Live: Paul Simon at Hard Rock Live, December 6

Paul Simon 

Hard Rock Live, Hollywood 
Tuesday, December 6, 2011 

Better than: Garfunkel without Simon.

At age 70, Paul Simon belongs to an elite but aging artistic fraternity whose membership also includes Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Kris Kristofferson. All singer/songwriters whose work is ingrained in the very fiber of popular culture, these are artists whose revered reputations and esteemed pedigrees elevate any encounter beyond that of mere entertainment and into realms reserved for great masters. Even with a solo career now in its fifth decade, the music Simon made with partner Art Garfunkel remains a vital part of the soundtrack to his audience's lives, a tethered connection that remains as vital and vibrant now as it ever was before. Consequently, there's little doubt there were some in the sell-out crowd

at Tuesday night's concert at Hard Rock Live who would have preferred

to have seen Simon with his old partner in tow.

He attempted to placate

those fans only marginally with token renditions of the duo's gilded

staples "Only Living Boy in New York City" and "The Sounds of Silence,"

the latter of which was performed solo and predictably reserved for the

first of two encores. Likewise, giddy standards like "Mother and Child

Reunion," "Late in the Evening," "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,"

"Kodachrome," and "Graceland" also elicited enthusiastic reactions with a

crowd that made it apparent they were eager for some nostalgia.

Fortunately for the faithful, Simon seemed eager to oblige; with a tour

that's touting a new two-disc retrospective, Paul Simon Songwriter,

the set list cherry-picked songs from all phases of his career. Only a

couple of selections from his latest offering of all new music, the

well-received So Beautiful or So What, were also included,

although with a catalog as vast and beloved as his, he wisely chose to

diversify the set to embrace the obvious crowd pleasers along with the

occasional song that was perhaps lesser-known. Among the few surprises he

had in store was a heartfelt cover of "Here Comes the Sun," which he

famously once performed on Saturday Night Live in the company of its

composer, George Harrison.

Simon may be older than the average rock star at this point, but he still retains a spry posture that belies any assumption about age. Slight in stature but assertive and authoritative in his presence, he even allowed himself to sometimes strut about, acting more the showman than the semi-serious artiste that he often portrays for the public. The essential jubilation in much of his music comes through in concert much more so than on record, given that his versatile eight-piece backing band -- Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, guitarist/drummer Jim Oblon, pianist Mick Rossi, saxophonist/keyboardist Andrew Snitzer, bassist Bakithi Kumalo, guitarist Mark Stewart, master percussionist Jamey Haddad, and multi-instrumentalist Tony Cedras -- seem adept at adjusting the timbre and tempo for sounds that range from inspirational ballads to the zest of zydeco; some cool, casual swing; and frequent hints of archetypical pop and rock.

The profundity of Simon's lyrics -- so prevelant in songs such as "My Little Town" amd "Still Crazy After All These Years," the sixth and final encore -- is still evident, of course, but the rich, vibrant, and fastidious arrangements as well as an inherent sense of celebration emitted from both the man and his music gave the performance its true sense of purpose. In song after song -- be it the arch loneliness of "Only Living Boy in New York City," the reverential revival of "Love Is Eternal," or the inherent urgency of "My Little Town" -- Simon brought the material full circle, bringing out both richness and nuance while charming his audience in the process. 

"It's good to have a couple thousand new friends," he joked early on, one of the few times he addressed the crowd at length. "I'm happy to be here. Of course, I say that every night. But sometimes there's something that occurs between the band and the audience, a transfer of energy that ultimately determines whether I really am or not. So we'll have to take that up later." Those holding their breath in anticipation never got to hear his final verdict, but judging from both the performance and the way it was received, the appreciation was profound.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: While the set list was certainly varied, there were also songs that were clearly missed -- "American Tune," "Kathy's Song," and "The Boxer," among them. 

Random detail: Simon's standard stage garb hasn't changed much over the past 40-plus years. Dark jacket and white T-shirt reinforce his cool, casual image. 

By the way
: The opening act, a five-piece outfit from Nashville named Wild Feathers, performed a solid half-hour set of capable if conventional country rock, replete with immaculate four-part harmonies. Although they didn't seem necessarily compatible with Simon's sound, the crowd gave them a hospitable reception nevertheless. 

Set list 
The Boy in the Bubble
Dazzling Blue
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover 
Mother and Child Reunion
That Was Your Mother 
Hearts and Bones /Mystery Train/Wheels 
Slip Slidin' Away 
My Little Town
The Obvious Child
The Only Living Boy in New York
Love Is Eternal 
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
Late in the Evening

The Sound of Silence 
Kodachrome/Gone at Last
Here Comes the Sun 

Encore 2:

Graceland/Pretty Thing

Still Crazy After All These Years

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