BY DAVID MENCONI - [email protected]
DURHAM -- Paul Simon has always been a globetrotter, employing worldly rhythms and percussion long before the rest of the Western pop universe caught on. Nowadays, however, he seems more interested in bringing everything back home - and he definitely pulls it off.
Simon rolled into a sold-out Durham Performing Arts Center on Thursday night with an eight-piece ensemble that was a fascinating combination of black, white, east, west, head and heart. With Simon at the lead, the ensemble combined elements of Cajun soul, cutting blues-rock, South African township jive, doo wop, reggae, island salsa, gospel revival and soul revue into what sounded like the world´s wordiest zydeco band. Or maybe the world´s funkiest folk-rock band.
Whatever you want to call it, it was an incredibly cool two-hour set, and the band was one of the best I´ve ever seen. It was sort of like watching the 1927-era Yankees or the ´Showtime´-era Lakers at work. Even the drum solo was a pleasure to watch.
Back in his 1960s-vintage breakthrough period, Simon always wore his youth uneasily, mostly because his sort of alienation always seemed a lot more grownup than the peace-and-love naÃ¯vetÃ© of his peers. There´s nobody better at capturing that feeling of being lonely and alone in a crowd, even if the crowd is only two people.
Perhaps that´s why his songs have aged so well. ´The Boy in the Bubble´ opened the show, a song from 1986 that still sounds brand new. And it´s a song that has never stopped evolving over the past quarter-century; nowadays it sounds like third-world blues rock, menacing as ever.
The 22-song set had the requisite iconic crowd-pleasers, including ´The Sound of Silence´ in a solo acoustic rendition with flamenco flourishes on guitar; ´Mother and Child Reunion,´ now more of a reggae song than ever before; ´Slip Slidin´ Away´ as doo-wop by way of Johannesburg; and a lovely version of the Beatles´ ´Here Comes the Sun´ on acoustic guitars and accordion.
But the more recent and obscure songs more than held their own, including ´Dazzling Blue,´ ´Rewrite´ and ´The Afterlife´ from Simon´s new album ´So Beautiful or So What.´
´Hearts and Bones,´ title track to his underrated (and unjustly overlooked) 1983 album, was heart-stoppingly gorgeous, and it served as lead-in to a medley that included Elvis Presley´s ´Mystery Train´ and the Chet Atkins instrumental ´Wheels´ - with drummer Jim Oblon playing very capable lead guitar. It came together seamlessly.
All the musicians multi-tasked on multiple instruments, most notably lead guitarist Mark Stewart, who chipped in on saxophone between solos. The other guitarist was Vincent Nguini, whose angular playing meshed with Stewart´s studio-cat vibe in tones and patterns of strange beauty. The rolling rhythms and occasional African scat vocals of bassist Bakithi Kumalo (a Simon sideman since 1986´s ´Graceland´) added a dizzying quantity of dimensions .
Here´s hoping that Simon, now 70, can keep doing this a long time, because he´s never been better.
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