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Review: Paul Simon, Still Evolving, Is Saying Goodbye

Paul Simon kicked off “Homeward Bound — the Farewell Tour” in Vancouver, British Columbia.CreditLindsey Blane for The New York Times

By Jon Pareles

May 17, 2018
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Paul Simon couldn’t resist introducing some ambiguity to the first night of what he has billed as “Homeward Bound — the Farewell Tour,” at Rogers Arena here on Wednesday night. After singing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” — itself a song about an ambivalent exit — he joked: “I lied about the final. I was just trying to raise the ticket prices.” Then he backtracked. “Yeah. This is it.” But he continued, “I don’t know what the ‘it’ is,” and went on to elaborate. “Is this about the final iteration of these songs? Is this, like, where I’m freezing them? I honestly don’t know what the thing is.”

As it stands, the tour will end with three shows in New York City in September: two at Madison Square Garden and the last one, on Sept. 22, at a location to be announced. Like Elton John (whose farewell tour is scheduled to persist into September 2019), Mr. Simon, 76, has announced an end only to his touring, not to making music or to performing. And with the opening show here in Vancouver, he was far more a curious musician than a self-congratulatory, self-repeating pop star.


Mr. Simon was backed by 16 musicians, including Mark Stewart, left.CreditLindsey Blane for The New York Times
His set of two dozen songs could all have been hits; he has more than enough. But Mr. Simon juxtaposed his own idiosyncratic favorites with his crowdpleasers, and he is still tweaking — or iterating — songs that he could easily have delivered as jukebox copies. He did keep enough landmarks to summon the pop pleasure of familiarity, like the “ta-na-na” singalong in “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” (which also played up the intertwined guitars of Biodun Kuti and Mark Stewart) and the pristine guitar introduction to “Homeward Bound” (which, suiting a farewell tour, featured a video montage of Mr. Simon’s half-century-plus career). Bakithi Kumalo, on bass, thumb-popped the solo that he played on the 1986 hit “You Can Call Me Al.”

But Mr. Simon still isn’t freezing his music. “The Boxer,” which always had a tinge of country, now hints openly at the sound of Johnny Cash’s the Tennessee Three. Mr. Simon is still an analytic listener to his own songs.

He is touring with 16 backup musicians, mingling the six-member chamber music ensemble yMusic with the rest of his own slowly gathered rock-pop-folk-jazz-world-music band. Their numbers and flexibility give Mr. Simon an instrumental arsenal that can include, as needed, a button accordion, a piccolo, a clay drum, a French horn, a prepared piano (with assorted objects placed on and between its strings) or a penny whistle. There’s a big video screen, but the tour’s real special effects are its arrangements and orchestrations. Mr. Simon gathered yMusic on its own to back him in radically reworked, brilliantly realized chamber-pop versions of “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” and “Can’t Run, But,”two deep-catalog songs that he hadn’t previously performed onstage.

Mr. Simon’s songwriting has long treated pop as a force of inclusion and adaptation, learning constantly from different idioms and discovering where they can overlap or coalesce. At times he has acted as a canny tourist of regional styles, hearing the pop potential of reggae in “Mother and Child Reunion” or paying direct homage to Louisiana zydeco in “That Was Your Mother.” But many more of his songs are hybrids with multiple, tangled, personalized sources — ones that he has scrambled further on tour through the years. “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” has evolved toward a New Orleans-flavored beat, and on Wednesday night the eerie, choppy syncopations of “The Cool, Cool River” led to a piano solo by Mick Rossi that splashed toward free jazz.


The tour is to end with three shows in New York City in September: two at Madison Square Garden and the last one, on Sept. 22, at a location to be announced.CreditLindsey Blane for The New York Times
Mr. Simon, long known as a perfectionist, may have physical reasons to make this his last tour. His voice had scratchy moments as the concert began, though he did warm up along the way. By “That Was Your Mother,” he even had some zydeco-style dance steps. Opening night in Vancouver also had visual glitches that are likely to smooth out on the road. With a crowded stage, the video crew didn’t always point the camera at the player with the key part.

While Mr. Simon’s music pulls disparate ideas together, his songs’ narrators are often lonely and isolated, teetering between estrangement and a longing for connection, between hope for the next generation and intimations of doom. His prophetic “The Boy in the Bubble,” with its weighty Sotho-style African accordion riff, envisioned technological advances coupled with constant surveillance; the band lingered, in vocal harmony, over the phrase, “Don’t cry.” A toe-tapping song from 2011, “Rewrite,” sounds whimsical until the narrator reveals the parental trauma that destroyed his family.

Mr. Simon’s characters find refuge, often temporary, in marriage, spirituality and especially music. The full band’s final appearance was with “Late in the Evening,” a musician’s victory strut with an exultant extended groove. But Mr. Simon returned alone to praise the biologist Edward O. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project (and put on its baseball cap), trying to save the environment, and to sing “Questions for the Angels,” pondering the entire significance of human life. He chose (spoiler alert) to end the concert, still solo, with his despairing 1964 Simon and Garfunkel hit “The Sound of Silence.”

Most pop arena headliners tout togetherness, the unity of a shared good time. Mr. Simon, after all these years, wanted listeners to remember that they, too, might well have to go it alone. His final words were what, he said, was a Spanish saying: “We are not mountains. We will meet again.”

Paul Simon
“Homeward Bound — the Farewell Tour” continues through Sept. 22 and is scheduled to end with three shows in New York City;
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