Bournemouth International Centre
Thursday 3rd November 2016. 20.00
The Boy In the Bubble
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
That Was Your Mother
Mother and Child Reunion
Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard
The Obvious Child
Stranger to Stranger
El Condor Pasa (Instrumental)
The Cool, Cool River
Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes
You Can Call Me Al
Still Crazy After All These Years
Late In the Evening
One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor
The Sound of Silence
Impressionistic iPhone picture
First off, Paul Simon , at 76, puts most thirty-something / early forty-something British folkie bands to shame. In an area where most artists think a “show” is a support act of a nervous girl with a guitar for thirty-minutes, plus a main set which is just five or ten permissible minutes clipped short of the contracted ninety minutes, Paul Simon delivers a full two hour twenty minute show. No support. No interval. Not only that, as well as a large band, Paul is a constant participant as leader, playing guitar, clapping, dancing. He puts on a show that should also shame our new Nobel laureate in terms of commitment, vocal power and sheer energy. Actually, we thought him more energetic and in better voice than ten years ago, and one year ago.
Paul Simon over this 2016 tour is quite consistent on setlists, in strict contrast to Ralph McTell two days earlier, or Simone Felice a few weeks back. Still, a poet and a one man band has more flexibility. When the arrangements and innovative lighting plot are as carefully rehearsed as this, you can’t just play different songs every night. Having said that, I’d checked on setlist.com, and we got America in place of Slip Sliding Away, and Graceland instead of I Know What I Mean.
The set list has its fixtures. I guess the strongest has become Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes / You Can Call Me Al which has closed the main set for years. Graceland does pretty well with The Boy In The Bubble, That Was Your Mother and Graceland, as well as Gumboots.
This year The Rhythm of The Saints from 1992 is featuring strongly with four tracks The Obvious Child, Spirit Voices, Proof (done as an instrumental), The Cool Cool River, perhaps because it’s the kind of rhythm section work that fits with this year’s Stranger to Stranger material. Perhaps because Paul Simon mentions that “some people rate it better than Graceland.” It was getting even more attention in 2000 too, but none at all in 2006. The album has always suffered in public perception because it came right after the massive success of Graceland so that there was only one way for sales to go. Down.
In contrast You’re The One from 2000 gets no tracks Surprise from 2006? Nothing. 2011’s So Beautiful or So What gets just the two, Dazzling Blue and Rewrite. OK, we weren’t expecting anything from Songs From The Capeman. But nothing from Hearts & Bones? My most played Paul Simon tracks this year are Hearts & Bones and Renee & Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War.
Google lists the albums in order of current popularity:
1 Graceland 2 Stranger to Stranger 3 Rhythm of The Saints 4 Hearts & Bones 5 Still Crazy After All These Years 6 There Goes Rhymin’ Simon 7 Songs From the Capeman (what?) 8 Paul Simon’s Concert In The Park 9 You’re The One 10 Negotiations and Love Songs
Is that number of hits online? Amazon sales? Downloads? Weirdly, 1972’s Paul Simon is not on the list of twenty at at all. It contributed three songs tonight … Mother & Child Reunion, Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard and Duncan. Is Google fallible? Amazon has it fourth in the list, and they work on sales, I assume.
The new one, Stranger to Stranger has three songs, Stranger to Stranger, The Werewolf and Wristband. It seems almost perverse to skip the heavily played best track, Cool Papa Bell, but Paul Simon was naming those three way back at the start of the American tour. You’d think Cool Papa Bell would fit the Rhythm of The Saints style perfectly.
As more albums arrive, stuff has got to drop out of the set to admit new material. The earlier material has fixed its place, sadly a sign that audiences (as with The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney) are harking back to the early years, so that the victims of the cull are the great tracks from the last twenty years. Like everyone else, we’re down to “early hits” plus most recent album. Obviously, Paul Simon knows the comparative sales figures of the neglected records. I noticed that Homeward Bound got the most applause of the evening up to that point. By The Boxer and The Sound of Silence, the entire audience was standing and applauding wildly anyway.
An innovation this year was interspersing the show with instrumentals. It starts out with Gumboots before Paul comes on. Later El Condor Pasa is an instrumental (with Paul playing). The first encore is welcomed in by an instrumental take on Proof, then there is a Mark Stewart guitar showcase on Wheels.
Most of the arrangements have shifted a tad. Paul Simon’s skill is in refreshing the songs, refreshing the instrumentation, but never, never losing either melody nor lyric. The band are constantly changing instruments, so we can have four or five percussionists, two drummers, up to four pieces in the horn section, four guitars (including Paul Simon), piano and Hammond. We had trumpets, French horns, three kinds of saxophone. Bakithi Kumalo had electric basses, electric double bass, two small four stringed instruments as well as playing drums and percussion.
The Boy In The Bubble sounded jazzier with a slippery eliding bass guitar solo and a new clap along ending, as did the already jazzy Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover. That added beautiful Hammond work.
The first highlight for me was a shimmering version of Dazzling Blue. I love that song. Afterwards Paul chatted about playing to an English speaking audience at last, perhaps hoping for more appreciation of the lyrics after the Continental European leg of the tour. Someone called out something about Paul once playing Bournemouth on exactly the same date. We got a story about missing the last train to London, and he and Kathy having to sleep on the promoter’s floor and catch the morning train. Kathy … of Kathy’s Song. That dates it to the Paul Simon Songbook era when he was living in England. He said a few years ago that he recalled playing a folk club here. He then mentioned twice “That was thirty-six years ago” … oddly, because it would be, frighteningly, fifty three years ago if we’re talking about the folk clubs / Al Stewart era. To me it points it to Dave Steele’s Folk Club, on Monday evenings at the Disques A GoGo, where Al Stewart was a regular. Corrections welcomed!
That Was Your Mother saw the band really taking off and rocking out, with swirling Zydeco accordion. Let’s not go into Los Lobos’s dispute over the original.
Rewrite impressed me more than it has before. There was a piano section, but Paul also did a lengthy whistling section at the end.
America wasn’t on the other setlists I looked at. Sorry as I was to lose my beloved Slip Sliding Away, America has a special place for me. In my early years of language teaching there was an open reel tape of it in the school. I had a great lesson on America. I am also, as I realized, word perfect … but I am on several of them. I wondered if it was planned, or whether the earlier mention of Kathy inspired it … Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping. The big surprise was a blindingly powerful Mark Stewart guitar solo to round it off.
This is where we really had to start moving to the music. Mother & Child Reunion was great, but Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard was even better. Paul Simon was playing vigorous rhythm guitar and had a section at the end focussing on his rhythm work.
The lengthy spoken introduction to Spirit Voices finally made sense of the lyric. It was radically different to the Rhythm of The Saints version too … less ethereal, more powerful. Then for The Obvious Child we had five or six people drumming. Several times, Bakithi Kumalo played drums rather than bass.
Stranger to Stranger never got under my skin on the album. Perhaps it will now. I was disappointed by the title of the album, as an early press release had it as “Stranger and Stranger” which I took to be a reference to “How terribly strange to be seventy” on Bookends. I reckon it’s a better title. Grumble. Paul just sang, no guitar in hand. It sounded more lounge singer in a way … not the lyric at all … but the coolness. I thought of it as we filed out at the end of the evening, and Frank Sinatra’s awful swinging rendition of Mrs Robinson was playing on the PA … ironically I assume, though maybe he was flattered Frank did it at all. At least Paul is NOT going the Dylan route and trying to emulate Sinatra. Stranger to Stranger is a far … er, stranger … melody than lounge stuff. There was just something in the rendition.
As mentioned earlier Homeward Bound got the biggest applause so far. He started it as if solo, then the band came in gently to lift it. What is that warm nostalgia buzz that overwhelms you hearing these things? Though Paul Simon’s audience had a wide age range and a 50/50 gender mix.
A fine instrumental El Condor Pasa – Mark Stewart to the fore on flute … it gave his voice a break, and it segued into Duncan.
Paul demonstrated the weird ethnic instrument … a gift … that inspired The Werewolf. I liked it better than the record too. Mark Stewart played what looked like a didgeridoo. He’s fast becoming the hero of the band tonight. I noticed in instrumental sections he seemed to be conducting the proceedings too.
Cameroon guitarist Vincent Nguini stepped up to the mic to give is a long funny (no spoiler) intro to The Cool Cool River. Another Rhythm of The Saints song that I thought was radically reimagined. Beefed up, perhaps. Anthemic? As Vincent pointed out, he has been with Paul Simon for twenty-five years.
Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes leads into a drum solo that breaks into You Can Call Me Al. At the start, Paul gestures, and the entire flat seating area stood up as one and shimmied. As you do. It’s the fourth time I’ve seen that work. Diamonds is my wife’s all-time favourite song. Bakithi Kumalo and Vincent Nguini excel as usual. What a bass player that guy is! That was the bows point. No band intros unfortunately.
The first encore set opens with Wristband. Wristband becomes the flag bearer for Stranger to Stranger. I’m in two minds on the song I stepped outside the back stage door to breathe some nicotine may be the first song to reference vaping, as well as reminding us of Late In The Evening where I stepped outside to smoke myself a J always gets applause. On the other hand “Wristband, ma’ man’ and the accent on ‘Ma axe is on the bandstand, ma’ band is on the floor’ sounds self-consciously hip, or just a nice piece of acting. But then the metaphor on the price of admission, in so many ways, is well done. Anyway, the band played it so well that all doubts flew away.
Graceland replaced I Know What I Mean, and oddly was the only song of the evening that felt even the slightest bit messy. They had been working for two hours, I guess.
Wheels, the 1961 instrumental follows … as I said last time, Paul credits it to Chet Atkins, who did not write it. It was an American hit for The String-A-Longs (who wrote it) before the tune was murdered by Joe Loss in Britain as Wheels Cha-Cha. As a guitar instrumental band favourite, I was surprised at no bass guitar, with Bakithi Kumalo playing the drum with padded sticks instead.
Still Crazy After All These Years. Fantastic. Two trumpets, saxophone, and an outsize baritone saxophone for Mark Stewart. Then that saxophone solo part, and yet it was quite different to the record but still wondrous to hear.
Off they go again, then back for the second encore. It starts with a full band flat out Late In The Evening with Paul on electric guitar.
One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor is transformed into an R&B number, another radical change. Solid as a rock it is too.
The Boxer got huge applause. I thought a “my story” changed to “his story” but then it went back to first person. We had both French horn and trumpet (from the same guy), but the trumpet solo was stunning. The vocal was … well, Paul Simon at his best.
As on past shows, the third encore was Paul alone, the poet and one man band for The Sound of Silence. He played an entire verse and chorus first as an instrumental. I hadn’t seen that before.
Overall, brilliant in every department. My only surprise is that at this juncture in the affairs of the USA, American Tune isn’t getting an airing.
OTHER PAUL SIMON REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG: