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Live review: Paul Simon at the Pantages Theatre

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Any number of metaphors floated across the stage during Paul Simon's rich, perfectly programmed concert at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood on Wednesday night. There was the sight of Cameroonian guitar master Vincent Nguini, stage left, wearing an African dashiki juxtaposed with an American baseball cap and Fender six string, offering sweet, flittering West African melody lines that swirled as though breezing in from realms way more mystical than Hollywood Boulevard.

Or the words to “Rewrite,” from Simon's fantastic new album, “So Beautiful or So What,” which went over particularly well with the demographic at the Pantages. After his voice, as elastic and assured as ever, delivered the line, “I've been working on a rewrite, gonna change the ending/Gonna throw away the title, gonna toss it in the trash,” cheers erupted from the screenwriters in the cheap seats. He rhymed the last line with “turn it into cash,” and more hoots echoed.

The second of three nights in Los Angeles, and the first of two at the Pantages after an opening night at the Music Box, Simon and his nine-piece band indeed offered a new edit on the singer's biography. The story he told, in fact, was a precisely curated triptych through his musical psyche, moving as it did across continents and islands, through ideas both personal and universal, all of it conveyed on sonic wings as eloquent as the man front and center. Baritone and tenor saxophones punctuated “Afterlife,” Simon's imagining of Heaven as a bureaucratic mess. Flutes offered respite during a delicate rendition of “The Only Living Boy in New York.”

Simon bridged the Brill Building lyrical structures of his New York roots with Mississippi delta riffs, wove Anglo American songwriting styles through African American and Creole New Orleans for his “Zydeco,” adapted second-line drum and brass workouts for “The Obvious Child,” jumped to Jamaica for a Jimmy Cliff cover — of “Vietnam” — floated up the Mississippi through Memphis with a take on Elvis Presley's version of “Mystery Train,” and stopped at Muscle Shoals, Ala., for a horn-heavy romp of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

And within these travels he infused the sound of the western coast of Africa, from South Africa through Nigeria and Mali. He even added a touch of Spanish flamenco guitar to his exquisite solo acoustic guitar take on “Sound of Silence.”

And, most remarkably, he blended all these regional themes and variations with such a deft, sensitive touch that it rarely felt gratuitous or imperialistic.

There's that word: imperialism. When Simon released “Graceland” in 1986, the critics not slobbering all over it criticized the musician for what they considered an over-reliance on South African sounds, infusing as he did the feel of Soweto into much of the music on the album. But in the 25 years since its release, the world has shrunk, history's holes have been filled with missing context, and artists from Sri Lanka to Mexico City to São Paulo to Lagos are making regionless music that's shocking in its inclusiveness and brazen in its intent.

But where in clumsier hands cultural convergence sounds clunky or contrived, Simon's influences over the course of nearly 50 years have simmered within his muse so that it's no longer distinct regional sounds inside him but something smooth and silken, with a character all its own.

For example, at one point guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Mark Stewart, in the middle of a guitar solo, shifted his fretting just a touch, and a Nashville twang suggesting Merle Haggard melted into a fluid Malian melody line, a reminder that the difference between continental sounds is often only a finger motion away.

It's impossible, though, to watch a 69-year-old artist presenting his work and not infuse some sense of wistfulness into it. Not nostalgia, necessarily — though there was certainly a lot of that coming from the crowd during a thrilling version of “Kodachrome” in which Simon updated the line as, “I've got an iPhone camera, I love to take a photograph ….” — but a certain acknowledgment of time's passing. Though short on banter, what Simon offered was telling. He introduced Jimmy Cliff's “Vietnam” as “the song that made me want to go down to Jamaica and record ‘Mother and Child Reunion.'” The band's version plumbed the depths, uncovering that deep, heavy, roots-reggae rhythm.

The crowd loved it all. He received countless ovations throughout, especially after his first encore solo take on “Sound of Silence.” His song choices during two encores sealed the deal. “Here Comes the Sun,” George Harrison's ode to joy; followed by “Late in the Evening” and “Still Crazy After All These Years,” in which he expressed the opposite sentiment of Harrison's song: “I'll never worry/Why should I?/It's all gonna fade.”

But even if that's true, there's a story to be told. That he chose to cover Elvis and the Beatles is telling, as was the doo-wop breakdown in “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Here was a man connecting dots, trying to get the narrative down as eloquently as possible, knowing full well that the details are way too rich and complicated to ever fully capture, but nonetheless pushing forward.

RELATED:

For Paul Simon, the world is his sound stage

Album review: Paul Simon's 'So Beautiful or So What'

Robert Hilburn's 1991 review of Paul Simon's 'Rhythm of the Saints' tour

-- Randall Roberts

Photo: Paul Simon at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles April 20, 2011. Credit: Barbara Davidson/The Los Angeles Times

 
Comments () | Archives (5)

Thank you for your excellent review and compilation of what went down last night at the Pantages, though the ancient threads that run through Paul Simon's music and into my soul are so visceral as to be truly incapable of description, though you have come close.

A MASTER.

"Doo wop breakdown"? They don't call it that in South Africa. Time for you to do some research...

ROBERT HILBURN - an LA TIMES REVIEWER only had good things to say about Graceland in 1986

2. Paul Simon's "Graceland" (Warner Bros.)--It is sobering to think that Simon was a contemporary of Donovan, Herman's Hermits and the Monkees. And many of the old fans would like nothing better than to see him to hit the road again each year with Artie. But Simon's work continues to show sharper craft and deeper insight. By using South African musicians on much of the album, he adds a warm and inspiring message to these songs, but the themes are matters of social conscience and personal serenity that have long interested him. A graceful, embracing work.

http://articles.latimes.com/1986-12-28/entertainment/ca-632_1_pop-music/3

I think this might be another case of revisionism...it's Vampire Weekend that everyone denigrated recently for their "cultural imperialism". And, gotta say, I think Ray Phirri-a South African musician who played on the Graceland album- loves them.

Just saw Paul Simon in Toronto on May 6th at Massey Hall. The show was identical to what you described in LA, including the ovations and the the crowd reactions (maybe we loved him even MORE? is that possible?). Thank-you for writing such an eloquent piece about a true musical artist and international treasure.


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