Surprisin´ Simon too good to slip slide away
BY IRA ROBBINS
Special to Newsday
October 23, 2006
In the 42 years since he wrote ´I Am a Rock´ as an ode to emotional isolation, Paul Simon has developed a much more connected view of life. ´Surprise,´ his latest album, touches on matters great (war, floods, voting) and greater (fatherhood, love). And his music has followed suit, leaving behind the simplicity of folk to travel widely through cultures and styles and present a hopeful sort of one-man, one-world statement on life´s possibilities.
From South Africa to South America, New Orleans to East Harlem, Simon has made a career of exploration and inclusion. But he´s still something of a cerebral loner: When a girl popped out of the audience Saturday night at Radio City Music Hall to dance alongside him during the zydeco jumper ´That Was Your Mother,´ Simon barely glanced at the electrifying interloper.
Playing to an enthusiastic hometown crowd that acknowledged every one of the local references in his lyrics, Simon offered only four selections from the new record. Instead, he guided a frighteningly versatile septet - with two drummers and a guitarist who sang and also played baritone sax - through two winning hours of musical memories, many of them tweaked with adjusted melodies and extra rhythmic punch. ´Me and Julio Down by the School Yard´ got a stirring backbeat and more Buddy Holly flavor; the instrumental emphasis of ´Bridge Over Troubled Water´ was shifted from piano to guitar and drums; ´Cecilia´ took on lighter-than-air highlife guitar frills (by Vincent Nguini) and lots of drumming.
´Mrs. Robinson´ got a complete overhaul, with a twangy introduction and wah-wah guitar, that didn´t improve on the original. But turning ´The Boxer´ into snappy acoustic country, with opening act Jerry Douglas reciting the melody on slide guitar, was wonderful. (The soprano sax solo was too much, however.) Horns punctuated ´50 Ways to Leave Your Lover´ and ´Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,´ which ended the main portion of the program in a rousing kitchen-sink blowout.
Simon, ironically, provided the music´s most consistent element: his engagingly gentle voice, which varied little except for an unsettling falsetto. Yet after a while, the mix-and-match aspect of songs and styles led to a sense of discontinuity, which is not surprising given his movement away from standard pop form. His new album marries abruptly dissimilar verses, choruses and lyrics to mixed effect.
Of the songs he performed, ´Father and Daughter´ boasted one of the loveliest pop melodies he´s crafted in many years, but ´Outrageous´ flitted from funk to pop, with verses that touched on social consciousness and a chorus that repeatedly asks ´Who´s gonna love you when your looks are gone?´ Amid its philosophical wonderings, ´How Can You Live in the Northeast?´ jumped from religion to geography to humanity without really connecting them.
There are very few artists of Paul Simon´s creative stature and ambition to keep working at this level for so long. In the two dozen songs he chose to do Saturday, the thoughts of a callow but sensitively poetic youth stood alongside frivolous chart fodder and the solemn reflections of a grown-up family man. That he continues to seek new ways to fit it all together can serve as a model for aging rock stars everywhere.