Hyde Park is sizzling, and the astronomical price some of us have paid for a Summer Garden VIP ticket has paid off in the shape of the shade and easy access to cooling drinks and clean toilets. If only I could afford to go to concerts like this all the time.
Concerts of this magnitude are far too expensive, and part of me would like to boycott them, but I guess that it wouldn’t make a difference, and the only thing it would mean was that I would miss out on a concert that I would like to attend. But I doubt I would enjoy the day as much if I’d gone for the cheaper (£70’ish) tickets further back – I mean, even in the Golden Circle, we’re already quite a bit away from the stage.
Half of the bands of the day have already played when we arrive, and Bonnie Raitt goes on stage shortly after we’ve got our Golden Circle access wristbands. The heat doesn’t make you want to run for a place in front of the stage when you can hide in the shadows with an overpriced Margarita in hand. So the Bonnie Raitt concert is more heard than seen. It’s nice to listen to the only song of hers I know, Something to Talk About, in the background. We both hear and see the last song, announced by Raitt as a song by ‘one of my favourite bands,’ as they launch into a great version of Burning Down the House by Talking Heads.
In the Heat of the Afternoon.
At this point, there’s no avoiding the sun if we want to secure a suitable spot, so we head into the heat, right in the centre in front of the stage. No more shade until the sun goes down a few hours later. We wait for about 30 minutes before James Taylor and his band come on. For people who’ve seen Taylor before, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but for a first-timer like myself, it’s a welcome surprise that he is an entertaining onstage presence with lots of banter between the songs.
After the first song, he praises the group of musicians playing with him, calling them a ‘great band to work with… they are amazing,’ while he turns his guitar and holds it up, displaying a ‘Help Me’ sign, which gets a good laugh from the crowd. Throughout the gig, he introduces the band. As if James Taylor isn’t legendary enough, his musicians are no slouches either, from ‘the legendary Steve Gadd’ on the drums, to the saxophone player, who gets the following introduction; ‘If you’re a fan of the Blues Brothers you’ll probably recognise our sax player… Lou Marini, Blue Lou.’
The concert showcases some of the most beloved songs in the singer-songwriter tradition of the late sixties and early seventies, with some covers thrown in. It’s hard to imagine a James Taylor concert without him covering Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend. With a repertoire like this and a beautiful voice backed by a band like that, it’s hard to see what could go wrong. And nothing does. Everything goes exactly right. Great concert.
It’s time for a toilet run, or rather a toilet stroll. Better not to move too fast in this heat. Then back to our spot in front of the stage, sitting on the yellow hay that’s pretending to be grass, and we wait for nearly an hour longer in the baking sun.
When I wait for a band to go on and watch the roadies and stage technicians getting things ready for the band, I sometimes wonder how many of those things could have been prepared earlier. I’m sure they do what needs to be done as fast as they can. Still, the anticipation of what’s about to happen can cause impatience and make every little extra guitar tuning and every extra soundcheck of the drums seem excruciatingly long. Watching roadies get the stage ready for the band you’re waiting to see may not be as dull as watching paint dry, but it’s certainly an exercise in keeping your zen.
Let Us Be Lovers…
But finally, a neverending stream of musicians enter the stage to inevitable applause from the audience. The string/horn section plays the opening chords of America, and Paul Simon enters with oversized sunglasses and guitar and sings that line; ‘Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.’
Starting a gig with a song like that could mean it’s all downhill from there. But when you have a catalogue of songs like Simon does (and not many do), you can start on the top of Mount Everest and still go even higher. There are parts of the set that are less engaging than others; songs that have the audience chattering more, or, like the people standing next to us, hurrying out for burgers and chips, only to return a few songs later, bringing with them the stench of stinking chip oil. I’ll keep what I think about that to myself.
For the first part of the concert, the sun has been intense, and Simon has been wearing sunglasses, making sure to inform us that as soon as the sun goes down, the sunglasses will come off. And he sticks to his promise. The moment the sun disappears behind a tree, Simon takes the sunglasses off, to big applause from the audience.
Setlists don’t come much better than this. Of course, there will always be favourites that are not played (Something So Right, Baby Driver), but this is as good as it gets – a collection of old and new, the folkier stuff, the dancier stuff, bass-heavy songs, a few rearrangements for strings and horns – it’s all in there. I later hear some people call parts of the set self-indulgent, but it would be just as self-indulgent to think that the artist should only cater to your wishes and not also their own. I think Simon got the choice of songs just right.
His voice is slightly shaky in places. Also, some songs seem to have been rearranged to suit an older man’s voice, which finds it harder to hit all those high notes that it hit so well when it was younger. That’s what growing old does to you, to Paul Simon and all of us.
The concert takes us from America, a country known for making a lot of noise, to the inevitable end with the Sound of Silence. In between, we are invited to Graceland and given an insight into a songwriter’s Rewrite. We get nostalgic with Kodachrome (let’s be honest, most people in the crowd are more likely to have an iPhone camera than a Nikon camera), and we are told about the 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.
We get Simon’s vocal version of Bridge Over Troubled Water, which he may not be able to sing as well as a certain Art Garfunkel (or indeed Aretha Franklin, who’s also covered the song). Still, it is Simon’s song, and with an intelligent rearrangement, he sings it well. We also get one of my favourite Paul Simon songs, Wristband, a groovy tune with a narrative that starts funny but then very cleverly becomes a socially conscious contemplation on how unequal the world is. This Hyde Park event is a good example; you need a wristband to get in, and the people with the best wristbands get the best view of the stage and access to the best facilities.
This is very likely Paul Simon’s last tour, the last concert in Europe and the last concert in England. Aged 76, he shows that he genuinely is a songwriting giant and musical master. It’s doubtful that the music world will see a songwriter and musician like him after he’s gone. With his supreme band of musicians he gives us an absolute masterclass in how it should be done.
James Taylor setlist
1. Carolina in My Mind
2. Country Road
3. You’ve Got a Friend (Carole King cover)
4. Up on the Roof (Carole King cover)
6. Something in the Way She Moves
7. Sweet Baby James
8. Fire and Rain
9. Shed a Little Light
10. Your Smiling Face
11. Shower the People
12. How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You) (Marvin Gaye cover)
Paul Simon setlist
1. America (Simon & Garfunkel song)
2. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
3. The Boy in the Bubble
4. Dazzling Blue
5. That Was Your Mother
7. Mother and Child Reunion
8. Me and Julio Down the Schoolyard
9 Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War
10. Can’t Run But
11. Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel song)
13. Spirit Voices
14. The Obvious Child
15. Questions for the Angels
16. The Cool, Cool River
17. Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
18. You Can Call Me Al
19. Late in the Evening
20. Still Crazy After All These Years
22. Homeward Bound (Simon & Garfunkel song)
24. The Boxer (Simon & Garfunkel song)
25. American Tune
26. The Sound of Silence (Simon & Garfunkel song)