Due to a remarkably scattergun approach to touring, opportunities to see one of the most influential songwriters of all time are few and far between in the UK. Whether opening up his extensive back catalogue, or taking part in on-off reunions with former partner Art Garfunkel, there’s always been a sense that Paul Simon has played live only when he fancies it, rather than because of financial meltdown (Leonard Cohen) or sheer bloody-mindedness (Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour).
So a full UK tour in support of his first record in 21 years, on the 25th anniversary of the release of his ground-breaking masterwork Graceland, are a cause for celebration, despite lukewarm reviews of his debut Glastonbury set over the weekend. Yet the air of overwhelming expectation is tempered by the postponement of the concert due to a throat problem that left him in obvious discomfort during the festival set.
At the rearranged gig, the uncertainty surrounding the set isn’t helped by a 25 minute delay. Luckily, the audience needn’t have worried – finally the lights dip and a casually-dressed Simon, along with his eight-piece band, wander on stage and launch straight into Crazy Love Vol II to a rapturous response. Two things are quickly apparent – first, that his voice is as strong, clear and beautiful as when he wrote it 25 years ago. The second is how contemporary it sounds – Graceland is often unfairly maligned for being a symbol of 1980s yuppieness, yet tonight it sounds as fresh as anything that Vampire Weekend, The Very Best or any number of Simon’s world music acolytes are putting out.
After such an opening sugar high, it’s natural that any less familiar work could feel a little anticlimactic. After promising to “shake it up a bit”, the band play Dazzling Blue, one of the best tracks off new record So Beautiful Or So What, but still a pretty mid tempo number. While you get the distinct impression the band are trying that bit extra hard, as they do with much of the new stuff, it’s hard not to think that the audience is itching for another nugget from the back catalogue. The record’s eponymous track suffers the same fate, despite being a great, jittery funk number that nods heavily towards the afro-beat genre he helped kickstart.
It’s a minor disappointment, as much of the latest work would, in almost any other songwriter’s arsenal, quickly become well-loved parts of the canon. The breezy, flamenco-influenced Rewrite and the ridiculously catchy The Afterlife, with its wry observations on mortality (“I had to stand in line/ Just to glimpse the divine/ What d’you think about that?”) are both tracks that any music veteran would point to as proof that they weren’t simply rehashing former glories.
But then, when your glories are this good, it’s difficult not to be overawed by them. 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover and a fantastic, skanking Mother And Child Reunion are early examples of what’s to come, and it takes just two chords of the Simon And Garfunkel hit The Only Living Boy in New York to send screams of adoration bouncing around the venue. By the time that he performs a beautiful acapella introduction to Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, the audience are putty in Simon’s hands. It’s the opening salvo in a final run through six greatest hits and a heartbreaking cover of Here Comes The Sun (“for George”), including a driving Graceland and the still thrillingly odd Gumboots.
The band’s performance hits the right notes between due reverence to Simon and a great, freewheeling joy at playing the classic songs. They group are ridiculously tight, with bassist Bakithi Kumalo in particularly ebullient form, and, if Simon’s dancing and shaking hands with members of the front row are anything to go by, he’s having the time of his life. A solo, tear-jerking Sound of Silence proves that he‘s still a potent force armed just with an acoustic guitar, and the crowd’s reaction to the final encore of You Can Call Me Al half lifts the roof of the place, with people dancing in the aisles. He might be an infrequent visitor, but he sure makes up for it with style.