Friday night at Seattle's ornate Paramount Theater, Paul Simon shared the stage with a polyrhythmic eleven-piece backup band and two enormous ghosts. His work with Art Garfunkel and 1986's Graceland will always loom large, causing anything he tries subsequently to pale in comparison. But even if these are impossible acts to follow, he is not about to admit that he's played his best innings. The notion that he's winding down is with us, not him.
This tour is in enthusiastic support of You're the One, a song cycle meant to mirror the life of the fifty-nine-year-old artist as adequately as his first solo effort did half a lifetime ago. Even if listening to the new album is somewhat less satisfying than, say, Bookends, Simon approaches the old and the new with equal fervor onstage.
The two-hour, fifteen-minute show offers a necessarily incomplete retrospective and features selections from every album from Simon's career, aside from his first album with Garfunkel and 1997's Songs From the Capeman. Both Graceland and the S&G years gain a plurality, with five songs each.
The band -- with four percussionists -- gave everything a consistent texture. Simon has dabbled in myriad styles and, thus, didn't stay in the same place for long, but the drum-intensive treatment gave the songs a common ground. While some of the arrangements were faithful to the originals, he didn't leave anything entirely alone. The changes were subtle, like cranking up the slide guitar in "Graceland," using a muted trombone to increase the jazz quotient in "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" or kicking "Late in the Evening" into calypso overdrive.
Other tracks were inverted, taking the song from one part of his career and parking it in another. "Kodachrome" became multicultural, as if it were from Graceland. And "Bridge Over Troubled Water" sounded much like "Quiet" (the ethereal You're the One closer, tonight unplayed).
Were he a pitcher, Simon would be a master of the change-up. At one point, he downshifted from the one-two punch of "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and "You Can Call Me Al" into a three-song Simon and Garfunkel medley. He then jumped into two selections presented in sequence from the new album: "Darling Lorraine" and "Old."
Here, it was like being sent to the minor leagues in the middle of the inning. "Old" is a moderately amusing rocker about aging, but doesn't offer any new perspective about fading eyesight and creaky bones. Compare this with "Old Friends/Bookends Theme," played minutes before, about people "silently sharing the same fears." Simon wrote this powerfully perceptive portrait of the inevitable in his twenties, and his own aging process has in this case dulled the poetic edge.
"Lorraine" also invites an ambivalent reaction. A long, narrative piece told in the first person by an unsympathetic character, the story isn't compelling enough to want to hear more than once. And hearing Simon snarl out these nasty words immediately after a triad of sensitive Sixties anthems may be too much of a change-up, especially since Simon declined to provide any verbal transition between the two extremes.
Musically, Simon can provide a long, fulfilling show without anybody really noticing Garfunkel is missing. Still, Art's ability to provide engaging between-song chatter would be welcome here. Wearing the now ubiquitous baseball cap and a black casual outfit, Simon never spoke except to introduce band members, although toward the end he became relatively loquacious, saying, "This is a great pleasure. I mean it, too" and, oddly, "We should talk more often." Hey Paul, that part is up to you.
Simon's commercial successes have been accidental, as he always does pretty much anything he chooses. Now, he wants to kick out the folk jams, playing oldies ("I Am a Rock") and new classics ("Hurricane Eye") with the same intensity. So if he feels the need to do this in front of four drummers wearing a silly hat and without gratuitous chatter, he's certainly earned that right.