For most of October, Paul Simon will be in residence at the Paramount for a gig billed as “The Concert of a Lifetime” and pegged to a new album spanning the 36 years in which he became arguably the leading pop troubadour of his generation. For the occasion he’s called an apparent truce with Art Garfunkel and also brought in the gospel group Mighty Clouds of Joy and the incomparable Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the singers who helped bring the music of South Africa to a worldwide audience on Simon’s “Graceland” album.
The presence of Garfunkel bookending the set with his old partner is what most distinguishes these concerts from adventures like the huge free concert Simon performed in Central Park last year, one from which an unhappy Garfunkel was excluded. Garfunkel brings those heavenly harmonies, along with the heavy dose of nostalgia likely to make these pricey gigs a sellout.
But at Saturday night’s concert (the first in the series had taken place the night before), while there was much to celebrate in this lengthy tour of Simoniana, the various elements seemed ragged and under-rehearsed — most significantly and surprisingly the ones featuring God’s duo. And if there wasn’t much passion in evidence at any time, there was even less going on between the headliners; if anything, Garfunkel’s presence seemed to underscore brutally how irrelevant he is to Paul Simon’s music today.
They opened with “The Boxer,””America” and “Homeward Bound,” two incredibly familiar figures alone in their spotlights.
After a few more classics, Garfunkel departed, and the concert turned to the last couple of decades, from “Loves Me Like a Rock,””Me and Julio” and “Still Crazy After All These Years” to “The Boy in the Bubble,””Graceland” and “Further to Fly.”
Phoebe Snow, in sensational voice, helped out on the vocals and Simon was backed by an outstanding band featuring Michael Brecker (sax), Ray Phiri (guitar) and Don Grolnick (piano).
Grolnick had just finished playing behind James Taylor the week before, and a comparison between the two artists is in order. Both are superstars whose currency is the lyric of lament and testimony, but Taylor is a story-teller, relatively contained and predictable; Simon’s the mythic adventurer, bringing subconscious themes to the surface while expanding his music to include what seem to be ever more disparate musical idioms.
But the two concerts also saw the stars on autopilot. Simon is, among other things, a superb band leader, and his “Graceland” and “Rhythm of the Saints” tours were matchless in the precision and emotional impact of the performances. Even with many of the same virtuosos contributing, “The Concert of a Lifetime” was a shadow of Simon’s recent outings.
Garfunkel returned at the end for a powerful solo on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and they ended with “Sound of Silence” and, almost inevitably, “Old Friends.”
Few will complain, exiting at 11:05, that they didn’t get their money’s worth. But Simon has created his own standards, and they’re higher than what he delived that night.