Appearing with a powerful nine-piece band, Paul Simon gave a nearly two-hour performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday that spanned his entire career, from Simon and Garfunkel on “Homeward Bound” and “The Boxer” to his early solo records with “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and many more, to his African music-inspired period with “Graceland” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”; and finally, to his most recent work, the new album Stranger to Stranger which was released just three days before the show.
The diminutive 74-year-old musician looked like he was trying to avoid a head cold as he emerged to sing his opening number, “The Boy in the Bubble,” in a blue knit cap and a green scarf. His distinctive singing voice remained vibrant throughout the evening, as he moved easily from the buoyant reggae of “Mother and Child Reunion” to the more complex and plaintive title track from Stranger to Stranger. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this multifaceted artist is the extraordinary consistency he achieves over such a wide range of material.
Including no less than five encore songs, Simon sang twenty-three numbers, and not one of them was a dud. His between song patter included a wild anecdote about taking ayuhuasca on the Amazon to set up “Spirit Voices,” but for the most part he was restrained in his remarks, clearly saving his voice for the business at hand. Longtime Simon guitarist Vincent Nguini stepped forward to toast his bandleader as a true friend of Africa before the group launched into the African music-influenced numbers “The Cool, Cool River” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” a pair of tunes that sparked dancing in the happy crowd. He may or may not have diamonds in the soles of his shoes, but there’s no question that Paul Simon is a gem, and Santa Barbara was lucky to have him in such shining form on this occasion.