The neck of my Guitar
Singers bridge troubled water-December 14 2003 Sun-Sentinel.com

"This is probably the last time," Paul Simon said in September at the press conference announcing "Old Friends," his first tour in 20 years with longtime duet partner Art Garfunkel.

Note the "probably." Along with keeping the duo's options open, the phrasing acknowledged a maxim of the trade: Once a beloved pop star embraces the farewell and/or reunion circuit, it can be hard to stop.

Touring brings in revenue that has become harder to collect through record sales in the age of Internet file-sharing and reissue fatigue. For artists of a certain vintage, the general decline in back-catalog income -- documented by the album-sales ticker Nielsen SoundScan -- compounds the tendency of a body of work to recede into history.

Hitting the road can give a nudge to album sales. But arena concerts increasingly are their own reward for the Baby Boom generation's surviving idols.

Tickets for Simon and Garfunkel, who perform on Wednesday in Miami and Thursday in Sunrise, fetch between $45 and $251.50 at face value. Whatever their guarantee -- the fee the band charges the promoter, who in turn sets the ticket price -- they have joined the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Paul McCartney on the price-up escalator for personal appearances. The two old friends known for long stretches of mutual hostility will, by some estimates, gross $50 million for a 30-city, 42-show tour that concludes on Dec. 21 in Tampa.

Some things are worth not fighting for. As Simon said of the up-and-down relationship in September: "We're fine now."

Simon and Garfunkel, both 62, have not recorded a new set of original songs since Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970. They made no hard promises in September to return to the studio. "It's a possibility. ... Not a probability, though," Garfunkel told USA Today. Such reserve makes them comparatively honest. The Eagles have played footsie with their fans for years, hinting at progress on a new album -- still -- while cleaning up on serial road reunions. Hole in the World, a DVD single that lamented 9-11 and furnished this year's Eagles tour with a name, was as close as they got.

The Rolling Stones released slap-dash studio albums in the 1990s -- Bridges to Babylon, Voodoo Lounge -- that likewise did little more than put logos on corresponding stadium treks and souvenir T-shirts. The band dropped that charade altogether on its two most recent outings, save for a live album cheekily titled No Security. The rock nostalgia business is nothing if not securitized.

So what is wrong with all this activity in a free market? These rituals, after all, please fans, revive interest in great music and employ everyone from the tour manager to the snack-stand operator. Simon and Garfunkel have the same right as any pop titan to cash in, cash out or otherwise meet the pent-up demand for their services.

And they certainly are exercising that right -- same as everyone. Simon and Garfunkel in concert play the two-toned, harmonizing pearls that first captured young listeners in the '60s -- music that gave a more polished face to literate folk-rock than Bob Dylan's ragged incantations.

The repertoire is undeniably staggering. It ranges across the baroque finery of Scarborough Fair, the high-spirited pleas of Cecelia, the brittle urgency of A Hazy Shade of Winter and the coiling guitars and voices of Mrs. Robinson. The latter contains one of the most oft-cited elegies in popular music: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

The duo and their seven-piece band have tinkered with some songs. Simon told USA Today that he and Garfunkel would not attempt "note-for-note fidelity to the recorded arrangements."

But he also spoke of "staying true to the emotional memory" of the music. To judge by reviews, that approach has precluded any challenging or confounding of spectators through drastic alteration. There is no willful ripping-up or tossing out the songbook, as Neil Young did this year on his Greendale tour; no Dylan-style reinvention of the standards. Like The Who's Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, Simon and Garfunkel have no new vision of themselves to put forward, and admittedly no pretense to any. They just play songs people love.

The biggest curve "Old Friends" throws, musically, is the inclusion of the Everly Brothers. Simon and Garfunkel admired the sibling duo and patterned their early tandem voicings on Phil and Don Everly classics such as Wake Up Little Susie. The Everlys do not open for Simon and Garfunkel. They appear several songs into the concert, perform some of their standards, and bring out the hosts for a four-part harmony. Simon and Garfunkel take over the time trip from there, guiding audiences through a house of collective memory.

It is more than cost-of-living adjustments that motivate the two to reunite; they love the music as much as the audience. And a tour might yet lead to a new album -- the kind that would challenge their creativity and not just their durability. It does happen. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan drifted apart in the '80s, toured in the '90s and released Two Against Nature in 2000. After 20 years out of the studio, Steely Dan won album of the year at the Grammys in 2001.

That's a more interesting approach than leaving people to await another tour and to wonder how probable "probably" is.

-By Sean Piccoli, Pop Music Writer

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