50 Ways to Listen to Paul Simon at Webster Hall

by |
06/07/2011 4:19 PM |


1. Paul Simon’s key demographics at this point are people in their mid-20s who grew up listening to their parents’ copy of Graceland and worked backwards, and adults in their 50s, who originally made Simon & Garfunkel one of the most successful musical duos of all-time.

2. The majority of those 50-year-olds wear New York Yankees paraphernalia.

3. I saw at least four people, all male, call or text their mom before the show, possibly as a thank you for introducing them to Paul Simon in the first place.

4. Graceland is a perfect album, “The Boy in the Bubble,” which began the set, is a perfect song, and the teeny, tiny Webster Hall is about as perfect a venue to see Simon as any.

5. Wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket over a tucked-in blue t-shirt, Simon now gives “Bubble” a funkier edge, his voice bouncing around the lyrics.

6. He’s not able to hit the same notes as he used to—the songs are now in a slightly lower register—but Simon’s voice is still unmistakably his and, unlike, say, Bob Dylan’s rasp, still totally comprehensible.

7. So Beautiful, or So What is Simon’s best album in 25 years, since Graceland in 1986.

8. It’s not a particularly good album.

9. But “Dazzling Blue” is better on the record than it is live. Its exotic flavor is washed away, and all that’s left is a bland slab of pop.

10. That would be an overarching theme: the great songs are still really great, and the boring songs are really boring. What you think you’ll like is what you’ll remember the next day—the rest is just sweet-sounding mediocrity.

11. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is now accompanied by a sexy blues lick, courtesy of guitarist Mark Stewart. The way Simon sings it is like a human version of Follow the Bouncing Ball; he moves his body up and down with the name rhymes. (It bugs me that Simon doesn’t list the complete 50 ways—instead, we only get one tenth of the number.)

12. When Simon holds an electric guitar, it completely dwarfs him.

13. “It’s great to be playing a club in New York City. Last time I did that was Gerde’s Folk City.”

14. Four songs in, after the new album’s title track, accompanied by a bevy of exotic wooden instruments, it’s clear that Simon knows how to expertly arrange a set list, seamlessly fitting in new material alongside the classics, appeasing both the crowd, who want to hear “The Sounds of Silence,” and him and his band, who want to try out the new stuff.

15. Cover Song, Vol. I: when Paul Simon sings Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam,” which he introduces as the song that inspired him to write “Mother and Child Reunion,” he really sounds like a white Jew from Queens.

16. “Mother and Child Reunion,” fittingly, follows, and it’s much better. The original’s playful touch has been softened, possibly because he’s been singing the damn thing since 1972, but it’s still an absolutely gorgeous song.

17. Simon and his band are now at their best when they’re playing zydeco music, with horns and an accordion and a washboard pad and wailing sax solo, which makes “That Was Your Mother,” one of the weaker Graceland songs, one of the evening’s highlights.

18. It was an old fashioned, clap-assisted stomp, and proved why Simon was one of the headliners at last year’s New Orleans Jazz Fest.

19. A must see: Simon’s dancing. Picture someone trying to air-draw a voluptuous, curvy woman like they used to do in old Looney Tunes cartoons, but messing up midway through and trying to erase the hand-drawn image while they’re swaying back and forth.

20. That’s Paul Simon dancing. His air guitar stroke, both meanings, is pretty good, too.

21. “Hearts and Bones,” while a wonderful song, suffers in its live version.

22. Simon is one of the most personal artists of all-time, with some of the most diary-lifted lyrics ever, so it feels weird being surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of people. It’s as if, during the smooth jazz sax solo of “Hearts and Bones,” everyone was thinking of the first time they heard Simon, or the time they were kissed while one of his songs was playing in the background, and the crowd, myself included, drifts away.

23. But not in a good way. We’re remembering what we want to hear, rather than what’s being performed.

24. Then everyone snaps back to reality when “Mystery Train” begins.

25. Cover Song, Vol. II: Simon’s soft chugging version of the song is no comparison to the exhilarating and dangerous (Simon is many things, but “dangerous” is not one of them) renditions by Junior Parker and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

26. Cover Song, Vol. III: The corny-and-goofy-yet-utterly-charming “Wheels,” original by Chet Atkins, was much more in Simon’s wheelhouse.

27. I honestly can’t think of anything to say about “Slip Slidin’ Away,” other than: it was fine.

28. So Beautiful’s whistle-heavy “Rewrite” could have been on The Wild Thornberrys Movie soundtrack. It’s a kids song trying to disguise itself as something adult.

29. “The Obvious Child” is one of Simon’s more obscure gems, and like “That Was Your Mother,” it’s a floor-shaking jam, a phrase not used often when it comes to the man who wrote The Capeman.

30. When Simon faithfully sings that here he is, “the only living boy in New York,” half of the crowd cheers while the other half shushes the first half up. I’m in the second half, because in a discography full of excellent songs, “Living Boy” is the most excellent.

31. “The Afterlife,” which quotes the Everly Brothers’ “Be Bop a Lula,” and “Questions for the Angels,” are both awful, awful songs.

32. In a recent Rolling Stone profile, Simon says, “One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere. I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time. I sound sincere every time.” Lines like “If you shop for love in a bargain store/And you don’t get what you bargained for/Can you get your money back?” only proves his point.

33. The line mentioning a Jay-Z billboard is just confusing, too.

34. To make up for the two songs’ nine-minute lull, a particularly tongue-twisting version of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” is stretched over seven minutes plus, the last song before the first encore.

35. “The Sound of Silence,” solo. I might not have loved the show, but I’m not heartless, either, although the song is now less paranoid, and more like a lullaby. Really the only time the entire venue went small, minus one guy in the back who quickly screamed out something incomprehensible.

36. “Kodachrome,” which will soon grace the high school yearbook quote page of thousands of graduating seniors who think back on all the crap they learned and are wondering how they can think at all, is just as fun and jaunty as ever.

37. Possibly in tribute to Phoebe Snow, who passed away earlier this year, Simon dusts off “Gone at Last,” giving it a nice gospel feel.

38. Cover Song, Vol. IV: “Here Comes the Sun” is one of the Beatles’ most overrated tunes, and Simon’s sickly sweet version, featuring an accordion, does it no favors.

39. Seriously, the original isn’t very good.

40. “Late in the Evening” showcases one of Simon’s best talents: merging a variety of genres, from Afropop to the blues to gospel music, and blending them together into a wonderfully cohesive song.

41. In the wait between the first and second encore, a tech guy places another microphone stand next to Simon’s, and raises it for someone tall. The crowd anxiously chatters to itself, wondering who the special guest could be (the concert was being filmed, after all).

42. For a second, I thought, “…Garfunkel?”

43. Even better, it’s David Byrne, and he’s dressed as a gay cruise ship retiree, decked out in pink and white stripes and all-white sneakers, his hair in a shock as always.

44. Simon lets Byrne own the stage, staying off to the side to play harmonica, while Byrne sings “Road to Nowhere,” his voice as full as ever. The 11-year age difference between the two is all too obvious.

45. They both dance like fish flopping on a beach, though. Half the fun is the Old Man Dance-Off, especially when, during the next song, Byrne, doing some kind of backwards strut, trips over a speaker and immediately gets back, laughing it off. Later, in one of Simon’s lighter moments, he jokes about suing Webster Hall.

46. The two world-music greats traded verses for “You Can Call Me Al,” the only surprise of the night (Simon’s been going pretty much the same set list throughout his current tour). Byrne tripped over some of the lyrics, but that’s OK: the height differential between the Talking Heads’ frontman and Simon was reminiscent of Chevy Chase and Simon in the “Al” music video, which is still amusing…after all these years.

47-50. Like Simon, I’m cheating with my numbers, too. The concert ends with a Lite-FM version of “Still Crazy After All These Years” and a wonderful “Crazy Love, Vol. II.” It’s a strong ending to an uneven concert, from a man who’s made as much as great music as he has absolute mush. Honestly, unless it’s a small venue, it’s probably better to listen to your Paul Simon (and Garfunkel) albums in your bedroom, protected by your books and poetry, than it is to pay to see him live.

7 Comment

  • I can’t buy “Rewrite” as a kid song “disguised” for adults. The lyrics, if you listen closely, describe an older guy who had a nervous breakdown and is now scraping by working at a car wash, fantasizing about a different version of his life where he’s not estranged from his family. To call it Wild Thornberry ready is kind of condescending. Also, “The Afterlife” is lovely, although, yes, “Questions for the Angels,” not so much; I’m baffled that he decided to play it live, since it’s the most tuneless thing on that record.

    Also, in all of this “best since Graceland” talk, both positive and negative, I feel like that gives the short shrift to Rhythm of the Saints, which gets mega-points for “Obvious Child” alone.

    I looked up setlists afterward, and I found a little more variation than I expected based on all of the “well it’s the same set every time” stuff I read online. I mean, they’re 85% similar, yes, in almost the same order, but the end of show/encore stuff seems shuffled around a bit, with different new songs subbed in and out.

  • 1 way you know the critic is more interested in snark than analysis….When he uses a tired trick of listing thoughts instead of having to put together smart, coherent criticism that at least tries to pass the smell test.. “When Simon holds an acoustic guitar, it completely dwarfs him”? Please don’t send a 12 year old to review an artist of Simon’s caliber. Waste of precious digital space…

  • @georgiadog It’s a concert review, in which I was critical of the performance and tried to do something more interesting than, “At the age of 69, Paul Simon took the stage at the intimate Webster Hall in front of a packed audience, playing both the classics and material from his new album, So Beautiful, or So What.”

    And I’ll have you know I’m almost twice the age of 12!

  • @Jesse There’s just something a little too goofy about “Rewrite,” particularly the way it’s performed live, that makes it feel like such a lightweight, touch to take seriously track. As for The Rhythm of the Saints: it has two of my favorite Simon solo songs

  • To copy your random thoughts style…

    How does stating that “Vietnam” inspired him to write “Mother and Child Reunion” make him sound like a “white Jew from Queens”? Explain, rather than trying to crowbar in a joke that makes no sense.

    Paul Simon is short. Is his height something that falls under “performance”?

    Agreed with georgiadog. A list of random comments that don’t have anything to do with your actual article title (that has nothing to do with what is actually contained in the list) is kind of lazy.

    To be even more nitpicky, he doesn’t say “Here’s the 50 ways, oops only gonna give you a few”, he says “There MUST BE 50 ways”.

    I don’t know what line about Jay-Z you’re talking about. As a writer you shouldn’t assume the reader knows what you know about your subject. Unless you’re writing for a Paul Simon lyrics magazine.

    Just curious, why were you even at this show? You sound like you weren’t a fan going in.

  • Reviewer comes across as a douchebag hipster trying to impress his hipster friends with “clever” comments that are actually snarky and asinine.

    I’m glad your parents deposit money in your bank account while you try your hand at becoming a music critic in the big city.

    At least they love you, and think you’re worth their time and money.

    Nobody else does.

  • Hi Josh,
    Just watched the PBS video of the show, was looking for info, found your review.
    I’m over 4 times 12 and I can save you some time on this one. Even when your reviews get published and read, nobody cares about what you do or don’t like.
    We might be interested in *why* you do or don’t like something, but you’ll have to explain.
    A reviewer’s job is to report and the explain and compare and we expect them to make judgements. But a review can’t just say, “Love it” or “Hate it” and expect anything good to happen. I’m interested in Simon’s covering “Here Comes The Sun” – it seems like a poor choice and your mention focuses on both his strengths (he’d try at all) and weaknesses (too sticky sweet). In a good review this might lead to some thoughts about Simon as a performer, doing non-autobiographic material. Instead we get your opinion, unexplained, about the original “Here Comes The Sun”. You don’t like it. So what?
    You could have cut the unsupported opinion yourself, and your editor certainly should have.
    I once got a fan letter for a review I wrote. In effect, it said, ‘I don’t like this kind of music but after reading this review I understand why other people might like it”. It made me feel very happy, and very humble.