Paul Simon knows me better than I know myself.
Despite the fact I’ve never met the man, he has nonetheless managed to express me and my human condition better than anyone, such that I actually consider one of his earlier works to be my personal theme song.
But this isn’t the only reason I’m a fan…he also writes a nice tune.
And I suspect that one or both of those reasons was responsible for 10,000 people (maybe more) packing into the Ent Cent last Tuesday night.
But before we get to his show, a word about the opening by Rufus Wainwright. Simon explained at the end of the concert that he had been connected with Rufus’ family – especially his mother – over many years. I have already written about Rufus’ last Australian tour here. Having also been at Byron Bay, Rufus was on the festival train and commented about arriving back in Sydney ‘in one piece’ and mentioned a slight headache. I thought he must be joking, because when he sat at the piano and that sublime voice opened up with ‘The Art Teacher’ and continued through the set, I thought he was absolutely at his best. But then he took up his guitar to do ‘Out of the Game’ and one of my personal favourites ‘Jericho’ from the same album. I guess the best that could be said was that it was hit and miss. He was fluffing chords and, as my dad might have said, he was playing like a hairy goat. That’s when I thought he really might have been a bit dusty from too much festival fun. You do have to give it to him, though. He’s a professional and he just bashed away with loads of chutzpah till the end.
But then he got back behind the piano and not a blemish. Not in the voice, not in the performance. And he was extraordinary. I never tire of ‘Montauk’ and the playfulness of ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’. This was the first time I had seen him do ‘Memphis Skyline’/’Hallelujah’ so hearing the intro about Rufus’ Jeff Buckley ‘issues’ and then this wonderful medley was a real treat. By the end of his set, I’d forgotten the hairy goat and was back under the spell of this extraordinary man from a family I’ve made no secret of loving for many years.
So to Paul Simon.
Last time I saw him was 1991 for the Born at the Right Time tour, launched on the back of the South American-infused Rhythm of the Saints album. Back then, I was relatively new to the whole live concert thing and I now realise that I was completely spoiled. It set a very high bar.
I’m not talking about slick perfection or mind-blowing technical stuff. I’ve seen some of the biggest acts in the world and they’re all pretty much of the same high standard. And all artists have their awkward and thoroughly human moments (including Simon). But there’s something about the way he puts a show together that delivers an experience that others, for me, have not achieved. I think it has something to do with the meticulous attention he pays to selecting his musicians. I also think it’s about his arrangements; that ability to pare back a song without losing its richness. And as a known perfectionist, I think there’s also a fair bit of preparation and rehearsal in that mix. I know other artists do all of those things but none of them are, well, Paul Simon.
Looking back at the setlist, it was pretty much wall-to-wall favourites including six songs from Graceland including ‘Gumboots’, ‘That Was Your Mother’, ‘Crazy Love Vol II’, ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’, ‘You Can Call Me Al’ and the title track. I was a little miffed that there was only one song from Rhythm of the Saints (‘The Obvious Child’) but there were more than enough other great hits to be going on with. I was also gratified that he delved back into some works that I’ve not seen him do live before – either recorded or live – and Simon seemed to revel in revisiting them. This included ‘My Little Town’ and ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ (including excellent backdrop photographs).
Whilst everything on the list was a highlight of some sort for fans, I think the truly great moments of the show were when he deviated from his own songbook.
The first of these was when he melted from his stunning ‘Hearts and Bones’ into Junior Parker’s ‘Mystery Train’ and then to Chet Atkins’ ‘Wheels’ via a sneaky few bars of ‘Mona Lisa’ and who knows how many other subtle references (the latter was made famous by Nat King Cole, but was written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston for those playing at home). Driven by the amazing Mark Stewart on lead guitar (a startlingly versatile multi-instrumentalist who has toured with Simon since the mid-90s), this segue was surprising as it was dominated by a straight country rhythm which I had the impression was not Simon’s bag. But he was loving it, and so did we.
The next deviation was in the first encore (there were three!), where they launched into ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Simon’s sweet voice proved the perfect conduit for George Harrison’s tune.
The third was in the last encore. The band struck up the Bo Diddley beat for ‘Pretty Thing’ and the ensemble was doing an excellent job on its own. But for good measure, Bonnie Raitt snuck on stage to lend some percussion and backing vocals. Knowing I was going to see her the following night, this was the perfect preview. It also highlighted to me how rare it is for Australians to see such high calibre cameos. They are more common in the US where artists are literally often just down the road from one another’s performances on a regular basis. I guess we can thank Bluesfest for that.
I also like that Simon was prepared to go a little off script. Citing a mood to try a couple of S&G songs (other than those he’d already prepared), and apologising upfront for being unrehearsed, Simon started ‘Homeward Bound’ with the rest of the band following. What emerged was again a country rhythm that, this time, actually did feel incongruous and seemed to overpower the delicate chorus. I’m not sure who engineered it – possibly Stewart or Simon himself – but the rhythm section got the message and pulled back, and the final result was excellent. I like the fact that he went off script, I like that they tried something, I like that it went a little awry and that they got it back in the end. This is what live performance is.
And then there was the ultimate moment. The final of the three encores and the moment I had been waiting for. You need to know that ‘The Boxer’ for me is up there with ‘Dimming of the Day’ and ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ for all-time beautiful songs. So whatever Simon decided to do with it, I would be happy as long as he played it. So when Rufus came out and lifted this already gorgeous tune with his soaring and sublime harmonies, I confess to an overwhelmingly emotional moment. I’ve heard lots of people do covers of that song, but I’ve never heard the harmony articulated that way. I mean Garfunkel’s performance is quite singular, but Rufus brought something different and all his own. I was definitely speechless.
That said, ever professional, I was also mindful of getting a shot, so here you are…
I think I’ve gushed enough, but it’s no less than you might expect for one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. Argue at your peril.