Last night, before the news came of Leonard Cohen’s departure from this life, I was privileged to see an outstanding show by another great poet of song, Paul Simon.

On our way into Manchester I said to my travelling companions, ‘He must, surely, do An American Tune.’ He hadn’t the previous night in London, but I prayed that in Manchester he would sing what is truly a song for these times.

And he did!

As his third and final encore, the song is offered up with no introduction, no commentary, none needed. Its lyrics of uncertainty, unease and shattered dreams ring as true this week as they surely did in 1973: ‘When I think of the road we’re travelling on, I wonder what’s gone wrong.’

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re travelling on
I wonder what went wrong

Taking our seats before the show started we were presented with a stage cluttered with a vast assortment of instruments of descriptions; it was clear then, and was confirmed when the nine-piece band filed on stage at Manchester’s O2 Apollo, that we were going to see a show that would draw heavily upon those albums in which Simon has experimented with musical styles from many different times and places.

After ‘Gumboots’ – played as an overture by the band – the distinctive accordion riff from Texan maestro Joel Guzman signals Simon’s appearance on stage to sing ‘Boy in the Bubble’. He’s 75 now, but his voice is as clear and strong as it has always been. I’m with my daughter who is in her thirties now, and as he sings the line, ‘These are the days of miracle and wonder’, we turn to each other and grin.

Because Paul Simon has always been there – through the thirty-odd years of her life, and beyond in the case of her mother and father. When she was a kid, no car journey was complete with a shout of recognition at that line, without the glorious, upbeat songs from Graceland (a healthy helping of which are offered for our delectation tonight). She grew up listening as well to many of the earlier Simon and Garfunkel gems, and several of those are also on the menu tonight.

Simon is in a garrulous mood tonight. After the opening medley he tells us how good it feels to be out of London (two nights previously he had performed at the Royal Albert Hall), at which someone else who has made the journey here along the M62 shouts, ‘come to Liverpool’. ‘Ah Liverpool,’ responds Paul, ‘that reminds me of one of my favourite introductions’; and he goes on to tell us how, in his folk club days touring northern working-men’s clubs, he was introduced by a compere in Liverpool following the bingo session (takes on scouse accent): ‘You’ve had your fun. Now shut up and listen to this.’

Paul Simon takes the stage at the Hollywood Bowl in June
Paul Simon takes the stage at the Hollywood Bowl in June

The band are terrific. According to the Paul Simon website they are: Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, drummer Jim Oblon, pianist Mick Rossi, saxophonist & keyboardist Andrew Snitzer, bassist Bakithi Kumalo, guitarist Mark Stewart, percussionist Jamey Haddad, accordionist & multi-instrumentalist Joel Guzman, and trumpeter C.J. Camerieri. During the evening, Mark Stewart played not only guitar, but also mandolin, saxophone, flute, percussion, and didgeridoo.

They shine on every number, but especially on ‘Mother and Child Reunion’, whose Jamaican lilt is a reminder that Simon was exploring international grooves long before Graceland. ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard’ was another particularly fine moment, its rhythms redolent of the neighbourhood of Forest Hills in New York City where Simon grew up and met Art Garfunkel in high school. There were storming accounts, too, of ‘The Obvious Child’ (replicating the drumming style of Olodum from north-east Brazil), ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ (dazzling guitar work by Vincent Nguini) and above all on the inveterate crowd-pleaser, ‘You Can Call Me Al’.

For me, a transcendent moment arrived with ‘Dazzling Blue’, one of my favourite songs from Paul’s recent albums (it’s on So Beautiful Or What from 2011). It’s a gorgeous melody, and the words are as romantic as any that he has written:

Truth or lie, the silence is revealing
An empty sky, a hidden mound of stone
But the CAT scan’s eye sees what the heart’s concealing
Nowadays, when everything is known
Maybe love’s an accident, or destiny is true
But you and I were born beneath a star of dazzling blue

Sweet July, and we drove the Montauk Highway
And walked along the cliffs above the sea
And we wondered why, and imagined it was someday
And that is how the future came to be

Dazzling blue, roses red, fine white linen
To make a marriage bed
And we’ll build a wall that nothing can break through
And dream our dreams of dazzling blue

Simon delves back into the Simon & Garfunkel songbook for one of his timeless tunes, ‘America’, the story of the road trip he took with Kathy, the girl he met in England in 1963 while playing a folk club in Essex. She’s the girl on the cover of his first LP, The Paul Simon Songbook, that I bought after hearing his songs – one each morning for a week – performed on the BBC Light Programmes daily five-minute religious slot. Now, in 2016 and 48 hours after the shattering Trump victory, the song’s cinematic vision of two young people who set out  ‘to look for America’, seems freighted with new meaning. ‘We’re looking harder today than a few days ago,’ Paul comments cryptically.

‘Spirit Voices’, a song from The Rhythm of the Saints that he co-wrote with the Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, was preceded by another story from Simon about his encounter with a brujo or shaman in the Amazon jungle during which he drank the herbal potion ayahuasca, a traditional remedy used to gain spiritual clarity or healing:

We sailed up a river wide as a sea
And slept on the banks
On the leaves of a banyan tree
And all of these spirit voices rule the night …

By moon
We walk
To the brujo’s door
Along a path of river stones
Women with their nursing children
Seated on the floor
We join the fevers
And the broken bones

The candlelight flickers
The falcon calls
A lime-green lizard scuttles down the cabin wall
And all of these spirit voices
Sing rainwater, seawater
River water, holy water
Wrap this child in mercy – heal her
Heaven’s only daughter
All of these spirit voices rule the night

My hands were numb
And my feet were lead
I drank a cup of herbal brew
Then the sweetness in the air
Combined with the lightness in my head
And I heard the jungle breathing in the bamboo

Lord of the earthquake
My trembling bed
The spider resumes the rhythm
Of his golden tread
And all of these spirit voices rule the night

This, and ‘The Cool, Cool River’ from the same album, featured lovely guitar work from Vincent Nguini: ‘Effortless music from the Cameroons…’ Nguini has played in Simon’s band since the Born At the Right Time tour in 1991. He is also the only musician who has appeared on all his albums since then.

It was Vincent Nguini who stepped to the mic to introduce ‘The Cool, Cool River’ with another story about how the song came to be, a story whose punchline (which I now can’t remember) was at Paul’s expense.

Paul Simon performs in New York in 2016
Paul Simon performs in New York in 2016

Brandishing a one-stringed instrument, Paul explained how ‘Werewolf’ came to be. The instrument, he explained, is an Indian gopichand. Playing around with it one day, he thought that a particular figure sounded like someone was saying ‘the werewolf’, and as he demonstrated, it was true! He turned that figure into a song about a werewolf coming to kill us all. It’s one of Paul’s deliciously wry lyrics:

The fact is most obits are mixed reviews
Life is a lottery
A lot of people lose
And the winners, the grinners
With money-coloured eyes
Eat all the nuggets
Then they order extra fries

When he wrote the lyric, I ask myself, was Simon prescient, offering a foretaste of the future in Trump’s USA:

You’d better stock up on water
Canned-goods off the shelves
And loot some for the old folks
Can’t loot for themselves
The doorbell’s ringing
Could be the elves
But it’s probably the werewolf
It’s quarter to twelve

This was when Mark Stewart picked up one of those strange instruments on stage – a didgeridoo – as the band joined in with wolf howls.

With everyone on their feet stamping and clapping along to ‘You Can Call Me Al’, one of Simon’s biggest Graceland hits and his most irresistible songs (and showcase for bassist Bakithi Kumalo), the main set came to an effervescent close.

First up in the encores was ‘Wristband’ off the latest album. Simon told the New York Times in June how this song came about:

I was having dinner with Paul Muldoon, the poet, and I said, I had this title I don’t know whether I want to keep it, ‘Wristband.’ He said, ‘It’s a good title. You could go a lot of places with that title, you should keep it.’

So he went to work on a lyric that imagines a musician who steps into an alley behind the venue to find himself locked out, unable to regain entry without a wristband. From this image developed a song that becomes a metaphor for the mood that has now swept Trump to power: ‘You can’t get in. You don’t have what’s required’: a metaphor for the battle being fought between the haves and have-nots.

From here on in, the encores were bliss: ‘Graceland’, ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, then the musically-autobiographical ‘Late in the Evening’ and finally, ‘The Boxer’.

But that wasn’t the end. Without the band, Paul returned for a third time to sing ‘American Tune’. It’s offered up with no introduction, no commentary, none needed. Its lyrics of uncertainty, unease and shattered dreams ring as true this week as they did in 1973 when it was written: ‘When I think of the road we’re travelling on, I wonder what’s gone wrong.”

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re travelling on
I wonder what went wrong

After that there was nothing to add. It was the final encore and Simon walked off stage. has hinted at his retirement earlier this year. Could this tour be his farewell?

This was ‘American Tune’ as performed the following night in Nottingham:

Setlist

  • Gumboots (Band Instrumental)
  • The Boy in the Bubble
  • 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
  • Dazzling Blue
  • That Was Your Mother
  • Rewrite
  • America
  • Mother and Child Reunion
  • Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard
  • Spirit Voices
  • The Obvious Child
  • Stranger to Stranger
  • Homeward Bound
  • El Condor Pasa (instrumental)/Duncan
  • The Werewolf
  • The Cool, Cool River
  • Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
  • You Can Call Me Al

Encore:

  • Proof (Band instrumental)
  • Wristband
  • Graceland
  • Still Crazy After All These Years

Encore 2:

  • Late in the Evening
  • One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor
  • The Boxer

Encore 3:

  • American Tune
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3 thoughts on “Paul Simon: a joyous celebration the night after a dream was shattered and driven to its knees

  1. Paul Simon has the knack of being able to get to the heart of the matter in the most uncomplicated way. A superb song from a superb songwriter.

    1. Cheers, Maire; good to hear from you. Fancy you being there and we never meet! A wonderful evening; I think we all left with diamonds on the soles of our shoes.

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