At the Santa Barbara Bowl, Saturday, October 7
Reviewed by Charles Donelan
With a career that spans more than 40 years, dozens of classic songs to his credit, and an enormous and loyal fan base worldwide, Paul Simon could afford to coast. But he’s not. He’s growing, and Surprise, his recent collaboration with “sonic landscaper” Brian Eno and producer Tchad Blake, has resulted not only in a fine album, but also in one of the most enjoyable and moving concerts of this season. The direction of the recording, which sounds modern and dreamy, has carried over to the live arrangements Simon plays, which are consistently stunning and show new angles and depths in even his most familiar hits. Of all the marvelous late-career reinventions we have witnessed recently — think Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson — Paul Simon’s may be the most successful live. The show is just that good.
Simon came on promptly at eight in a long-sleeved purple T-shirt and his customary baseball cap. Two hours later he was going strong with a third encore. The audience was ecstatic throughout. Although the band members were never properly introduced, they deserved nothing but superlatives. Seven musicians, including two drummers, played a galaxy of instruments, from accordion and sax to Simon’s six- and 12-string Martin guitars, which he fingerpicked. Every number had a distinctive sonic signature, and within virtually every arrangement there was a delicious surprise that set the tune off in a new direction. “Slip Slidin’ Away” revealed its roots in Woody Guthrie’s Americana, and “The Only Living Boy in New York” delivered a wordless final chorus that just about out-harmonized Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys. Still sitcom-ready with the self-deprecating quips after all these years, Simon also remains a passionate and committed opponent of the Bush administration and American imperialism. The innocent hope for the future expressed so powerfully by the sturdy “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that Simon and Garfunkel built so many years ago has never been more needed than it is now. As the crowd sang along and swayed together to the optimistic music of their youth, for long moments the intervening time seemed simply to dissolve. Here’s to you, Rhymin’ Simon, our nation now turns its lonely eyes to you. Thanks for being there to look back at us.