Paul Simon – Live at Sydney Entertainment Centre; Tuesday April 2, 2013

Paul Simon Image

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.

Rufus Wainwright image

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.

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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.

Paul Simon image

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).

Paul Simon Image

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.

Mark Stewart Image

Mark Stewart

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.

Bonnie Raitt Paul Simon concert image

Bonnie Raitt

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…

Paul Simon Rufus Wainwright Image

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.

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Gomez – Live at The Factory, Wed August 3, 2011

Gomez Live at The Factory

It took me 13 years, but I got there in the end.

At the risk of coming across as rubbish for someone who calls themselves a music fan, I must admit it’s taken 13 years from the time I first heard of Gomez to actually seeing them live this week.

The story is a short one. I was living in the UK in 1998. My UK music friend, the one who referred me to Chinagrass music (see earlier post), and I had been going to see as many acts as we could while I was there (including Dr John, Alabama 3, John Hiatt, Bonnie Raitt, Eddi Reader and Boo Hewerdine and others). He mentioned this new act called Gomez were playing in Camden Town so we rocked up to the front door of the venue only to find they were completely sold out. Exactly. I’m rubbish. So we spent the evening in a nearby pub. As you do.

Since then however, I’ve bought most of their albums and, whenever I heard a new track of theirs on the radio, almost subliminally connected to the sound before I realised who I was listening to.

So it beggars belief that it’s taken this long – but there you are.

So 13 years later, what was it like?

I was hoping to get a real sense of the musicianship that I respond to so much on their albums. I got it. These guys are not just good at what they do – they seem to be good at what everyone else in the band does as well. Gomez appears to shape-shift on almost every song, with Tom Gray swapping from rhythm guitar to keyboard to bass, and Ian Ball jumping on the keyboards to take a break from rhythm. All of them sing, almost all of them write the songs. Even the drummer played a tambourine (you’re right – doesn’t count). I know there are a lot of versatile musicians in the world – I just don’t see it that often in indie land. Of course, I’m happy to be corrected.

These guys also appear to have a mind-boggling collection of guitars – acoustic, semi-acoustic and electrics – between which they alternate at every song. I’d hate to be their roadie. Too much like hard work.

I was also interested to see how live Gomez might achieve the sound they get in the studio. I tend to think of them as being a little like Wilco, always tinkering with new sounds whilst injecting influences from so many different styles and legacies. Of course it turns out it’s easy – technology has taken care of much of that. And that’s something I’m grateful for these days. 20 years ago, using technology in a live performance smacked of bad lip syncing and excruciating howlers as horrified muppets got caught out when the backing tape jammed. Now it’s a non-issue and for bands like Gomez, the ability to bring their whole bag of tricks along means we get what we came for.

And I guess that’s why I really liked this show. I wanted to see Gomez because I like what they do. And they delivered what they do in spades.

Standouts for me were ‘Bring It On’, ‘Revolutionary Kind’, ‘Whippin’ Picadilly’ ‘Girlshapedlovedrug’ and Tom Gray getting his growl on for ‘Fill My Cup’.

I also love the contrasting vocals. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a voice like Ben Ottewell’s. It’s certainly big and gritty and all those words. But it also has the versatility that encapsulates what Gomez is about. I’m currently listening to the infectious ‘See The World’ with Ottewell coming over all sweet and sending it trippingly across my ears. But then try ‘Get Miles’ or ‘Bring It On’ and it’s like someone’s taken to his vocal chords with a rasping file – and simultaneously sent me a-quiver. Pretty sure that’s not a word. Whatever. Let’s just say it’s a magnificent thing when you’re in the room.

Then there’s Ian Ball’s lighter, sweeter sound – a touch of the Shins? Whilst Tom Gray has moments where he sounds like he’s channelling Damon Albarn or (dare I say it) a Gallagher, even Travis-like? Then in something like ‘Fill My Cup’ I’m getting Sergeant Pepper. I sound like I’m tasting wine now. But that’s not a bad analogy – because with these three seemingly unlikely ingredients – or notes – in the vocals, you get an altogether singular flavour and finish.

So was it worth the wait? Not a doubt in my mind.

And I might just say – what a venue. The Factory at Marrickville is a great room. Tiered floor space, wonderful ageing art deco interior, some St Vinnie’s sofas and a bar. And with the outdoor bar and merchandising area essentially in a shed out the front, it’s all pretty low-key – like you’re at a barbie in your friend’s carport. Really welcoming.

Although I have to note – I’m worried about what’s happened to the Inner West I used to know and love. Having previously lived about 5 minutes from the Factory and various other IW locations, I was expecting that edginess and attitude the IW is known for. But no – here was a crowd full of happy, polite, attitude-free punters getting right into the music, but checking they didn’t block your photo or stomp on you as they jumped about. Or was that just at the back? Seemed like everyone ‘cos even the sweaty ones at the front were smiley. Just something I noticed.

Here’s the happy ‘See The World’ – just to capture that glow:

Anyway – thanks Gomez – let’s not wait another 13.