NEWARK, NJ—Paul Simon came back to where he was born to perform for the first time in his 47-year career, and he brought with him an octet that was so overpowering in its unerring syncopation, percussion and wildly diverse soundscapes that the sold-out crowd at this beautiful downtown venue couldn’t help but be transported into exotic ports of musical entry.
His brilliant new album, So Beautiful Or So What, was heavily represented, but the theme of the night was Surprise (the name of his previous album), the biggest of which came during his spoken introduction to “Mother And Child Reunion.” Explaining how he based that beautiful reggae hit of his on Jimmy Cliff’s 1970 “Vietnam,” he beckoned towards the wings and out came the reggae legend himself for a three-song mini-set that ended with his signature tune “The Harder They Come.”
The surprises never stopped. “Hearts And Bones,” sounding better than it has in years, turned into Junior Parker’s 1953 “Mystery Train” (that Elvis popularized) before morphing into a Chet Atkins guitar jam. The fluidity of such changes was wonderfully mastered by this world class band that included Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, a horn section that forced the action, pulsating, overflowing percussion and that funky bass man Bakithi Kumalo. Like Larry Graham in Sly & The Family Stone… like Les Claypool in Primus… like Flea in Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kumalo is an imposing figure who pops that bass with such driving force that it becomes a lead instrument. He’s been with Simon since recording Graceland in 1986. “Graceland” wound up becoming Bo Diddley’s “Pretty Thing” as a huge backdrop of Mr. Diddley turned it into a tribute. Another Graceland mainstay, “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” with its gorgeous Afro-pop vocal harmonies, turned into the night’s highlight, “Late In The Evening.” Another surprise came during the first encore: George Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun,” sung so sweet with accordion and guitar for the 10th anniversary of his good friend’s death.
You don’t think of Paul Simon as a song and dance man but that’s exactly what he turned into during the course of a three-hour, four-encore set (which included a short, five-song opening slot for compelling singer/songwriter Carsie Blanton and a short intermission between the two artists). Yeah, he was reelin’ with the feelin’, obviously having a blast and dancing the night away to Graceland’s “The Boy In The Bubble,” “Kodachrome” (which bled into his gospel rave-up “Gone At Last”) and “The Obvious Child” from the Brazil-soaked Rhythm Of The Saints.
“I wasn’t going to do this song but Jimmy Cliff said it was his favorite and asked me to,” said Simon before performing “The Boxer” in all its unadorned simplistic yet poignant beauty. The only other Simon & Garfunkel tunes were a drop-dead gorgeous version of “The Only Living Boy In New York” fit to swoon over and “The Sound Of Silence” that hushed the crowd into an almost spiritual zen zone while Simon exhibited his nimble, spider-like, totally dazzling acoustic guitar playing. His voice rang out clear and beautiful. He’s a damn freak-of-nature vocally! Like the 85-year-old Tony Bennett whose voice just keeps getting stronger, the 70-year-old Paul Simon can sing better now than he ever has. This point was brought home with the astonishingly cerebral and still vital anthem that closed the evening, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” which strangely felt like Sinatra.
As gems like “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” “Peace Like A River” and “Slip Slidin’ Away” gave way to new gems like “Dazzling Blue,” “The Afterlife” and “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light,” one could get lost in the majesty and profundity of Simon’s compositional brilliance, especially since the perfecto NJPAC sound system made almost every word discernable. Cliché as it might be to say so, Paul Simon is, indeed, a uniquely American treasure. Like his country itself that historically has been made up of hard-working immigrants seeking a better life, Paul Simon’s music is made up from the love he has for disparate sound, be it African, Brazilian, Jamaican, New Orleans Dixieland, New York City street-corner doo-wop, salsa, samba, rock ’n’ roll or folk. And it’s all on display every time he performs.