Last October in his Brill Building songwriting suite, with a characteristic combination of caution and confidence, Paul Simon told Q that his forthcoming series of live shows would be ´intricate, interesting and ...´ he paused, searching, as he so often does in his lyric writing, for the right sounding word, ´hopefully inspired. ´
Three months later, advertisements appeared in the press announcing the dates and, unusually. the repertoire of songs that would be played. This included Simon & Garfunkel classics, solo Simon standards and selections from his new South American-spiced LP The Rhythm Of The Saints. The nightly set, British followers of the diminutive genius were left to assume, would be drawn from this impressive inventory.
And so it came to be. A 17-piece band (featuring four Brazilian percussionists, a brass section led by one-time Brecker Brother, Michael, a rhythm section driven by Steve Gadd the session drummer they ask for by name- and quicksilver-fingered South African Graceland guitarist. Chikapa ´Ray´ Phiri were skilfully drilled into shape by Simon and the Born At The Right Time Tour, representing the short songsmith´s 20-yeor career. set sail.
´I don´t know how to say this,´ says Simon, not unaffected by the emotion of he occasion. ´It´s very special to be home. We´re just the best.´ Curiously enough, the 18.000 burger and beerhanded New Yorkers currently occupying this place they call ´The Garden´ seem to agree. ´Whooh!´ They go. ´Yeaaah! Awlright.´ An alarming proportion opt to celebrate the homecoming by paraphrasing Simon´s song Late In The Evening and smoking themselves a ´J´. Three numbers in, the air seems to have taken on a green tinge and he hitherto unprecedented notion of getting passively stoned starts to become a reality.
Kicking oft with The Obvious Child´s awesome Latin clatter of snare drums, Simon proves to be a model of vocal versatility - moving easily, as the song decrees, from bitter rock´n´roll campaigner to resigned choirboy. Vigorously strumming a jumbo block acoustic, he manfully jumps continents and leads the band into The Boy In The Bubble, the bounding, rubber-bossed techno-fear anthem with its ´bomb in the baby carriage´, ´lasers in the jungle´ and ´constellation dying in the corner of the sky´. Maintaining a steady cruising tempo through She Moves On, Kodachrome and Born At The Right Time, he steers into his earliest attempt at North-and-South American fusion, Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard, and then logically on to the new Proof with its parping Brazilian brass and hip-swivelling carnival climax.
The heady, hot-blooded rhythm sparks on spontaneous outbreaks of frugging both on stage and off. Throughout he crowd, well-nourished Americans gamefully attempt to samba, rhumba and quite possibly mambo while, centrestage, Paul Simon performs a thought-provoking variation on The Twist and beats on Armande Sabal´s bass strings with a pair of drum sticks.
´Paul worked us real hard on that one in rehearsal,´ says Steve Gadd later, with the diplomacy unique to session musicians. ´It took a lot of effort to intergrate my drums with the percussion guys and then brass parts. Everyone had to simplify whet they do so that together it would be strong. My role is to hold the rhythm down, which isn´t always as easy as it sounds.
Bridge Over Troubled Water is reworked so thoroughly that its own mother would have problems until the vocals start. Even then there are gospelised, four-part harmonies with Simon in the preacher role. It settles into a reggae-like version which lacks the piano-pounding drama of the original, but which enhances he lyrics´ soothing sentiment and ignites the inevitable Zippo forest fire.
´I´ve played Bridge Over Troubled Water with Paul many times,´ says Gadd, ´and in a lot of different ways and situations, but this version of it, I love. I actually look forward to it. Although he goes on to express regret that 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover which was originally constructed around his uniquely off-beat drum pattern - slipped on to the substitutes´ bench early in the tour.
The Cool, Cool River from The Rhythm Of The Saints follows. This could be construed as a more cynical, less hopeful extension of Bridge Over Troubled Water. The metaphorical water, although no longer turbulent, now flows through an unjust, ecologically unfriendly, Godless world. It´s a bleak bubbling Brazilian blues with Simon concluding that ´sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears´. The song doesn´t so much end as float away. ´Whooh !´ go the crowd. ´Yeaah! Awlright
Mid-way through the two-hour set, there is a frankly unwelcome and unsettling instrumental intermission. fronted by the left-of-jazz funk saxophone of Michael Brecker. Brecker may well be a celebrated jazz honker and Gadd -who takes the opportunity to solo uninhibitedly - may equally be the best rock drummer in the world but this type of ´free´ and excessive extemporisation can make you go blind.
Choosing to ignore this health warning, Brecker and Gadd trade technically impressive jazz ´chops´ and grimace in the fashion peculiar to musicians the world over. An obviously unenlightened section of the audience takes this lesson in advanced musical intellectualising as the cue to go for a wee.
Eighteen long minutes later Brecker takes a bow and Paul Simon resumes his rightful place in the spotlight. The Coast and Graceland shimmer by much like the latter´s Mississippi delta. Then the familiar synth intro of You Can Cell Me Al causes an unsightly audience eruption and Simon assumes the crouched position, preparing once again to redefine the word ´dance´. The song is a huge success. So huge, in fact, that Simon smiles and says, ´We´re gonna do that again.´ And they do, start to finish, note for note, backwards bass solo and all. It makes for a quite surreal vision: an arena full of people joyously howling along to words that make no sense whatsoever. Even, one suspects, to their author. ´if you be my bodyguard/I can be your long lost pal,´ they sing with noisy conviction. ´I can call you Betty/ And Betty when you call me/ You can call me Al.
Nostalgia buds are dutifully tweaked by Still Crazy After All These Years - during which Brecker all but redeems himself with a gorgeous sax solo- Cecilia and Late In The Evening. whose aforementioned ´J´ is woozily cheered, serving as a reminder to the dopier devotees that there´s still time to skin up before the encores.
Laudably resisting an immediate lapse into greatest hit-milking territory, the first of these encores is a lonesomely fingerpicked Hearts And Bones, the title track of on unjustly bargain-binned album. The mood is temporarily lifted by a jubilant Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, culminating in a percussive firework display by Mingo Aruaja, Cyro Baptista, Dom Chacal and shameless showman Sidinho. Then it´s back down in tempo for a bit of ´Kathy, I´m lost...´(America) and ´I am just a poor boy...li ii ii etc´ (The Boxer) which receive a genuinely emotional and richly deserved standing ovation.
Simon returns, solo, for a second encore with an electric guitar upon which he gently plucks a couple of notes, then welcomes back his old friend darkness . . . To rejuvenate a song like Sounds Of Silence without risking the complete cosmetic overhaul is quite a feat and Simon accomplishes this brilliantly. By the time he is walking alone in restless dreams, the audience are on their feet, swaying in approximate time and murmuring reverentially: a cherished moment of calm in a neurotic city.
As the final chord decays into roof-elevating applause, the troubled little man in the black jacket and jeans graciously accepts a red rose and humbly bids his people good night.