The neck of my Guitar
Music review New York Times New York Times

Music Review | Paul Simon
Folkie Still Audacious After All These Years

Published: October 23, 2006

Paul Simon turned 65 a few weeks ago, but it didn´t seem like a big deal. He may be a rock, but he´s not really a rocker, let alone a rolling stone. And that´s convenient, because it means he doesn´t have to strut around in stretch pants, unlike some of his fellow sexagenarians. His fans don´t ask much of him. They don´t want him to impersonate a teenager. They just want him to strum and murmur those wistful songs, singing words written by a young man who was already old at heart.

Paul Simon offered fans tricky new songs and tricked-out old ones at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday.
Fortunately, he still asks a lot of his fans. And at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night, Mr. Simon put on an engrossing and audacious show, full of tricky new songs and tricked-out old ones.

Over the years, his lyrics have grown more particular; unexpected details keep his verses off balance. And as millions of ´Graceland´ fans know, his music has grown more buoyant; two decades after that album, he is still obsessed with clattering, skittering rhythms. Saturday´s concert helped show how those two trends ´” more words, more grooves ´” are really one.

Mr. Simon´s most recent album, ´Surprise´ (Warner Brothers), was released in May, and it is a collaboration with the pioneering electronic producer Brian Eno, who is listed as the creator of the album´s ´sonic landscape.´ That means the musicians are complemented by all sorts of lovely buzzes and hums and electronic beats.

´Surprise´ doesn´t add up to a great album, but it has moments, especially a glorious four-song run at the end. The first of the four is ´Another Galaxy,´ a lightheaded ode to a runaway bride; the last is ´Father and Daughter,´ a lullaby that originally appeared on the soundtrack to ´The Wild Thornberrys Movie,´ a 2002 animated film. Mr. Simon sang that song on Saturday, lingering on a warm, weird analogy: ´I´m gonna stand guard like a postcard of a golden retriever.´

Many of these new songs are made of parts that don´t quite fit ´” aren´t meant to fit, one assumes. Mr. Simon sang ´Wartime Prayers,´ which brings together a meandering verse and a refrain that strains (too hard, perhaps) for grandeur. And he sang ´How Can You Live in the Northeast?´; the song kept unfolding until it had been transformed into a hazy jam session.

All night long, Mr. Simon kept returning to ´Graceland,´ the extraordinary 1986 album he made with South African musicians; it´s an investment that is still paying dividends. He sang 6 of that album´s 11 songs. And Bakithi Kumalo, a bassist who played on that album, remains part of Mr. Simon´s touring band; he locked in with a pair of drummers, including Steve Gadd, who first recorded with Mr. Simon more than three decades ago. When ´Outrageous,´ another new song, morphed into a South African groove, it felt as if Mr. Simon had gone back home.

In the years before and after ´Graceland,´ Mr. Simon has explored everything from salsa to batucada. If this rhythm obsession seems like an odd preoccupation for a mellow folkie, Saturday´s concert showed why it isn´t. Mr. Simon´s obsession with rhythm is related to his obsession with language. By packing his verses full of words, he emphasizes the complicated rhythms of spoken English. He needs a rhythm section that can keep up with his mouth.

You could hear this clearly during a sparse and propulsive version of the title track from ´Graceland.´ One stanza begins:

There is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I´m falling, flying or tumbling in turmoil I say, ´Oh, so this is what she means.´

That´s a mouthful. But if you add a nimble bass line, Mr. Simon sounds less like a chatterbox and more like a great percussionist.

Mr. Simon found ways to bring out the tricky rhythms in older songs, too. When it came time for ´Bridge Over Troubled Water,´ he rephrased the lyrics so that the words emerged in multi-syllable clumps. ´Mrs. Robinson´ received a raucous rockabilly makeover. And he ended the concert with a sprightly, bluegrass-inflected version of ´The Boxer,´ featuring his opening act, the Dobro player Jerry Douglas.

Through it all, he seemed slightly uncomfortable, which is probably no coincidence. With those tangled-up words and rhythms, Mr. Simon´s best music (and, sometimes, his worst) is pretty uncomfortable, too. And in that sense, this fidgety night was, among many other things, a homecoming concert ´” one with more than a hint of nervous energy ´” that suited both the man and the city. ´I always say to myself, ´Just another show,´ he said, near the beginning. ´But, ehhh ´” it´s not the case.´

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