Paul Simon At Massey Hall in Toronto on Friday
Of the many fine young singer-songwriters who surfaced between 1964 and 1974, Paul Simon always seemed the oldest soul of them all. Short, sparse of hair, moon-faced, he had none of Dylan's swagger, Jackson Browne's soulfulness, the acerbity of Warren Zevon. What he had was earnestness, vulnerability, the awareness that a moment in time was just that - that you may be 22 now "but you won't be for long" and "the leaves that are green turn to brown."
Thank God Paul Simon got saved by rhythm, the gospel of which he "preached" to about 3,000 of the faithful Friday evening at Massey Hall. Backed by a supple eight-member band, several of whom doubled and tripled on sundry instruments, Simon - 70 in October - cherry-picked material from pretty much every phase of his long career, including his newly released long-player, So Beautiful or So What, for a two-hour, double-encore audience-pleaser. You left with the feeling that had Simon and crew played an entirely different set of 25 or so songs, the crowd would have been just as satisfied, so vast, varied and beloved is his repertoire.
If the tenor of Simon's voice is now largely a thin, laryngeal croak, the man still has a way with melody, the affecting lyric and rhythmic vivacity that performers 45 years his junior can only envy. It's generally assumed that Simon got baptized in rhythm around 1985 when he went to South Africa and brought forth the benediction that is Graceland. But, as the Massey Hall gig showed, Simon's fondness for sophisticated syncopation goes back even further, certainly at least to the ska/reggae inflections of 1972's Mother and Child Reunion and the salsa-spiced Late in the Evening from 1980, both of which received fine readings Friday.
Thing is, the concert should have gone on even longer or, failing that, had a few fewer tunes. Nothing wrong with performing covers of George Harrison's Here Comes the Sun, Chet Atkins's Wheels and Jimmy Cliff's Vietnam. But this reviewer left the gig wishing Simon's scintillating band - spiked by Graceland-era bassist Bakithi Kumalo and drummers/percussionists Jim Oblon and Jamey Haddad - had accessed its inner Grateful Dead more frequently and let loose the riddum devils to work up the craziness inherent in, say, The Boy in the Bubble, Zydeco and The Afterlife. The last, in particular, from So Beautiful or So What, seemed to really fire up the octet, and you sensed its streamlined Bo Diddley beat could have lifted both musicians and congregation to delirious heights had its be-bop-a-lula been allowed to whomp-bomp for 10 or 15 minutes.
Dressed in what is now his trademark chapeau, with jeans, T-shirt and light cotton jacket, Simon was a genial presence throughout, occasionally offering a hand gesture or look to emphasize a lyric or riff. He'll never galvanize an audience like Elvis Costello nor seduce like Leonard Cohen; he's just too self-contained, even diffident for that. What impresses, finally, is the man's craft - evident right from the start, in 1965's The Sounds of Silence, which Simon reprised, poignantly, with just voice and acoustic guitar Friday (he's a very rhythmically astute guitarist, by the way). That, and the knack for finding the evocative musical moment. Was there anything more hair-raising (in the good sense) at Massey than Andrew Snitzer's raise-high-the-roof beam tenor-sax bridge on Still Crazy After All These Years? It may even have briefly raised Michael Brecker, who played the original part in 1975, from his grave.
Near the end of the show, Simon told his rapturous audience: "I hope I'll come back many more times." We're hoping the same.