Paul Simon was running on fumes Wednesday, delivering the most lethargic show he has given in Los Angeles over the past 20 years. On a still and cold night that desperately needed some musical heat, Simon went about his business with little fanfare, playing many of his catalog songs a bit slower than we remember and struggling in places to hit notes that have sounded so sweet in the past. It was a night of listening to a man seemingly re-create his demo recordings rather than his finished works.
Still promoting his underperforming June release “Surprise,” Simon is out with a smaller band than usual, keeping in line with the accompaniment on the record, a partnership with producer Brian Eno. The sparseness helped the occasional oldie, but upbeat numbers consistently sounded thin; without the full luxury of studio effects, even the new numbers sounded malnourished.
“Surprise” is a confusing work — after years of listening to Simon’s beautifully constructed songs full of observations, he has turned to proffering answerless questions and intriguing non-sequiters. Fine songwriter that he is, Simon doesn’t fall into the diary-as-lyric trap, but he is increasingly allowing his id to drive the writing.
And it’s unfamiliar territory in the sonic structures, too: These works don’t have the resonance of the songs on “You’re the One,” “Rhythm of the Saints” or his masterpiece “Graceland.” Album has not found an audience, either, selling 250,000, about half as many copies as Simon’s previous disc “You’re the One.” (That album and its attendant tour found Simon at his most animated and cheerful).
Five of “Surprise’s” songs made it into the 23-song set and only the encouraging protectionist tale “Father and Daughter” proved affecting — and it was tucked in a tough slot between an uninspiring reading of “Graceland” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
Simon did treat the aud to some rarely played gems: “Duncan” from his first album and “The Only Living Boy in New York,” the Simon & Garfunkel track popularized in “Garden State.” But the night will be remembered for a lack of spark in “You Can Call Me Al,” the stilted funk of new tune “Outrageous” and a creaky “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
Longtime guitarist Vincent Nguini is seeing his role diminished as Simon’s music gets further and further removed from 1985 South Africa; Steve Gadd continues to be so steady, it was clear Simon was the one out of sync on this particular night. But the lean band puts load of responsibility on Mark Stewart, who bounces between guitar, baritone sax and other instruments without displaying command of any of them.
Dobro ace Jerry Douglas opened the evening with a series of instrumentals that teetered between Appalachia and Gotham’s 52nd Street in the 1940s. His musical mishmash of jazz, new age and bluegrass is quite the heady mix; each tune is a soloists delight and his band was sharp at every turn. But within all the hotshot playing, the easiest tune to enjoy was Joe Zawinul’s glorious ballad “A Remark You Made”; Douglas’ version fitting that of Weather Report to a T.
Simon and Douglas share the bill Oct. 21 at Radio City Music Hall.