Much like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and even Jimmy Buffett, Paul Simon is one of those musicians worthy of the label “national treasure”. The guy has been making music for nearly 50 years now, first with his good friend Art Garfunkel and then on his own for much longer. There are so many legendary songs that you would most definitely recognize even if you didn’t consider yourself a Paul Simon fan, and he’s even largely credited with starting the musical movement known as Afropop. A band like Vampire Weekend wouldn’t exist today, or at the very least would sound completely different, if Simon and Afropop did not find one another. It’s also fascinating that he’s continued to endure all this time, because while the songs he writes and puts together are typically strong, his own vocals aren’t exactly a selling point. That’s not to call him a terrible singer, it’s more that you’d think Garfunkel would have been the one to hit it big in their duo. What’s written is written though, and we’ve gotten so many great and just delightful songs from Simon over the years. But as with any musician who’s been playing for most of their lives, the last decade or two has seen a significant slow down in progress. It’s been 5 years since his last album “Surprise” came out, and that was after a 6 year gap following “You’re the One”. But if you’ve been paying a reasonable amount of attention to the music scene in the last several weeks, or you just watched the last episode of “Saturday Night Live”, you’d know Simon put out his latest album “So Beautiful or So What” last month. It earned the sort of moderate applause you give to a national treasure, where respect comes first before an truly honest assessment of the music. Really though, it’s not a bad album by any means. In support of said new record, Simon and his 8-man wild cultural mix of a band set out on tour, which includes two stops in Chicago – one at the historic Chicago Theatre, and the other at the remarkably tiny and somewhat intimate Vic Theatre. To see him perform in a stadium or at a music festival is a treat unto itself, but at a 1,000 capacity venue is something truly special.
Setting the scene, after a weekend filled with rain and temperatures that were close to 30 degrees below normal, the sun came out to play but was on the verge of retiring on Monday evening as crowds gathered in front of The Vic in preparation for the sold out Paul Simon show. Shortly after the 8pm listed start time, the house lights went down, the spotlights went up, and the band emerged to thundrous cheering. Starting strong and with something recognizable is always a plus, and Simon did not disappoint with the positively lovely “The Boy in the Bubble” off the “Graceland” record. Light and airy and with an accordion-fueled energy, the dancing began right away for much of the audience. The one big thing you learn from listening to Paul Simon’s catalogue is that despite being credited for Afropop, that’s by no means the only style of music he plays. He, along with his band, are citizens of the world, and the live show is very reflective of that. What really binds us all together no matter where you’re from is rhythm, and so you can bounce from the African beats of “Dazzling Blue” off his latest record into a more funky folk of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” before running into reggae in a wild combination platter of Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam” and Simon’s own “Mother and Child Reunion”. From there it was a trip to Creole country courtesy of “That Was Your Mother”. Outside of a couple early set highlights, the biggest chunks of pure greatness in the set came closer to the end. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” began completely a capella, as it does on the original “Graceland” version, but the end of the song, which featured a drummer face-off between Jamey Haddad and Jim Oblon, was where things really ran into the highly exceptional category.
At the start of the first encore, Paul Simon returned to the stage by himself, a spotlight the only thing illuminating the stage. He picked up his acoustic guitar and belted out a soulful, mournful version of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence”. Knowingly, 99% of the crowd became so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The two people that “Woo-ed” early in the song were quickly shut up. It became the most intimate moment of the entire evening, just a man and his guitar. I’d like to think that everybody paying strict attention during those few minutes felt a connection, as if the song was being performed for you and only you. Surely the smaller venue helped in that regard, as watching a tiny man from a balcony probably doesn’t have the same effect. But that was the real goosebump moment of the show, and honestly, I wasn’t the least bit bothered that nobody stepped in to try and recreate Garfunkel’s vocal harmonies on the song. After not hearing a whole lot of singing along for much of the set, it was a little surprising to me that “Kodachrome” was when people started to pipe up. It was kind of a party from that point onwards though, with some nice excitement when Simon whipped out a rendition of The Beatles classic “Here Comes the Sun” leading into one of his best and most popular tracks, “Late in the Evening”. The crowd had clearly not had enough after nearly two hours and a 5 song encore, so after exiting again, the band returned one last time for “Crazy Love, Vol. II”. There was more singing and more dancing and smiles abound. Prior to walking off the stage for the final time that night, Simon took a moment to give appropriate kudos to his band and introduce them one by one. Not enough performers do that these days, and the way they all embraced one another made it very clear they’re all like family to one another. A 9 man, multicultural family. For two hours on a Monday night, they let us sit in on one of their family gatherings. One can only hope they do something like that again real soon.
Click on “Read More” below to stream the entire new album “So Beautiful or So What”
The Boy in the Bubble
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
So Beautiful or So What
Vietnam (Jimmy Cliff cover)
Mother and Child Reunion
That Was Your Mother
Hearts and Bones
Mystery Train/Wheels (Junior Parker cover)
Slip Slidin’ Away
Peace Like A River
The Obvious Child
The Only Living Boy in New York (Simon & Garfunkel song)
The Cool, Cool River
Getting Ready for Christmas Day
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
The Sound of Silence (performed solo; Simon & Garfunkel song)
Gone at Last
Here Comes the Sun (Beatles cover)
Late in tne Evening
Crazy Love, Vol. II