Once a high-wire acrobat loses balance, it’s assumed the act is finished. And perhaps no pop vocalist ever resembled those denizens of dizzying heights more than the angelically-voiced Art Garfunkel.
When Garfunkel announced four years ago that his voice had fallen victim to something imprecisely described as “vocal paresis,” or a form of paralysis of the vocal chords, it was widely assumed that his Grammy-winning and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career was finished. But instead of throwing in the towel, Garfunkel developed other skills akin to those of circus entertainers and he’s swapped the wire work for a magician’s sleight of hand.
Fighting mightily against that dark prognosis, Garfunkel has spent the last two years building his voice back up to the point where he can step out onto a stage like the one at Fantasy Springs Resort in Indio Saturday night (July 5) and hold the 2,000+ audience in rapt attention. His signature wild golden mane of hair is gone, a point he joked about, but when he strode out dressed in his trademark open vest, white shirt, skinny tie and jeans, nostalgia was still on his side.
Joined onstage only by the single acoustic guitar of longtime accompanist Tab Laven, Garfunkel challenged his audience to engage with the deeper meanings of the carefully chosen songs and also the meaning of his own storied career and personal journey.
Though Garfunkel was recently quoted in Rolling Stone as having his voice back to “96%” of its former crystalline perfection, he was frank in his between song patter about the bravery he’s had to muster to weather what he terms “healing in public.”
If that 96% self-assessment was generous by perhaps 20%, in the end it didn’t derail his performance as his blending of determined vocal intensity and poetic memoirs was at turns stirring and soothing. The 85-minute set contained many standout moments and the crowd was never far from the palm of his outstretched hand.
Of course Garfunkel has more than mere nostalgia for the ’60s on his side. There are also those totemic Simon and Garfunkel hits and he made sure to include “April Come She Will,” “The Boxer,” “Homeward Bound,” “Scarborough Fair”and “Sounds of Silence.” He even took a shot at “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” which he warned the audience remained a mountain he could no longer leap over and he didn’t.
He did, however, connect emotionally with several songs from his post S & G career, including a remarkably powerful “99 Miles From L.A.” and “Corcovado,” which he described as a “mature love song.” The mature crowd hung on every line of the Antonio-Carlos Jobim samba classic. Other highlights included his sensitive reading of Randy Newman’s “Real Emotional Girl” and a fervent performance Simon’s earnest “Poem On A Subway Wall.”
Part of the show’s appeal is Garfunkel’s laser-like focus on the theme of love’s redemptive powers and there’s nary a moment in the show when he strays from a yearning idealism and emotional purity that would seem too precious in hands less sure and a spirit less seasoned.
A key pleasure of the current Garfunkel show is the inclusion of ample displays of his lifelong interest in penning poetic portraits from different stages of life. Some of the portraits involve famous names, such as his remembrance of acting in Mike Nichol’s “Carnal Knowledge” with Jack Nicholson, who he clearly still holds in awe.
Other tales are closer to home for Garfunkel and packed with emotional resonance, such as his appreciation for his late father, who he credits with bringing Caruso records to their home in Queens back in his youth,thus setting him on his career path.
And for those who can’t contain their curiosity about the current state of that now 60+ year-old friendship with Simon, there’s a funny tale about a recent birthday party for Simon where Garfunkel can’t resist being “a wiseass” and asking Simon in front of the celebrants (Warren Beatty and Steve Martin were two more names dropped in for effect), “Who will eulogize who?”
Even more telling was an aside tossed off as he listed his “five favorite American songwriters: “Stephen Sondheim, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Paul Simon and Jimmy Webb.” When Simon’s name drew some light handclaps from the audience, Garfunkel joked, “I’ll tell Paul that when I mentioned his name there was a smattering of applause.”
Since Simon mystifyingly refuses to play those beautifully-crafted Simon and Garfunkel hits in his currently-touring big world music band shows, that leaves the turf to Garfunkel who gamely takes on their famed peaks of 60s folk and pop music.
The vocal falls he takes on the way are part of the current Garfunkel experience.
Since he also leads his audience through beautifully rendered valleys and delicate side-streets, the combination makes for a richly rewarding, unique evening with a guy who may not know his own limitations, but whose knowledge of his own heart and willingness to share it in song will keep drawing audiences as long as he’s willing to continue this public “healing.”