It’s typically the curse of the aging rock star that no matter how much he contemporizes, the music of his middle and old age never sounds as vital as the work of his youth. Paul Simon is a rare exception to that rule, and as his marathon set at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater on Wednesday night demonstrated, the relevance of his post-1980s oeuvre has increased in a way few of his peers can boast. Too much of an old pro to completely ignore the fan-favorites, Simon nonetheless made a persuasive argument that his canon is ripe for reevaluation.
Going full-speed ahead for almost exactly two hours with hardly a pause for a sip of water, the 69-year-old was clearly riding high off the stellar reception and healthy sales of his new record “So Beautiful or So What.” Tackling roughly half of that album’s cuts, he was bold enough to exclude quite a few of his canonical hits, and only dipped into the Simon and Garfunkel catalog twice. While this may have rubbed some of the nostalgists in the house the wrong way — an impromptu sing-along of the unperformed “Bridge Over Troubled Water” broke out in the lobby afterward — it was an appropriate artistic choice.
In particular, it was intriguing to note the impact of Simon’s once left-field experiments on present-day indie rock: Vampire Weekend’s borrowings from Simon’s “Graceland” period are numerous and well-documented, but it was almost as easy to see the seeds of Arcade Fire in songs like “The Obvious Child,” or a model for the symphonic folk pomp of Grizzly Bear in “Hearts and Bones.”
The new album, which is strong yet perhaps a bit overpraised by critics, gifted the set a few gems, most notably the gorgeous “Dazzling Blue” and the circuitous, deceptively simple “Rewrite,” both of which can already stand alongside his classic material. It also provided inert placeholders “The Afterlife” and “Love and Hard Times,” which isn’t really a song so much as six chord progressions in search of an anchor.
But the record’s bluegrass and Cajun-music inflections also pleasantly bled through to some of the relics. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” was accented with a dirty Southern snarl that helped wake up the old workhorse, a surprise cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam” segued well into Simon’s early reggae experiment “Mother and Child Reunion,” and a relaxed jam on standard “Mystery Train” saw the often dourly perfectionist frontman cut loose to a welcome degree.
The encore unleashed effortlessly on-point renditions of “Kodachrome” and “The Sound of Silence” to predictable hoots and hollers, but neither were much of a match for the intensity of main set closers “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Gumboots,” which elicited a much more telling response from the crowd than cheers — it got them dancing.
Simon’s eight-piece band was in superb form throughout, particularly in the clockwork guitar interplay between hammily ebullient lead Mark Stewart and stately Cameroonian rhythm man Vincent Nguini. New addition Mick Rossi — long Philip Glass’ go-to pianist — slotted perfectly into the band’s groove.
Simon plays again at the Pantages tonight, followed by two dates at Gotham’s Beacon Theater on May 10 and 11.