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Paul Simon at the Music Box on Tuesday April 19th, 2011

 Late Tuesday afternoon, in line for his show at the Music Box in Los Angeles, I was happy to see that, at 69, he is still able to draw a crowd of all ages. Indeed, I myself have a long story with Paul Simon, but who doesn’t? He has been writing songs for longer that I have been alive,… but yeah I have a long loving story with him, since I have been listening to him for about 30 years… I can hardly believe it. When I was a child, my aunt was listening to Simon and Garfunkel, but I rediscovered him when, adolescent, I watched their reunion concert in Central Park in 1981 and realized I had always known the songs without being fully aware of it.

I was living in New York when he did his second (solo this time) concert in Central Park ten years later, and I got to see him with hundreds of thousand people. Since, I have seen him several times in concert, years have passed, but there is still this special attachment to all these memories, and each time the excitement to see someone who has managed to survive so long in the music world. Needless to say that I don’t go to a Paul Simon concert as I go to any other show, it’s a little bit special because of this long history. 

Once inside the Music Box and trying to find a front row spot, I was surrounded by people in their 20s, happily chatting about their recent Coachella experience, one of them telling me it was his first Paul Simon show,… me? I have lost count,… but does it mean he is even cool with young hipsters?

The will-call ticketing had slowed down the process, and it took what it seemed an eternity for the large crowd to enter the theater. I don’t know when the show exactly started, but it was way after the previously announced 8pm, which let me the time to observe all the stuff set up on stage, numerous guitars, trumpet, saxophone, several keyboards, a grand piano, accordion, drum/percussion sets,… it was hard to do an inventory, as he is probably one of the musicians who uses the most instruments on stage, many members of his excellent band being multi-instrumentalists.

When they finally arrived on stage and started right away with a familiar tune from his Graceland album, ‘Crazy Love Vol II’, I think I got these spine chills,… it had been so long, too long, I was way back in time, and this song pleasantly started a thrilling time-machine concert of about 25 songs with two encores.

As always, Simon was at ease on stage, going from old classics – and I am talking ’50 Ways to leave your Lover’ or ‘Mother and Child reunion’ or even ‘Peace like a river’ – to new ones, from his last album, without giving us any indication that almost four decades were separating some of these songs. The multitude of instruments were bringing some jazzy elements here, more gospel rhythms there and of course a large African touch all over the place, taking all sorts of liberties with his own material,… but if you have followed his career, he has been doing that all along. Everything was running so smoothly, so perfectly and, oh a thing so rare in concert these days, you could hear distinctly each instrument.

It certainly helps that many of the musicians have been touring with Paul Simon since the Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints’ tours, like ‘his majesty’ – as Simon himself introduced him – guitarist Vincent Nguini, or bassist Bakithi Kumalo and multi-instrumentalist Tony Cedras. But if the always polyvalent Mark Stewart, the saxophonist Andy Snitzer and percussionist Jamey Haddad have been playing with him since 1999, there were a few new comers, like pianist/percussionist Mick Rossi and guitarist/drummer Jim Oblon, whom Simon did not forget to present at the end of the show. Rossi, in particular, had the difficult task to reproduce the kora part on piano for ‘Rewrite’, and did a nice piano jazz ending on ‘Peace like a River’.

They did an unexpected cover of Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Viet Nam’, and didn’t even take a breath before playing the Reggae-inspired ‘Mother and Child Reunion’, all brightened up with guitar, saxo and trumpet. Another rather surprising one was the country cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘Mystery Train’, followed by the classic instrumental ‘Wheels’.

The set was quite heavy on Graceland’s songs and older material, and with nothing from his 2006 and 2000 albums, ‘Surprise’ and ‘You’re the One’, only 5 songs from his new album, and a lot of crowd pleasers (‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, ‘The Obvious Child’, ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’, ‘Gumboots’, ‘Late in the evening’, ‘Kodachrome’, ‘Boy in the Bubble’ to name a few), he was surely not taking too many risks, but I couldn’t have cared less!
There was a nice saxo addition on ‘Hearts and Bones’, just when he says ‘This is how I love you baby’, and the song was one of these beautiful intimate moments when the crowd becomes silent and contemplative. However the crowd started a hand clapping on ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’, and a sing-along on songs like ‘Kodachrome’ and ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, all glowing with this bright trumpet part.

When playing ‘Rewrite’, Simon was showing his superb guitar skills, fast sliding his fingers on the neck of his instrument to get this special precipitated effect in the exact middle of the song, and he produced this weird loud noise at one point which made him laugh and point his two first fingers on his forehead, in a sort of I-should-shoot-myself funny gesture.

During a rare pseudo-silence in between two songs, one of my friendly neighbors shouted ‘The Obvious Child’, a song he really wanted to hear, and oh serendipity (or did Paul hear him?) they played it in the following seconds, making him suddenly so happy he couldn’t believe it.

As I was noting the song titles, one of the two security guards in front of me asked me in the middle of the show ‘How many songs so far?’… ’15!’ I answered,… ‘All right!’ he replied with a large smile, visibly into the music as much as everyone else. I got to attend a few concerts lately, and in the large majority of them, the security guards had this bored look all along, looking at their watches all the time,… but not these two guys, who were foot tapping since the beginning, totally enjoying the music.

The show was long, it probably lasted more than two hours and I lost track of time. But it did not stop people calling the band back twice, loudly thumping the floor, and the two encores brought their part of nostalgia with ‘Sounds of Silence’ and George Harrison’s cover ‘Here comes the Sun’, as well as their part of exhilarating energy with ‘Late in the Evening’, and ‘The Boy in the Bubble’, before appropriately ending the show with ‘Still Crazy After all These Years’. Ah Paul, I had a little forgotten about you after all these years, but on Tuesday night, I realized we can never forget about the ones we have loved.

Setlist:
1. Crazy Love Vol II
2. Dazzling Blue
3. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
4. So Beautiful and So What
5. Viet Nam (Jimmy Cliff cover)
6. Mother and Child reunion
7. Getting ready for Christmas day
8. That was your mother
9. Hearts and Bones
10. Mystery train (Elvis Presley cover!)/ Wheels (instrumental)
11. Slip Slidin’ away
12. Rewrite
13. Peace like a river
14. The Obvious Child
15. The Only Living Boy in New York
16. Love Is Eternal Sacred Light
17. Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes
18. Gumboots

Encore
19. Sounds of Silence
20. Kodachrome/Gone at last
21. Here comes the sun
22. Late in the evening

Second encore
23. The Boy in the bubble
24. Still Crazy After all These Years

 

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