For someone who likes going to concerts as much as I do and who has admired Paul Simon’s music for as long as I can remember, it’s kind of weird I haven’t seen him live before tonight. And then again, maybe not because he’s one of the big shots. One of the expensive ones. One of the ones whose concerts often sell out. In other words, it can be a challenging affair even to get a ticket or be able to afford one.
The concert I wanted to see, at the Royal Albert Hall, was sold out, so necessity drove me up North to Nottingham, and what a great thing it did because it’s not only Paul Simon I haven’t seen before, the same goes for Nottingham. The hotel room has a lovely view of the city and is within walking distance to all places I need to go to in the two days I’m here. Other noteworthy sights of the trip include Robin Hood and Nottingham’s infamous caves, but let’s face it, the point of this trip is tonight’s concert – Paul Simon touring his latest album, Stranger to Stranger.
Motorpoint Arena is one of those bland venues that are not worth even mentioning and should never have been allowed to be a music venue in the first place. But the seat is great with a good view of the side of the stage. It’s no surprise that Simon’s got a killer band to accompany him, but it’s still nice to have it confirmed. These musicians are so good I’d happily listen to them play instrumental versions of Simon’s songs, but the extra icing on the cake is Simon singing on top of these outstanding players.
As expected, the setlist is a blend of old and new with a repertoire spanning at least a dozen of those kinds of songs that can boast of being Classics. Highlights for me include Rewrite, a tune about a writer doing what all writers have to do to create a Classic – rewriting the bloody thing. America is fabulous and moving and makes me nostalgic for a time before I was born.
New songs Werewolf and Wristband are instant new favourites, both songs humorous and witty and funky and both with brilliant instrumentation. It’s songs like these that hammer home the importance of the skill of great songwriting and the art of musical arrangement – the music and the words are not just thrown together, they collaborate, as if the music tells the story and the words are played like an instrument.
Werewolf is prefaced by an anecdote about an instrument – a gopichand – Simon was given as a present. Simon decided to use the gopichand for a song he was writing at the time, and when he thought the instrument sounded like a werewolf, it made him realise that ‘Hey, I guess I’m writing a song about a werewolf’.
Simon’s dry, deadpan humour is aired several times this evening, for instance, when someone in the audience shouts, ‘We love you Paul’, and he shrewdly responds, ‘Why not’?
I always loved the song Graceland, not least of all because of its lyrics and the beautiful pedal steel guitar part weaving its way through the melody, so it’s a joy to hear the guitar playing that alluring intro and Simon singing, ‘The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar….’ I can do without You Can Call Me Al, but it has an understandable place in the setlist since it’s such an audience favourite and inspires lots of dad-dancing and sing-alongs all over the venue. I’m much keener on Late In the Evening. Both songs lean heavily on each assigned horn arrangement, but whereas You Can Call Me Al always seemed more commercial and poppy, Late In the Evening has a bit more bite to it and seems more like a song of the streets of New York. Whether the location is Simon’s childhood neighbourhood in Queens or perhaps the streets of Harlem in Uptown Manhattan, the song takes us right there in perfect street view.
After two encores Simon comes back on stage a final time – this time alone, to play… could it be Sound of Silence? No, it’s American Tune. I would have loved to hear him sing Sound of Silence, but I’m not complaining. American Tune is beautiful too. While maybe not quite as legendary as Sound of Silence, it’s an equally poignant way of ending the set in that style Simon does so well; being a little bit nostalgic, being carefully hopeful, but mostly just being present.
Paul Simon setlist
2. The Boy in the Bubble
3. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
4. Dazzling Blue
5. That Was Your Mother
7. America (Simon & Garfunkel song)
8. Mother and Child Reunion
9. Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard
10. Spirit Voices
11. The Obvious Child
12. Stranger to Stranger
13. Homeward Bound (Simon & Garfunkel song)
14. El Condor Pasa (If I Could) (Simon & Garfunkel song)
16. The Werewolf
17. The Cool, Cool River
18. Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
19. You Can Call Me Al
20. Proof (Instrumental)
23. Still Crazy After All These Years
24. One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor
25. The Boxer (Simon & Garfunkel song)
26. Late In the Evening
27. American Tune