Paul Simon live at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, Wednesday 29th June, 2011.
THE STAGE is sprawled with instruments: piano, drums, bass, an accordion, numerous guitars (in all shapes and sizes), bongos (and all sorts of percussion), saxophone, trumpets, a flute, and a harmonium perched on top of the B3 Hammond organ. This scene could only be a Paul Simon concert. Yet even with the stage set, you could still sense an air of anticipation, as the crowd who had waited an extra day for the rescheduled event, due to Paul’s throat infection, were concerned with nothing more than whether he would turn up, and if he did, whether it would still be up to standard.
The lights go down and the familiar riff of ‘Crazy love’ rings out and the crowd finally get what they want; Paul’s voice melodiously channels through the audience, and it’s as if there was no infection at all. Leaving no time for talk, the mood quickly changes as they plunge straight into the mellow ‘Dazzling Blue’ from the new album; Paul’s remarkably multi-talented band move seamlessly from Africa to India, as the bongos are swapped for a clay-pot and the sounds of the harmonium and tabla engulf the Apollo.
Four songs in, calm and collected, Paul states “thank you all for coming back today, it really means a lot” at which point the audience, now fully captivated, are equally thankful that they haven’t missed it. Referring to his voice Paul jokes, “It’s almost there, or it’s all there and I can just use it as an excuse” which the latter seems more true, as all gruffness that was evident during his Glastonbury performance appeared to have vanished, and his familiar dulcet tones remained throughout the night, with Paul even managing to hit all the high notes in ‘Slip Sliding Away’.
At Glastonbury there were many complaints about the lack of Simon & Garfunkel material played, and similarly this show was also solo-material-heavy, with only two older numbers included: ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ which was dedicated to “Artie”, and ‘Sound of Silence’ during which the entire band left the stage, leaving just Paul and his acoustic guitar to create the perfect spine-tingling moment. Nevertheless, this was a “Paul Simon” show, and he did play all the “Paul Simon” hits spanning his entire career, from ‘Kodachrome’ to ‘Still crazy after all these years’. Without a doubt, the classics from Graceland were most engrossing, including ‘Gumboots’, ‘The Boy in the Bubble’, ‘That was your mother’ and a stunning version of ‘Diamonds on the Soles of her shoes’ where the whole crowd just couldn’t resist echoing the ‘ta-na-naa’s’. Similarly, ‘The Obvious Child’, which featured raucous percussion solos, received extended applause from the crowd. However, the number that managed to get the audience up off their feet and dancing, was surprisingly ‘Late in the Evening’, with its catchy bassline and Mexican fanfare styled interlude, it certainly proved most enjoyable.
Having seen Simon live five years ago when he released Surprise - which did not feature at all in the set-list (it wasn’t that bad an album Paul!) – this time around although Simon seems to have significantly aged physically, somehow at 69, it feels as though his musicianship just seems to improve. Unlike Surprise, his latest album So Beautiful, or So What, is on par with his best works. The new tracks slipped in comfortably amongst his classics. The album sees Simon moving forward yet, at the same time, still retaining familiarity. Paul incorporates international musical influences, yet uses them in newer, innovative ways: Graceland was all about the riffs; this album is all about the rhythms and intricate techniques. Undoubtedly one of the world’s most profound singer-songwriters, Simon’s success is attributed to the fact that his songs grow with him; the new album sees Simon approaching the subject of growing old in a much more beautiful way than Surprise tried to do. The album greatly addresses notions of eternity and questions religious perceptions; the wistful ‘Questions for the Angels’ really demonstrates Paul’s tactful writing, being both sad, yet witty (my favourite line to recall ‘if every human on the planet and all the buildings on it should disappear, would a zebra grazing in the African Savannah care enough to shed a zebra tear?’). Simon expresses sentiment in simple witticisms, which create unending interpretations of meaning within all his songs; Simon’s genius is even visible through the seemingly straightforward ballad ‘Love and Hard Times’ which truly illustrates Simon’s flair for careful storytelling. Standout track ‘The Afterlife’, shows Simon tackling the fears of growing old and facing life beyond death, however only Paul Simon could take a topic as dire as death and make it witty and thoughtful, in a wise, yet humorously honest way. It’s the work of a masterful composer and combined with his versatile ability to incorporate all sorts of styles, it made for the perfect case of let-the-music-do-the-talking, when performed live.
Not content with just his vast catalogue of solo work, Simon also threw in a few covers, as he carefully blended Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Vietnam’ into ‘Mother and child reunion’. Unexpectedly, his encore included The Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’ which he remarked was to fulfil a “need to remember George”. Ending the night with ‘You can call me Al’, which ignited a standing ovation, I don’t think anyone could have been disappointed with the showcase of sheer musicianship and prowess demonstrated on that stage. The night was truly inspiring, as in some ways it distilled anyone’s fears of growing old, because if Paul Simon is anything to go by, it can only get better with age.