Paul Simon, one of the truly towering songwriters of our generation, showed no signs of slowing down in a transcendent concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco Monday night. Drawing from a nearly 50-year career during which he has fashioned and refined a distinct and richly textured musical approach, Simon mixed a collection of hits and a few unexpected covers with a generous portion of songs from his new album that more than held their own alongside his classics.
From the opening bars of “Crazy Love” it became apparent that the world-class musicians Simon assembled for this tour would provide supple, muscular and often deftly nuanced accompaniment to his finely constructed lyrical landscapes. Nearly every musician doubled or tripled on a dazzling array of instruments and percussion, ranging from beefy horn sections and multiple keyboards to washboard (soloing to great effect on the Zydeco-flavored “That Was Your Mother”). The new material seemed to pick up where he left off on “Rhythm of the Saints,” the follow-up to his iconic “Graceland,” featuring sinewy guitar lines, polyrythmic Afro-beats and the sophisticated wordplay at which Simon has few, if any peers.
Early on, Simon apologized for any perceived vocal shortcomings, disclaiming that he felt he was working with “2/3rds of a voice,” but he need not have worried…he sounded fine, and as the night progressed, seemed to get stronger. It may have been the reason he kept his between-songs patter to a minimum, but his music did all the talking that was needed. An early highlight was a languid “Slip Slidin’ Away” nicely framed in stately, slow-moving guitar lines. The jaunty groove of “Hearts and Bones” morphed into the rockabilly classic “Mystery Train” as Simon channeled his inner Elvis, and that transitioned effortlessly into a ringing Chet Atkins instrumental, “Wheels” as Simon demonstrated that he was as comfortable with American roots music stylings as those he effortlessly integrates from the traditions of Nigeria or Latin America.
Two new songs formed the mid-point of the set: “The Afterlife,” during which the protagonist arrives at the Pearly Gates and finds himself unable to summon any words except “Be Bop a Lula,” and “Rewrite,” a cheeky rumination by a struggling screenwriter. Performances of “The Obvious Child” and “The Boy in the Bubble” easily surpassed the recorded versions, featuring dazzling musicianship and densely textured rhythms by the two drummers and supporting percussion. After the sweetly touching “Father and Daughter” he brought the set to a climax with a monstrous version of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” the rich acapella introduction effectively giving way to the musicians’ entrance in a slightly higher key, threading fluid guitar lines through the bouncy African rhythm and setting off Simon’s distinctive vocal phrasing.
After exiting the stage to rapturous applause, the appealingly unassuming songwriter returned to the stage alone, picking up an acoustic guitar and plucking out an instrumental verse to “The Sound of Silence” as the audience cheered in recognition. His thoughtful and strong performance chased away the need for Garfunkel’s harmony as the decades-old song stood sturdy and tall in Simon’s solo version, garnering the most heartfelt ovation of many on this night. A complete change of pace followed with a spirited “Kodachrome” (made poignant by Kodak’s recent discontinuing of the once widespread film…a casualty of the digital age) whose gospel rave-up outro led seamlessly into “Gone At Last.”
A second encore began with a lovely and unexpected take on “Here Comes the Sun,” gracing the mostly unplugged Beatles classic with sweetly sung harmonies. The evening came to a fitting close with “Late in the Evening,” whose lyrics chart the path that Simon’s earliest musical influences took in forming the basis for his eclectic and far-reaching musical approach. With two guitarists trading molten solos over the rumbling rhythm section and Latin-inspired horn charts, the song served as a rousing retrospective of the work of a singular American treasure, who after decades of amazing music is still at the peak of his powers.