July 8, 2006
Paul Simon brings surprise to Fairgrounds
July 8, 2006
By Paul Kaza
ESSEX JUNCTION ´” The title of Paul Simon´s new album is ´Surprise.´ In many respects, that single word effectively sums up how Simon has been consistently successful across 40 years in the music business. Never content to simply rest on his laurels as a remarkable songwriter or just collect royalties on his deep portfolio of best-selling songs, Simon has driven himself to constantly innovate.
His concert at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds on Friday night brought a lovely walk back in time, but also took us into the world where he lives today. The crowd numbered more than 4,000, and was dominantly represented by the upper regions of the baby boom generation. The mix was not surprising, since we have spent most of our lives listening to Simon. There were plenty of Gen Xers and Gen Yers, too, who probably got their first present-day dose of Simon when the groundbreakinbg ´Graceland´ album was released in 1986.
As live concerts go, this was truly a magical night. People seemed to bask in the glow of the late day sun as they began to gather for opener Kelly Sweet. On the precipice of her first CD release, Sweet shows great promise with her effervescent presence and excellent voice. Unfortunately, her set of six songs was pretty one-dimensional ´” sweet ballads of love and faith, with very low-key instrumentation. We especially appreciated her rendering of ´Love is the Key,´ a tune covered by several contemporary Christian music artists as well as mainstream singers.
Simon hit the stage unceremoniously at about 8:15 p.m., accompanied by a seven-piece band including two drummers, two guitars, bass, sax, and one fellow who played accordion and several wind instruments to boot.
The sound mix was quite uneven at first, with the accordion and dual drummers drowning out everyone else. There is absolutely no excuse for this; the lack of quality control is even more egregious considering ticket prices of $40 to $80. Why do some touring acts (including Simon) postion the key sound-mix decision-makers onstage, where they don´t have a prayer of hearing what the crowd is hearing?
Thankfully, this utter lack of logic was somehow overcome fairly quickly as Simon delivered ´Outrageous´ from the new album. Then, it was ´Slip Slidin´ Away´ and ´You´re the One´ (also from ´Surprise´). The latter had a country western undertone, a growing trend for many artists today. ´Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard´ immediately took the energy up several notches, with the crowd on their feet and in full motion.
´How Can You Live in the Northeast?´ is one of the standout cuts from the new album and, upon hearing those words, generated knowing smiles from the audience. But the lyrics go on to ask the same question of people who live in various sections of the Unites States, and the song´s theme demonstrates how Simon has an extraordinary ability to find ways of connecting with people.
Nostalgia reigned supreme over the next segment, as Simon played ´Mrs. Robinson,´ ´Love Me Like a Rock,´ ´Duncan,´ and ´Graceland.´ Simon´s genius as a songwriter cannot be understated; while each of us has special memories tied to the times of these songs, they sound as fresh several decades later as they did when they were released.
´Father and Daughter´ is another evocative example of Simon´s current compositional body of work. This touching song featured the backup vocals of Simon´s teenage son, and brought a beaming smile as he acknowldeged his offspring at the end. ´Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes´ brought a zany visual notion against a rocking backbeat that was built in layers and highlighted by a three-horn fluorish.
´Still Crazy After All These Years´ quieted things down before ´Cecilia´ wrapped up the set. Would Simon stop there? No way. A double encore set followed, including ´You Can Call Me Al,´ the haunting ´Wartime Prayers´ from ´Surprise,´ and the completely unexpected ´Bridge Over Troubled Waters.´ This song will bear Art Garfunkel´s vocal signature forever, with its high, arcing vocals and emotional crescendo, but the brilliance of Simon as the song´s creator was easily born out without his partner from so long ago.
To cap off the ´Surprise´ theme, the sky then exploded in an impressive fireworks display. After a show of such stellar magnitude, it´s probably the only way one´s senses could have been further elevated. Clearly, Paul Simon has no intention of drifting into quiet anonymity ´” thank goodness.