With a welcome mix of sincerity, playfulness and straight-ahead virtuosity, Paul Simon presented a two-hour concert that made clear both why and how he’s remained a vital force in rock 'n' roll for nearly half a century.
The why is simple: there's nary a style of music, be it reggae, blues, gospel or roots rock, that Simon hasn't sampled and made his own over the course of his career.
And while he wasn't above toying with the arrangements a bit – adding a pulsating two-note horn part to "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," playing with the tempo of "Kodachrome" – Simon gave his audience exactly what they wanted. There were big hits ("Still Crazy After All These Years," "Slip Sliding Away") and songs the casual fan may never have heard before ("Crazy Love, Part II," which opened the show) – all performed with care, if not always passion.
Still, the show had its poignant moments. Photographs of Martin Luther King brought home the theme of the piquantly cynical "So Beautiful or So What?" And segueing from Jimmy Cliff's "Vietnam," where a mother receives a telegram telling of her son's death, directly into "Mother and Child Reunion" shouldn't have left a dry eye in the house.
It was, perhaps, no surprise that the playlist was largely from Simon's solo career; the Simon & Garfunkel years were represented by "The Sound of Silence" and "The Only Living Boy In New York," but not "Mrs. Robinson," "The Boxer" or "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (which, to be fair, does require Garfunkel's rising falsetto to truly take flight).
But just when the audience thought they'd had the show figured, Simon pulled a fast one, inviting an enthusiastic fan from the front row onstage to join him for "Gumboots," turning the song into an unexpected duet.
True, Paul (sorry, I didn't catch his last name) was no Art Garfunkel, but he was clearly having the time of his life. And his joy was infectious; the crowd stayed on their feet, cheering, and Simon couldn't stop smiling.
Happily, Wednesday's show left his audience, even those who could only sing along with him from their seats with much the same reaction.
Chris Kaltenbach is a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and a frequent contributor to the blog. He last reviewed B.B. King at Pier Six Pavilion. Photos: reporter's own.