Paul Simon | Punch Brothers Fabulous Fox Theatre November 15, 2011
Paul Simon still takes a wide stance when he gets into it. He tosses his hands for emphasis of his words, he converses his lines with an unseen foil. His voice belies his 70 years. Close your eyes and you can hear the man harmonizing platitudes with Art Garfunkel, the man barreling through four decades of solo career, heading from folk craftsman to dark poet to rock pioneer to wise man. He still looks forward in awe.
How he looks back is a bit more complicated. How do you make sense of such an overwhelmingly diverse career? What must it be like to have entire albums of vindicated, ambitious songs built on sounds that were new to most Western ears and a band capable of delivering them in all their polyrhythmic richness and still get your biggest cheer for the collegiate stuff you whispered out with one other white dude and two acoustic guitars?
"Thank you, Simon & Garfunkel fans," he says, after a raucous response to "The Only Boy in New York."
There's always the Punch Brothers route: Chris Thile fronted Nickel Creek, the most commercially successful bluegrass band ever. Now he's found a new group that adds banjo, upright bass and an inclination for arching pop built on soundtrack-classical. And while the new look, Punch Brothers, is not exactly toiling in obscurity, it's a very safe bet that Thile took a pay cut to be here.
Punch Brothers must be watching the ascent of Mumford & Sons with a keen interest -- at its harmonizing, heartstrings peaks, the Bros might find a receptive audience down the superhighway paved by the Sons. Not that the two bands are analogues. The Punch Brothers comprises five musicians of blinding ability, rooted in tradition and inclined to artistic whims such as 40-minute string suites in four movements. Last night's opening set was, of course, less presumptuous: a few old cuts, a few new ones and a surprisingly welcome instrumental solo show-off.
Presently, here comes Rhymin' Simon and his eight-piece globetrotting rhythm orchestra. Paul Simon is, as ever, an unlikely ambassador for such buoyant material, a vision of guarded New York intellectualism leading off with tales of lasers in the jungle, of miracle and wonder.
What follows is two hours of the best instincts from Simon's half-century career. We get no Songs from the Capeman and no You're the One. The twenty-plus song setlist is nearly a quarter Graceland, which Simon has said he will feature on a tour next year. 2011 has seemed freeing to Simon -- his So Beautiful or So What has him at his most natural, building songs from melody and guitar instead of rhythm. "The Afterlife," in which Jesus turns out to be a hopeless bureaucrat, fit right in last night alongside How To heartbreak jam "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover."
But the songwriting intuition of Paul Simon is dramatically different now than then. He's spent my entire lifetime immersed in largely unexplored pockets of the world's music, and the relatively straightforward folk of his past is a bizarre fit. He is living in a house started by Colonials and finished by Bob Cassilly.
The old-school Simon classics are so ingrained in our consciousness that they feel like heartbeats. Live, he forces you to take a second look by pulling the vocal melody out of its comfortable vein, pushing notes ahead a fractional beat and pausing where we expect a resolution to fall. For now, Simon clearly identifies most with his out-of-country influences. The visual backdrop for "Mother and Child Reunion" featured a Lion of Judah and Ethiopian colors.
But there is no one mode for Paul Simon. Last night his setlist was full of deliberate and sudden leaps -- the raucous, washboard-solo-featuring "That Was Your Mother" directly into the daydream of "Heart and Bones."
By the start of the second encore the dancing contingent in the crowd was unapologetic and uninhibited and nearly everyone else was at least on his or her feet, defenseless against the endless charm and joy of "Graceland." Then it was Bo Diddley's "Pretty Thing," and with the collective heart rate of the Fox at its nightlong peak, Paul Simon signed off with the wistful toast of "Still Crazy After All These Years."
Notes and setlist on the next page. Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias: Inundation as a kid, appreciation as an adult.
Overheard: "My feet hurt. I didn't think I'd be dancing so much."
By the Way: For all Simon's multiculturalism, his audience is still a field of snow. I saw exactly one black person in the audience.
The Boy in the Bubble Dazzling Blue 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover The Afterlife Mother and Child Reunion That Was Your Mother Hearts and Bones Mystery Train (Elvis Presley cover [written by Junior Parker and Sam Phillips]) Wheels (Chet Atkins cover) Slip Slidin' Away Rewrite Peace Live a River The Obvious Child The Only Living Boy in New York (Simon & Garfunkel cover) Love is Eternal Secret Light Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes Gumboots Encore Sound of Silence (Simon & Garfunkel cover) Kodachrome Gone at Last Here Comes the Sun (Beatles cover [written by George Harrison]) Crazy Love, Volume II Late in the Evening Encore 2 Graceland Pretty Thing (Bo Diddley cover) Still Crazy After These Years