehow fit well with the patiently jumpy rhythm of a band featuring two drummers.

But nobody was being that analytical once the band kicked into a fun version of ´Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,´ prompting many to politely but happily fill the aisles in front of the stage, bouncing up and down instead of really dancing.

The straighter new song ´How Can You Live in the Northeast´ (from Simon´s new record ´Surprise´) would´ve been a letdown if not for Simon injecting some emotion and building it into full-bore loudness by the end.

Even the older stuff took on some different rhythmic turns. Simon snuck into a relatively mild ´Mrs. Robinson,´ only to insert some mid-song guitar breakdowns. A great version of ´Loves Me Like a Rock´ brought all the fans back down to the stage front, and showed off the band´s excellent harmonizing. ´Duncan,´ and ´Father and Daughter,´ were appropriately gentle, while ´Graceland,´ was a warm burst on a cold night.

The band again showed its vocal value on a ´The Only Living Boy in New York,´ which went way beyond the record with a robust arrangement. Simon altered the meter of ´Cecilia,´ some shifting the tempo and altering the arrangement. It would´ve been better straight on, but nobody seemed to care. ´You Can Call Me Al´ had Simon doing a sliding, goofy white-boy dance and grinning like he knew how he looked and didn´t care. (It´s OK; most of the crowd was dancing just as badly and not caring either.)

Opener Jerry Douglas, a superb lap steel guitar player, returned at show´s end to help Simon again throw out a new arrangement for a classic, this time giving ´The Boxer´ a gentle bluegrass backdrop that worked surprisingly well.

Simon, who turns 65 this month, could make just as much money by going out and rolling through standards. Instead, he remains a relevant musician by sampling the new and mixing genres, while remaining a songwriting machine.

Some old dogs can still find plenty of new ways to perform old tricks.

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