The final program in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s monthlong salute to one of Gotham’s greatest pop exports may have been the most mainstream of the bunch — following on the heels of a reframing of “Capeman” and a survey of his forays into African music — but neither Paul Simon nor his collaborators for the evening were willing to coast through the perf on familiarity alone.
Much as he did at the previous two events, Simon hovered in the background for a good chunk of “American Songs,” providing sweet vocal counterpoint and a shot or two of Queens-kid verve. He filled that role well enough, bringing a relaxed, low-key vibe to much of the two-hour set, but not surprisingly, the aud responded most enthusiastically to the solo performances that served as bookends for the program.
Simon dusted off his old-school street smarts — as well as sassiest delivery — for a strutting, spot-on version of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” before ceding the stage to new-generation Brooklynites Grizzly Bear, who delivered lovingly deconstructed takes on “Graceland” and “Mother and Child Reunion.”
Cornetist Olu Dara took things even further afield during his stint in the spotlight, digging deep into the bones of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and “Slip Slidin’ Away” to reveal a surprisingly rich marrow of funk secreted inside. The same couldn’t be said for Josh Groban, who flattened the highs of “America” and failed to approximate the ethereal tone of Simon’s old partner Art Garfunkel when he and the evening’s honoree duetted on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Gillian Welch acquitted herself far more stirringly when sparring with Simon on “The Boxer” and “Sound of Silence.” Sans Simon, Welch and partner David Rawlings offered up a scooting rendition of “Gone at Last” that captured every bit of the original’s feistiness.
Simon returned to close out the evening with a passel of songs that showcased the breadth of his pop skills, including a thoughtful “Train in the Distance” and a winsome “Only Living Boy in New York” that gained extra buoyancy from the harmonies of the Roches.
Simon closed the proceedings alone with a reverberating “Late in the Evening” that lived up to the song’s lyrical boast that “it was late in the evening and I blew that room away.”