Some pop stars get trapped in their past and close out their careers endlessly replaying old favorites. Others get trapped by their past, struggling in vain to concoct new material that's as interesting or inventive as their back catalog.
Paul Simon, though, has avoided both problems. Not only does his recent work, inspired by the music of Africa and Brazil, rank among his best, but -- as his performance at the Baltimore Arena last night demonstrated -- he even manages to make his oldest hits seem fresh and exciting. As such, he has proven himself to be that rarest of pop commodities, a genuinely creative and successful Mature Artist.
How else could he have gotten away with last night's version of "Cecilia," in which that Simon & Garfunkel chestnut was reinvented as a bit of township jive (complete with pennywhistle solo)? Or steered Richard Tee's gospel piano into a skanking reggae groove during "Bridge Over Troubled Water"? But not everything was so radically rearranged; "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" was more than faithful to the original, as was the solo-acoustic "America." Even so, messing with hits that well-remembered takes more than mere audacity -- it takes confidence, a belief both in the music and in the audience's willingness to accept it.
Seduced by the sinuous grooves spun by Simon's 17-piece band, the fans cheered as loudly for the reconfigured oldies as they did for more recent hits like "The Obvious Child" or "Graceland." "You Can Call Me Al," in fact, went over so well that Simon did it twice, gleefully teasing, "Got you standing up, huh?"
But to tell the truth, it would have been shocking if the audience's response had been anything less than ecstatic, given the strengths of Simon's (literally) world-class band, an outfit that could have made even a C major scale seem danceable. Good songs, great playing, exciting new ideas . . . what more could a pop fan want?