Fans couldn't haggle with Paul Simon's song selection, which
spanned one of the richest catalogs in rock history, from his days
with Art Garfunkel to the present.
Though it was smaller than many
of the groups he's employed, especially during the "Graceland" era,
the eight-piece backing band was top-notch as always, with special
kudos to the brilliant Steve Gadd (whose parts were needlessly
duplicated by a second drummer).
And though the strange and atmospheric sounds of his recent Brian
Eno-produced album "Surprise" seem to have thrown some listeners for
a loop -- Variety euphemistically described it as "underperforming,"
which is code for "flopping on the pop charts" -- the unusual,
serpentine arrangements of songs such as "How Can You Live in the
Northeast?," "Father and Daughter" and "Outrageous" sprang to life
onstage, providing some of the most exciting moments Monday night at
the Rosemont Theatre.
Nevertheless, something was just ... a little off.
"Turn up the vocals!" one frustrated fan yelled after the first
four or five songs, and the soundman eventually complied. But the
problem wasn't the audio quality; it was the singer-songwriter's
lack of commitment and focus as to what he was trying to do.
Seemingly taking a cue from his a fellow '60s icon and folk
legend Bob Dylan, who rarely plays his best-known songs the same way
from tour to tour or night to night, Simon reworked the arrangements
of many of the baby boom's most beloved pop anthems. But he didn't
go far enough: Things were changed just enough to sound lackluster,
off-key, out of time or just plain wrong.
The words for "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and "50 Ways
to Leave Your Lover" were slurred together. "The Only Living Boy in
New York" was injected with inappropriate bombast. "Slip Slidin'
Away" slid right off the rails. And even the title track from his
still relatively recent "You're the One" (2000) was burdened with
new, odd and jarring doo-wop interludes.
The audience responded most enthusiastically to the rollicking
grooves of "Cecilia" and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," where
the band's layers of percussion and three or four intertwining
guitar parts created an irresistible polyrhythmic undertow. But even
during these songs, Simon hedged his bets, goosing the fans to their
feet by turning on the house lights in a bit of manipulative forced
For all his flamboyant arm-waving and occasional attempts at a
little soft-shoe shuffle, the 65-year-old artist has never been a
particularly inspiring or personable stage presence. You often get
the impression that he'd rather be anywhere else, and this attitude
combined with the musical miscues to create a vibe as soggy and
sullen as the dreary weather outside.
Simon might have been giving us a clue that he's reconsidering
the art-rock direction of "Surprise" by his choice of an opening
Jerry Douglas' bluegrass instrumentals are about as far away from
the headliner's current sounds as any genre could be, but the
accomplished guitar and dobro player and his four backing musicians
delivered a strong set that was much more successful in its own
unexpected detours, especially when the group reinvented Weather
Report's jazz fusion ballad "A Remark You Made" with a bit of
low-key back-porch pickin'.