Whoever was working the smoke machine last night at the Music Box in Los Angeles waited until Paul Simon’s second encore to turn the thing on. But maybe that’s because there was no need for artificial smoke: Simon and his eight-piece band hit the stage hot and stayed that way for two hours, digging into killer grooves and lovely tunes from throughout the singer’s decades-spanning songbook.
On the road in North America in support of his excellent new studio disc, So Beautiful or So What, Simon is playing a handful of club gigs in between his larger theater dates, and last night it was obvious how much he enjoyed the return to a small(ish) room: On "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," from 1986’s classic Graceland, he led the capacity crowd in a spirited round of call-and-response clapping; elsewhere, the lifelong perfectionist let his top-shelf sidemen off the leash in fresh cuts like "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light" and "Getting Ready for Christmas Day."
Simon took plenty of stylistic liberties with his older material, boosting the roots-rock energy in "Kodachrome" and juicing "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" with a salty shot of Beale Street soul. During his first encore he played a thorny solo-acoustic take on "The Sound of Silence" that made obvious his influence on young indie-folk acts such as Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens. The Simon & Garfunkel gem also emphasized the fact that, at 69, Simon has sacrificed a bit of his vocal range to time; the same went for a stripped-down reading of the Beatles’ "Here Comes the Sun."
But what Simon may have lost in his voice he’s more than made up for with a sense of adventure uncommon in an artist at his stage: In "Rewrite," one of So Beautiful’s highlights, he had his new keyboardist, Mick Rossi, reproduce the album’s kora part on prepared piano. (Rossi later appended a cool neo-Minimalist coda to "Peace Like a River," subtly serving notice of his regular gig in Philip Glass’s ensemble.)
Simon’s just as passionate as he’s ever been about his various inspirations, as he demonstrated when he introduced Jimmy Cliff’s "Vietnam" as the reason he traveled to Jamaica to record "Mother and Child Reunion." His medley of both tunes (which he recently played on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) was a warmly characteristic cultural exchange. Called back to the stage by an audience in full stomp mode, Simon closed Tuesday’s show with a gorgeous soft-pop rendition of "Still Crazy After All These Years."