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.

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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).

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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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Rufus Wainwright – Live at Sydney Opera House; September 9, 2012

It took a while to decide what I thought about the encore.

But before we get to that, let’s start at the beginning.

Krystle Warren. My personal discovery of Krystle was through the Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake concert held in the Concert Hall at the Opera House in November last year. My review of that concert and my first impressions of her are recorded here in this blog. I’m afraid I missed the start of her set, but I arrived in time to hear her discussing her jet lag and that she would be limiting conversation – a promise soon forgotten as she interrupted her own song to have a light-hearted go at the incredibly sickly audience who seemingly couldn’t stop coughing. Nonetheless her performance was, as I knew it would be, mindblowing. That voice with its dust and depth – lazy comparisons often feature Nina Simone – is just astonishing. And then her interpretation: colour and light delivered through her physical questioning and answering at the mike; interrogating, probing, shying away, returning. And then that moment when she opens her voice out. You can see she isn’t even trying. No protruding veins, no strain. There’s more in the tank, but hey, it’s only the Concert Hall, no need to shout.

After Krystle came Megan Washington. I saw her at Sydney Festival First Night this year, and she was upbeat and poppy and totally absorbed in her moment. This time, the absorption was there, but it was (necessarily) a tighter and more intense experience – just her and her keyboard. She realised the intensity she was bringing, apologising for such melancholy musings, before easing us into her next tale of heartbreak. I have made no secret of my impatience with the modern female singer category which I call the ‘breathy ingenue’ but I don’t put Washington in this set. Her voice definitely has some sweetness, but she has the ability to transition from open clarity to cracks and grain to quiet despair and back to joy and power. It’s a diversity which has delivered her a great deal of respect and love in the music community. She’s also a bit of a laugh. She has a droll sense of humour which is very engaging, such that those thoroughly human moments of stumbling over her words when describing her awe at the company she was keeping that night were charmingly managed. My personal highlight in terms of performance was actually not one of her songs but a cover of Rowland S Howard’s ‘Shivers’. Other reviewers commented they thought it was dragged out, and I can see what they’re saying, but it didn’t detract for me.

Now for Rufus.

It started with Rufus and band coming onto a stage lit only with flickering LED candles to open with an a capella version of ‘Candles’ from Out of the Game. It was nicely done and the darkness gave us a heightened aural platform for appreciating his superior voice and the talent among his band. They merged wonderfully. The moment also reminded me of seeing his father open a show at the Union Chapel in Islington in a similar way, mounting the pulpit in the dark to deliver Steve Goodman’s powerful protest ‘The Ballad of Penny Evans’ a capella. Funny what parallels the mind can draw.

The sudden lighting of the stage revealed all band members wearing sunglasses and Rufus resplendent in the all-white mirror-ball-style suit he had worn for his recent marriage to long-time partner Jorn Weisbrodt. My immediate thought was that he had been to Chris Isaak’s tailor.

What followed was a joyous mix of Rufus’s take on pop, rock, country, folk and Judy Garland which was totally infectious. This was a man in love and the show was a celebration.

Now for the details. First of all, Rufus’ voice is a jewel of a thing. It has diamond-clarity and precision. However it also sometimes has a nasal quality which I find can be hard to take in large doses. Thankfully this wasn’t an issue as he swung easily between the genres which combine to create his singular personal style and create enough variety by asking different things of his wonderful vocal skills.

The man is also a virtuoso in the classical sense. You can hear it in the key selection, progressions and phrasing in a song like ‘Montauk’. It takes no small talent to write an opera (as he has recently done) and Rufus’ more familiar works are infused with that gift and sensibility.

I particularly loved the performances of songs from the new album Out of the Game especially the title track, the aforementioned ‘Montauk’ and the stunning ‘Jericho’ which I have since been unable to get enough of. Other old favourites like ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’ kept the crowd, and me, very happy.

This is ‘Jericho’ for those not familiar:

Rufus’ banter was also what I would expect from this sharp-witted family but he adds a little extra wickedness for good measure.

But the show wasn’t all about Rufus.

Since the tragic passing of their mother, Kate McGarrigle, both he and his sister Martha have included tributes to her in their shows. Martha’s performances in her Piaf show last year were goosebump material as she wrestled her own emotions to honour her mother’s craft. It would be a flimsy exercise in amateur psychology to try to understand why Rufus chose to leave it to others. Perhaps he needed a proxy in order to protect the unbridled high of his recent nuptials. Who cares, it was inspired.

First the superb Teddy Thompson came forward, alone but for piano accompaniment, and delivered ‘Saratoga Summer’ in a way which highlighted his beautiful voice and wonderful range. He has made this song his own in recent years and I can see why it’s a favourite.There was an appropriate intensity and tone as he painted Kate’s picture of whimsy and regret at the fading of a summer past. One UK critic noted it made them feel sad for a summer they’d never experienced, which is a nice way to put it. It was a completely gorgeous performance and one you should be able to experience – so click below.

And then came Krystle. I’ve waxed lyrical enough about her, but you should be given the opportunity to understand why. Here’s her performance of Kate McGarrigle’s ‘I Don’t Know’.

So through a combination of Rufus’ wondrous talent and his selection of players, this was a sublime concert which basically made me happy.

But before I close, I must mention the encore.

Some reviewers have been scathing, others lighthearted. It was what I would call a Gay Messiah Bacchanale. It was a heady mix of exuberance, joy, weirdness, self-indulgence and any number of adjectives you might associate with a man on a high after his wedding and who’s looking to shake things up and have a bit of fun. I don’t know that a description will help, but it was like a sketch featuring some bizarre dialogue, the song ‘Gay Messiah’, an extremely buff cupid, Rufus in a toga, some eye-popping (and not entirely explained) props and half the band in their reg grundies.

However, the end result was that I laughed. I laughed a lot. And I danced, and I just did what Rufus asked because I didn’t want to kill the mood – not just the mood in the room, but my own personal mood. I’d had a lovely day, and this concert had been a complete and soul filling experience.

For that I am grateful.