If you buy only one music DVD this year, Paul Simon’s Live in New York City should be at the top of the list.
On June 6, 2011, Simon treated fans in New York City’s Webster Hall to selections from his vast catalog and his last album, So Beautiful or So What. From the crowd’s enthusiasm to the tight band to Simon’s still strong voice, the DVD (also including two CDs of the performance) is a joyful viewing and listening experience.
At times singing and half-speaking, Simon gestured while flawlessly delivering the complicated lyrics to such classics as “The Boy in the Bubble” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Only he could transform a song into a casual conversation with the audience. While he performs very familiar songs, he rearranges them to breathe new life into tracks like “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Slip Slidin’ Away.” His thoughtful rendition of the ballad “Hearts and Bones” brings the audience to their feet, Simon’s voice carefully lingering over each word.
While many of Simon’s songs address serious themes, others take listeners on a virtual excursion around the world. He brings New Orleans to New York during the ebullient “That Was Your Mother” and the joyful African rhythms of “Gumboots,” with the audience dancing along with the infectious beats. Interestingly he mashes together “Kodachrome” and “Gone At Last,” the latter turning the venue into a tent revival.
Another noteworthy aspect of Live in New York City is how Simon effortlessly blends his new material with old favorites. At many concerts, new songs often become “beer run” tunes; in other words, audience members leave to purchase drinks until the “good” songs resume. Here, Simon’s new works are strong enough to stand on their own. His excellent album So Beautiful or So What contains many memorable tracks showcasing Simon’s gift for lyricism and incorporating world music. He amusingly meditates on what heaven might look like in “The Afterlife,” where he also ponders his own mortality. “Rewrite” lifts the curtain on the often painful creation process and the life of a songwriter. “When I said, help me, help me, help me, help me; Thank you, for listening to my prayer,” he sings, waving at the audience. He also plays the unusual slide guitar in the middle to great effect. These tracks demonstrate that Simon has no plans to slow down, and still has a lot to say.
In addition to Simon, his international backing band deserves great credit. Each musician must be a world music expert, playing African bass lines, Zydeco beats, gospel, and rock. The band, which features Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, guitarist/drummer Jim Oblon, pianist Mick Rossi, saxophonist/keyboardist Andrew Snitzer, bassist Bakithi Kumalo, guitarist Mark Stewart, master percussionist Jamey Haddad and multi-instrumentalist Tony Cedras, seamlessly transitions from one musical genre to the next. The group impressively recreates (without precisely replicating) Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s harmonies on “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” while the intricate drumming of “The Obvious Child” resonates as strongly as the original Brazilian percussionists.
As the concert ends with “Still Crazy After All These Years,” one can see how Simon has evolved since his days with Simon and Garfunkel. Not only has he become a first-class composer, but he also has singlehandedly exposed world music to mass audiences, making stars out of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and re-introducing legends such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba to young generations. Live in New York City features an artist still at the top of his game, one who has greatly influenced the modern music landscape.