THE ENTIRE AUDIENCE AT THE Oakland Coliseum was dancing to Paul Simon´s Graceland hit ´You Can Call Me All´. So great was the response that when the smiling, buoyant star had completed the tune, he bowed and said, ´We can do it again.´ And with that, the band reprised the song from start to finish as the audience danced with even more enthusiasm.
At a time when many of his contemporaries are resting on past glories, Paul Simon is continuing to break new ground. His unique blend of sophisticated lyrics, brainy vocals and world beats has brought both Simon and his middle-aged audience out of their pasts and into the vanguard of pop music. Amazingly, after more than twenty-five years of stardom, Simon is creating and performing some of the freshest, most exciting music of his career.
Graceland was a true rebirth for Simon. With it he expanded his musical paint-box; now when he makes music, he no longer restricts himself to the somewhat monochromatic tones of the folk rock and slick pop of his youth. His colourful world-beat music, so effective on record, is devastating in concert. And you can dance to it.
On Simon´s Born at the Right Time Tour, his powerful multicultural, seventeen-piece touring band produces all of the fine aural details and rich sounds of both The Rhythm of the Saints and Graceland. The band includes a fiveman percussion team anchored by seasoned session drummer Steve Gadd and three brilliant electric guitarists: Ray Phiri from South Africa (he was all over Graceland); Vincent Nguini from Cameroon (key guitarist on The Rhythm of the Saints); and John Selolwane from Botswana. Simon also has a three-man horn section featuring saxophonist Michael Brecker, three background vocalists, two keyboardists (one of whom is session player Richard Tee) and a bassist.
In Oakland, Simon led off with ´The Obvious Child´ and ´The Boy in the Bubble´, a potent one-two punch. The new music - from the recent albums was, of course, alive with African guitar parts and Brazilian rhythms. But even older songs, such as ´Kodachrome´ and ´Cecilia´ were now dressed in African garb. And Simon took ´Bridge Over Trouble Water´ to the river, giving it a moving gospel arrangement.
As a performer, Simon is no Prince. For the most part he just stood before his microphone, strummed his shiny black acoustic guitar and sang. Dressed in a dark sport coat, black jeans, cowboy boots and a T-shirt and sipping occasionally from a bottle of Evian water, Simon could have been a yuppie lawyer after hours. Yet he still maintained a boyish charm that somehow made up for his lack of dynamism. And his casual attire, like the lack of theatrics, helped to keep the emphasis on the music; no one goes to a Paul Simon show to see a spectacle. As if to compensate for Simon´s low-key approach, his three guitarists offered up some extremely entertaining dance steps during several of the songs.
At times it seemed that Simon was a spectator at his own show. During certain instrumental sections of the songs, the band would groove so intently that Simon, strumming his guitar along with the other guitarists, seemed almost unnecessary. It helped to remember that this was Simon´s vision - his music, his lyrics, his arrangements - being played out on the stage.
Like an increasing number of performers, Simon used the old showbiz gimmick of ending his show with a series of false endings: leaving the stage, returning for an encore, leaving the stage, returning and so forth. No one cared. They were just happy to hear a few of the older tunes, including folksy versions of ´American Tune´ and ´The Boxer´.
Simon´s final song, written decades ago, was quite timely in light of recent events. On the eve of yet another controversial war, ´The Sounds of Silence´ with Simon strumming an electric guitar, said it all.