By George Varga
Not many of the 11,479 fans gathered at Cox Arena Saturday night may have realized it, but Simon & Garfunkel´s first San Diego concert in 20 years could easily have amounted to the sound of silence.
That´s because health maladies forced this fabled pop vocal duo to postpone its two previous tour stops. (Friday night´s show in Anaheim fell through because Paul Simon was suffering from a severe cold, while last Wednesday´s show in Sacramento was called off because Art Garfunkel had a throat infection.)
Happily, both felt well enough by Saturday to deliver a compelling career retrospective concert here that was simultaneously vital and nostalgic.
It began gently with 1968´s ´Old Friends,´ which the two performed alone without their seven-man backing band and concluded with 1966´s jaunty ´The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin´ Groovy).´
In between came 21 other chestnuts that have largely stood the test of time.
They included such classics as: ´The Boxer,´ ´Mrs. Robinson´ and ´Bridge Over Troubled Water´ (one of several songs performed in a lower key than on the original version); such unexpected but welcome choices as ´Kathy´s Song´ and ´Slip Slidin´ Away´ (a Simon solo song from the mid-1970s that worked even better when performed with Garfunkel); and an especially inspired duet with the also recently reunited Everly Brothers on the Everlys´ 1957 gem, ´Bye Bye Love.´
Phil and Don Everly, whose feuds are as legendary as those of Simon & Garfunkel, also performed ´Let It Be Me,´ ´All I Have To Do is Dream´ and ´Wake Up Little Susie.´ A key inspiration for the budding Simon & Garfunkel in the 1950s, the Everlys sounded as fresh as yesterday on Saturday.
The show was the first here by Simon & Garfunkel since Aug. 28, 1983, when the duo drew 35,000 fans to what was then San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. Their current tour is the temperamental duo´s first together since then, and their Cox Arena performance came midway through a three-month reunion trek that has swiftly become one of the most lucrative pop tours of the year.
Considering their less than peak physical condition Saturday, Simon & Garfunkel might have been tempted to merely go through the motions with a rote walk down memory lane. Instead, they performed as if their reputations, and not just their bank accounts, depended on it.
That came as good news, indeed, since the duo is receiving a $1 million guarantee for each show on this 40-date tour. (The highest-priced seats for Saturday´s concert were $228.25, plus service charges, while the cheapest ´“ at $58.25 ´“ still cost $5 more than the best seats to the Nov. 9 Cox Arena show by Matchbox 20 and Fountains of Wayne.)
But if the price was high, so was the payoff for the loudly enthusiastic, multigenerational audience that nearly filled Cox Arena. And with no offense to Matchbox 20 or Fountains of Wayne, it´s doubtful there will be any demand for a reunion tour by either in 35 years.
More than just an opportunity to relive a bygone era, Simon & Garfunkel´s performance was a welcome reaffirmation of the power of music to transcend time and place. It was also a stirring celebration of Simon´s peerless songwriting, Garfunkel´s still angelic (if now lower-pitched) voice and the seemingly endangered art of harmony singing.
Yes, there was a rough spot here and there Saturday, along with a few instances where Simon & Garfunkel´s voices didn´t mesh.
But these few gaffes aside, they performed with a winning combination of passion, skill and a determination to make their golden oldies repertoire come alive anew ´“ to pay tribute to their rich past without treating their songs as dusty curios or stuffy museum pieces.
The passing of time was reinforced during the opening number, ´Old Friends,´ when the balding Simon sang: How terribly strange to be 70. That line takes on a much different tone now that he and Garfunkel are both 62, as did the wistful couplet: Can you imagine us, years from today, sharing a park bench quietly?
Later, during their penultimate encore of ´Leaves That Are Green,´ Simon sang: I was 21 when I wrote this song / I´m 22 now, but I won´t be for long.
That Simon & Garfunkel are no longer the earnest young men who recorded five landmark studio albums between 1964 and 1970 is undeniable. But their best songs ring just as true today, and their added decades of experience enable the pair to bring even more dimension and nuance to their work.
As a result, such favorites as ´America,´ ´Hazy Shade of Winter´ and ´Keep the Customer Satisfied´ sounded even better than in the duo´s heyday nearly 40 years ago.
Apart from an overextended version of ´My Little Town,´ the pacing of the show was almost flawless. Equally impressive was the pinpoint precision with which Simon & Garfunkel and their crack band segued from ´Slip Slidin´ Away´ into ´El Condor Pasa (If I Could).´
Garfunkel, whose next solo tour will bring him back to Southern California in 2004, was effusive throughout, Simon more subdued. Their interaction, apart from singing, was minimal.
But when their voices joined together in magical harmony on classic song after classic song, it was clear this reunion was worth the steep price of admission.