These are the facts:
- Paul Simon is one of the greatest songwriters of our time.
- Paul Simon is also 75 years old, and, by his own decision, is coming to the end of his run as a performer.
- Paul Simon is celebrating as much with “one last tour” around the world
So why does it feel like last Friday’s show was a revival instead of a goodbye?
After a subdued set from opener Sarah McLachlan, Simon and his band took the stage Friday night to a sold out amphitheater nestled in the woods of Columbia, MD. Merriweather Post Pavilion, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has hosted some legendary shows in the past, and so it goes that this night may go down as one of Paul Simon’s finest hours.
If you happened to catch Simon on tour last year supporting his most recent album Stranger To Stranger, then you got a glimpse of an artist who was comfortably moving into the future, but still willing to take a few pit-stops to honor his musical past. Stranger, while critically lauded, was a bit of a departure for the legend, incorporating experimental instruments and electronic dance beats into his familiar scenes of congenial New York living and far out terrestrial truths. Where that tour leaned heavy on the newer material, this tour, on paper at least, would likely be considering Simon’s career as a whole. But a funny thing happened on the way to the oldies review: Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, Simon’s long time collaborator and friend, fell ill and was unable to perform at Friday night’s show.
As a result, rather than simply accepting that much of the band’s afropop sheen would be missing for the evening, Simon and the band attacked each song as a challenge. In the oldies heavy set list, classics like “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, and “Mother and Child Reunion” morphed into R&B rave-ups, with “Graceland” finding itself flirting with straight up delta-blues. The vibe was raw and pure, evoking the heyday of a nascent rock and roll that just existed to make people boogie. But it was on songs like “Boy In The Bubble”, “America”, and “The Boxer” where the real magic happened.
Simon has never been one to shy away from politics - almost his entire career is built on trying to make the world a better place. Maybe it was the times, or maybe it was that the crowd was just outside of DC (see “the times”), but for the first time you could hear anger in Simon’s words. That a song like “Boy In The Bubble” that speaks to the horrors of terrorism should be relevant almost thirty years after it was written is horrifying as a singular concept. “America” and “The Boxer,” both hymns to the “American” experience, played like ghostly eulogies delivered in some future wasteland for a time that may be gone and lost forever. If those ideas don’t scare you, don’t infuriate you, then where is the hope that these songs once brought?
“The Obvious Child” was delivered with horn bleats that sounded more like battle cries to announce that the war is HERE, so what are you willing to do about it? This was the power of the evening, the power of realizing that Simon’s songs are time travel - universal - and that the same issues the world was dealing with then are the same issues we are dealing with now… and we’ll be dealing with them long after he's gone. No other song let that truth ring truer than “Homeward Bound”, which Simon ceded vocal duties to the audience after only a verse or two as if to say he was ceding his legacy to the public... we don't need him anymore and maybe we never did. Only his truths that he conjured out of thin air remain, and those have become gospel.
After five encores, Simon was left unaccompanied on stage to perform “The Sound Of Silence.” But before lighting into the iconic song he offered up a thought that carried the weight of a lifetime’s worth of wisdom:
“Anger is an addiction and we are becoming a nation of addicts...and who's the dealer?