June 2, 2018
Slowly, but with the certainty of mortality itself, the artists that shaped so much of our musical landscape over the last 40-50 years are going bye bye. The occasion rarely feels voluntary, as so many of them are being hustled off by the limitations of age. Neil Diamond retired from touring following his Parkinson’s diagnosis, and Joan Baez has been losing her voice for years. Father Time even looms large over those who seem like they’ll tour until they literally drop dead, as anyone who’s had tickets to one of Willie Nelson’s frequently canceled recent gigs can attest.
Paul Simon, playing in Houston for both the first time since 2014 and the last time ever, brought his Homeward Bound – The Farewell Tour to the Toyota Center last night. And if the crowd was aware Rhymin' Simon was finally packing it in after 54 years, they did their best to ignore it.
He opened with "America," his classic paean to youthful wanderlust, and you could be forgiven for thinking he appeared frail. His voice, halting at first, found its foundation as the show went on, but the difference between last night and his performance just a year ago was noticeable.
Fortunately, Simon is savvy enough to surround himself with musicians who can follow whatever cues comes their way. Longtime guitarist Vincent Nguini passed away last year, but Nigerian virtuoso Biodun Kuti was up to the task. And while bassist Bakithi Kumalo's instrument was occasionally overwhelming ("Boy in the Bubble," "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes"), Simon's 10-piece ensemble (including guitarist Mark Stewart and Austn's Joel Guzman) filled in admirably.
Indeed, one of Simon's strengths as a writer is in finding music to punctuate his tunes, whether it's Kumalo in "You Can Call Me Al," or Andy Snitzer's sax solo in "Still Crazy After All These Years," to offer a couple examples. He also has a gift for lyrics that we may never see again. For example, one doubts he peformed "American Tune" — a song whe wrote in response to Richard Nixon's election — during the encore without being aware of the following lyric's significance:
We've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we're traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
The man could have easily fallen back on the expected hits (and what's a brother got to do to hear "Slip Slidin' Away?"), or leaned more heavily on the old "& Garfunkel" numbers. Instead, the show featured three cuts from 2011's So Beautiful or So What (notably the eco-conscious "Questions for the Angels") and mostly leveraged Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints. Of course, there were several tunes from his former duo ("Homeward Bound" and "The Boxer" being standouts), and the expected older solo tracks ("Kodachrome," "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard").
Last night's show was cause for both sorrow and celebration. It's sad to think — absent the odd solo appearance or a (highly unlikely) reunion with Art Garfunkel, we'll never have the chance to see Paul Simon perform again. However, we can contrast this with all the artists we never got a chance to say a proper farewell to. Call him “Al” or don’t, it’s comforting to see the man responsible for so much of our life’s soundtrack leave the stage on his terms.
Personal Bias: For the longest time, the Concert in Central Park was my only live Simon touchstone. I'm lucky to have seen him twice in the last year.
The Crowd: For all the (wholly justifiable) aggravation about Houston's rude ass audiences, they were gratifyingly silent. Even better, hardly any phones! Old people rule.
Overheard In The Crowd: "How do you pronounce 'Hopadillo?'"
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Random Notebook Dump: "I hope I can afford tickets to the eventual/inevitable S&G reunion show."
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
The Boy in the Bubble
That Was Your Mother
Mother and Child Reunion
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard
Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War
Can't Run But
The Obvious Child
Questions for the Angels
The Cool, Cool River
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
You Can Call Me Al
Still Crazy After All These Years
Late in the Evening
The Sound of Silence