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Paul Simon strolled onstage, and the crowd rose. Standing-O without having played a note or said a word. Yes, this Hollywood crowd – though decidedly graying — was primed, and it was raucous and rolling all night.
And for good reason. Simon delivered an alternately beautiful and boisterous show drenched in the world music he’s become so associated with – but without forgetting that America is part of that world. Along with the African rhythms and island riddims were doses or dollops of blues, country, gospel, soul, New York coffeehouse, pure pop, even an Elvis cover. It was a heady brew.
His graceful knack for rhythm, melody and lyrics – that rare triple threat in rock – have made his catalog essential, but his concerts go far beyond mere recitals. More than a half-century of performing has made Simon a true master of the stage. It’s not that he relies on gimmicky antics, witty banter or showboating; rather, few are more expert in piecing together a set list.
After opening with a deep cut from his most popular album then a swampy-starting one from his brand-new record, Simon knew it was time to throw the pent-up crowd some meat. It took the form of his lone No. 1 single, “50 Way to Leave Your Lover,” which the horns in his eight-piece band brassed up as much as the song’s jilted third party is brassed off. Win.
He followed with the title cut from So Beautiful or So What,which streeted April 8 and debuted at a career-high No. 4 on the Billboard 200. The riffy song had more punch than the punchy studio version, its background flute not soothing its irritated narrator. It was one of five songs from the new record, whose themes touch on spirituality and uncertainty, mortality and anxiety, difficulty and tenacity. All were well played and well received, though he opted not to play its catchy and witty lead single, “The Afterlife.”
Simon had little time for talk during the perfectly paced show, but he offered one nugget before covering Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam.” “This is the song that made me want to go down to Jamaica and record ‘Mother and Child Reunion,’ ” he said. He followed it with that breakthrough solo hit from 1972, to the crowd’s delight.
But his juxtaposition of the two songs stirred thoughts that maybe their pairing was more than just the Jamaica connection. “Reunion” was always a dichotomy – with its jolly, carefree music played over such sullen lyrics as “I can’t for the life of me remember a sadder day” and “this strange and mournful day.” Was this a subtle poke at war? Maybe imagining an awful reunion of mother and battle casualty?
Even if so, Simon offered no time to dwell on it, as the zydeco-soaked “That Was Your Mother” followed. Its fast tempo and wild-times story riled up the room, bringing many to their feet. And Jamey Haddad’s washboard antics drew a roar.
Then … quickly quiet again. As barely a beat passed, the group dropped into the loping groove of “Hearts and Bones.” With the previous song having told of a chance meeting in Louisiana that led to some red wine and easy lovin’, this one studied the complex “arc of a love affair.” And it segued immediately into “Mystery Train,” a shuffling blues that laments how the train “took my baby away from me again.” It, in turn, went country as it morphed into the instrumental “Wheels.”
Just a typically atypical example of Paul Simon set-list mambo.
Ending the set with “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” was a case of giving the people what they want: a chance to get up dance. Again, the old pro’s concert acumen kicked in; he knows how to leave them standing.
When he returned, with everyone still on their feet, Simon was alone onstage with an acoustic guitar. As he hit the familiar opening chords of “The Sound of Silence” – one of only two he played from the Simon & Garfunkel canon – there was a collective, very audible reaction from the patrons, and they quickly sat. It kicked off a six-song encore that capped a nearly 2 1/2-hour show.
Not bad for someone turning 70 this year. Come back anytime, Paul.
Venue: Pantages Theatre, Hollywood (Thursday, April 21)
Crazy Love, Vol. II
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
So Beautiful or So What
Slip Slidin’ Away
Mother and Child Reunion
That Was Your Mother
Hearts and Bones
Love and Hard Times
Peace Like a River
The Obvious Child
The Boy in the Bubble
The Only Living Boy in New York
Love Is Eternal Sacred Light
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
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