In the mid-1970s, Paul Simon was worried about his image becoming too, too serious, so he welcomed the chance to host one of the very first episodes of “Saturday Night Live,” as Robert Hilburn’s new biography of the singer recalls. And for a few moments early in his show Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl — the first of three “Farewell Tour” gigs at the venue — he put on the turkey suit, figuratively speaking, and did some solemnity-dispelling shtick.
“It was a cold winter night when Paul Simon began his farewell tour in Los Angeles,” he quipped, addressing the unseasonal chill in the air. And then: “So, the thing about a farewell is… well, I’ve changed my mind. What it is is that it’s not so much a final tour that I like as I like raising the ticket prices to the level…”
Like any practiced standup, he knows when to let a joke trail off in the laughter rather than complete the punchline. Bit over, he waxed serious about the decision to hang up at least that particular ball cap this fall (the final shows are in New York City in mid-September, a few weeks shy of his 77th birthday). “The way I see it is like, aside from the word ‘final,’ which evokes words like ‘Oh, it’s final, so you didn’t study for your finals,’ I don’t know really what to make of the decision. I just find it somehow exciting to put some kind of casing around this entire career, and to look at it that way. So, I don’t intend to stop writing music, or playing it.” (A message in the souvenir program gets more specific, with Simon saying he “anticipate(s) doing the occasional performance in a (hopefully) acoustically pristine hall” for charity.)
Simon’s opening Bowl bow ran a generous two hours and 20 minutes, and only occasionally was there lull enough to think about the tens of thousands of man-hours devoted in a 61-year career to caring about music enough to constantly learn new tunings, types of poetic expression and international idioms, even as most of his contemporaries were content to ride on the fumes of early genius. There’s not often pure joy at the end of that much cerebral obsession, and yet, in Simon’s final L.A. engagement, the crowd got a set that, aside from its lyrical genius, swung in about 26 different ways in as many songs.
He’s maybe the only 1960s icon who successfully reinvented his music so many times that he almost could have overlooked that decade of origin without much trauma to the set. Fortunately, he didn’t test that hypothesis: The show opened with Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” — we’re still lost in it, as he noticed before Albert Brooks did — and ended, as his career began (not counting Tom & Jerry), with “The Sound of Silence.” That breakout hit was performed solo, and after all the celebration of the preceding 140 minutes, its spookiness served as a sobering reminder: He’s gonna make us lonesome when he goes.
The part of the audience that might still believe Simon peaked in the mid-‘60s and not a couple of decades later had to wait a while after “America” to get to the other Artie-less S&G tunes. Aside from a beautiful but ultimately teasing instrumental snippet of “El Condor Pasa,” these oldest oldies arrived in the copious encores, including “Mrs. Robinson” (which he rotated out on Wednesday night in favor of “American Tune”) and “Homeward Bound,” which provided the occasion for a career-retrospective video. He turned some of these ‘60s anthems almost explicitly into countrified traveling songs, with the finger-picking/slide help of Mark Stewart, the non-Nigerian half of his two-man lead guitar team. The most notably transformed piece in this late segment was “The Boxer,” which was partly recorded in Nashville, but never sounded like it was occurring in Nashville until it got an unexpected new shuffle beat… with a few understated cymbal crashes in the chorus serving as subtle nods to the grander pomp of the original recording.
One of Simon’s great talents as a band leader is being able to come up with fresh concert arrangements that drift far enough away from the studio versions to please listeners with curious ears but stick just close enough to the familiar that less adventurous souls don’t have cause to gripe, “I didn’t even recognize the songs!” (see: the men’s room after any given Dylan show). Sometimes this involved putting a different spin on the entire style of a song, but sometimes it just involved a solo. “Still Crazy After All These Years” maintains its New-York’s-alright-if-you-like-saxophones arrangement from the mid-‘70s, but when it came time for Andy Snitzer to recreate Michael Brecker’s iconic sax solo, he didn’t. Snitzer expanded on it, brilliantly and rousingly, in a way that really should be required studying for any classic rockers who believe boomer audiences want their solos replicated note for note. (Sax aside, the soloing highlight of the night belonged to keyboardist Mick Rossi, who ended “The Cool, Cool River” with some hot free jazz.)
The boldest leap away from the records came in a two-song segment that had Simon accompanied solely by yMusic, a half-strings/half-brass chamber pop sextet previously best known for collaborating with Ben Folds. The ensemble also provided backing during much of the rest of the show but got to show their classical chops on baroque-style versions of “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” and “Can’t Run But.” Clearly, Simon’s friendship with Philip Glass over the years has involved some osmosis and not just palling around.
But the spine of the show remains — as it has for every Simon tour of the last three decades — the world-beat-annexing stuff from his 1980s “Graceland” and “Rhythm of the Saints” albums. One solo that you probably don’t want to hear played any differently than it appeared on the record is the slap-bass break from “You Can Call Me Al,” here recreated not just once but twice for good measure by Bakithi Kumalo, the South African who created the part. The other “Graceland”-era stalwart of Simon’s 16-piece touring band, guitarist Vincent N’guini, died last December (in the tour booklet, Simon cites N’guini’s passing as “not the only reason I’ve decided to stop touring, but… a contributing factor”). He’s been replaced by a young Nigerian guitarist, Biodun Kuti, who shines throughout the show as the exotic-funk counterpoint to Stewart’s Americana moves, and who gets a particular workout on the set’s most specifically Brazilian number, “Spirit Moves.”
What kind of shape is Simon himself in? The demanding “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” you will notice, is not part of the farewell setlist, but while the set is dotted with more conversational songs that don’t require Garfunkel-esque boy-soprano chops, there are still plenty of songs that take place in a far higher key than the average 76-year-old man would have been capable of at 26. There was some unnecessary roughness in the opening minutes when the singer held a note in “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” perhaps a few seconds longer than a more risk-averse veteran might have —but it was also an encouraging sign that Simon does not intend to hold anything back as he scoots toward the touring exit. And he really doesn’t need to; as his voice warmed up in the arctic May air, he sounded about as much like a preternaturally ancient choirboy as ever.
There are so many retirement tours suddenly in gear, from Elton John’s on down to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s, that it’s almost possible to take Simon’s for granted as part of a TTFN tide. It probably takes a reading of Hilburn’s excellent book to grasp the full scope of what he’s pulled off over six decades and realize how much this one hurts. Although Simon said on stage that he’ll keep writing songs, he hints toward the end of the biography that he might actually quit that, too, and focus on retrospective projects. (The tour book includes a link to download six pre-release songs from a long-promised revival album, “Alternate Tunings / Rare and Unreleased,” which hasn’t been officially announced yet, and mentions another mystery project, “In the Blue Light,” due in September.)
The two-year-old “Stranger to Stranger” album showed a Simon still working at pretty close to the peak of his powers. He only performed one song from that recording at the Bowl, “Wristband,” but it encapsulated the casual greatness of so much of his catalog, in the way that it used an idea so easily digestible that even the majority of the crowd that hadn’t bought the album could understand and laugh at — a rock star is reduced to being excluded with the hoi polloi when a bouncer demands to see his credentials — and then took that colloquial mirth as a jumping-off point to suggest something more profound about the societal anger of exclusion. Apart from all that, it also had an utterly slamming stand-up bass solo.
In the final encore, Simon’s own pick for his best late-period song, “Questions for the Angels,” mixed mundane details (a Jay-Z reference) with the mystical (a surprising declaration of belief in heavenly beings). And then that somber closing “Sound of Silence” proved that the morose child was father to the more spiritual man. Whichever message you took away from that pair of contrary closers, never let it be said that Simon didn’t ace his finals.
He wraps up his Hollywood Bowl run Monday, May 28. The tour’s final shows are set for Madison Square Garden Sept. 21-22 and a yet-to-be announced New York City gig Sept. 23.