30 degrees in the shade it may have been, World Cup Final day it may have been, part of a festival sponsored by Barclaycard it may have been, but Paul Simon at Hyde Park was billed as his last ever UK show, so there was never any question about whether I’d be going.
I bring this up every time I write about him, but Paul Simon was my first favourite musician, when I was unbelievably young. Like, five or six. Why jazz harmony and songs about life as a divorced man in New York City should connect so strongly with a five-year-old British child may be a matter best left to a psychologist, but whatever it says about me, Simon is my guy and I’d never previously seen him play live, so this was it. Last-chance saloon.
I rounded up a special posse for the occasion: Mel, of course; my mum, who is responsible for my three-decades-and-counting love of Paul’s music; and late addition Sara, who took the plunge on a ticket the week before.
BST Hyde Park is a series of one-day gigs over two weekends, with three stages, so there was a lot of music going on, but given the heat we decided not to get there too early, pitching up just in time to watch some of Shawn Colvin’s set on the second stage. She was playing solo with just a guitar and had only a smallish crowd of maybe a few hundred. She’s always had an audience here in the UK, but seldom any hits; Sunny Came Home was the only song I knew among the songs I heard. She was in slightly wobbly voice but went down well with the fans. We skipped the last couple of songs to make sure we got to the main stage for Bonnie Raitt.
Bonnie is a force of nature. 68 years old, her voice is still note-perfect and her slide-guitar playing no less fiery than it was in the 1970s. She also benefitted from the most cohesive and forceful sound mix of any act I saw on the day, with every note was clearly audible (we’ll return to this). Her set, which included a couple of unexpected covers (INXS’s Need You Tonight, Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House) as well as more obvious choices (Skip James’s Devil Got My Woman, Mose Alison’s Everybody Crying Mercy), was mostly blues-centric, with only Nick of Time showcasing her impressive ballad singing. While Nick of Time was great (and very moving), it did make me wish she’s brought things down still further by singing I Can’t Make You Love Me or Love Has No Pride. Still, she did give us a playful version of Something to Talk About that sounded perfect in the afternoon sunshine.
James Taylor was up next on the main stage, and it was during his set that the main drawback of the all-day-gig-in-hot-weather set-up became apparent.
Taylor plays quietly, his music requires an attentive audience and too many audience members preferred to talk rather than listen. With the area nearest the stage out of bounds to those who hadn’t forked out for premium tickets, it was hard to hear Taylor’s song introductions and even hard at times the songs themselves. He played well, if a little less sure-footedly than Bonnie Raitt, and his set included everything you’d want to hear if, like me, you’re only really familiar with his earliest records (Something in the Way She Moves, Fire and Rain, Carolina in My Mind, You’ve Got a Friend, Sweet Baby James – all present and correct), but alas, even those songs failed to completely silence those audience members who’d paid £85 to carry out conversations they could have had for free down the pub.
This became a bigger problem (for me, anyway) when Paul Simon came on stage. Maybe it was me, but I feel sure something was technically awry with the sound, rather than it being that it was simply too quiet. “Too quiet” was the symptom, not the problem in itself (although, looking at Twitter, “too quiet” has been a common cry at all Simon’s UK shows). Five or six songs in, a chant of “louder, louder” began in the crowd, but only in the left-hand side of the general-admission area. I feel like there was a problem with the house-right line array, as the horns kept coming through distorted, and then, suddenly, everything seemed to clear up and the overall sound became stronger and more present. Whatever its cause, the low volume of Simon’s set meant we were more affected than we would otherwise have been by the yakkers. And boy, do some people love to yak.
But enough about them. They don’t get to ruin the last-ever UK gig by Paul Simon.
The man himself, 76 years old, sometimes sounded rather frail, with his voice taking a few songs to warm up, but when he’d got into his stride he sounded vocally strong, and all the way through it was thrilling to watch him play his superlative songs.
He began with America (“strange times,” he observed, before adding, “Don’t give up”), and then the drummer played the iconic intro lick of 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, prompting large sections of the crowd to sing along with the choruses. He then pulled out The Boy in the Bubble, Graceland‘s opening track, on which his bass player, Bakithi Kumalo, was especially impressive. This was followed by the delicate Dazzling Blue from So Beautiful or So What, which featured lovely harmonies from yMusic flautist Alex Sopp, who was one of the band’s MVPs.
Graceland‘s zydeco-flavoured That Was Your Mother was followed by another track from So Beautiful or So What, Rewrite, which, with its intricate layers of guitar and (I think) a kora part rearranged for prepared piano, showcased a lot of what’s best about the quietly experimental recent Simon records. He then went backwards into his catalogue for a couple of crowd-pleasers: Mother and Child Reunion and Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, which once again had the crowd singing along (they were in quite agile singing voice, hitting the high note in “goodbye to Rosie, the queen of Corona” rather more easily than Simon did).
Simon then showcased the excellent yMusic ensemble, bringing them to the front of the stage for a three-song run that took in Rene & Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War (the title of which he explained was a caption in a photo book owned by Joan Baez), Can’t Run But and Bridge Over Troubled Water, a song he described as having gotten away from him and that he now felt he was “repossessing”. I guess there won’t be one final Simon & Garfunkel gig, then.
Next up was Wristband, from his current album Stranger to Stranger, and for me one of the highlights of the set. Double bass-led, the song feels like something Donald Fagen from Steely Dan might write: a vignette about a musician getting locked out of a venue and trying to convince the doorman that he’s headlining the show: “I said, wristband? I don’t need no wristband. My axe is on the bandstand, and my band is on the floor!” The last verse, though, shifts from a woe-is-me plaint by an ageing star locked out of his own gig to a more general comment on inequality, showing Simon’s not lost the knack of bridging the personal and the political*.
Wristband was followed by two songs from Rhythm of the Saints, Spirit Voice and The Obvious Child. The former, with mixes samba percussion and West African guitar, is one of Simon’s loveliest songs, and the band did brilliantly to play such a subtle, gentle song for such a huge audience and not inflate it.
Questions for the Angels from So Beautiful or So What was similarly intimate. It’s another lovely song, one that wrestles with some profound questions. It’s a song that acknowledges the plight of so many around us, that believes that things can get better and is wise enough to know what we and all of our problems are when measured against the infinite span of time and existence. Heavy stuff for a sunny afternoon, and perhaps Simon knew it, as he switched to more uptempo rhythm-driven songs for the remainder of the set: Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and an ecstatically received You Can Call Me Al. During the latter, the whole crowd bellowed along with the horn riff and sung along with the choruses. As we walked down Park Lane an hour later, a goodly number were still singing that horn riff.
But of course, that was not the end of the gig. Simon played two substantial encores. The first consisted of Late in the Evening, Still Crazy After All these Years and Graceland. All three were great, but Still Crazy was quite a moment for me, as it’s always been one of my favourites, and as he played it I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that not only was I finally getting to see the man himself sing it, but that it was the only time I ever would.
The second encore prompted similar thoughts. Simon came back on stage with his acoustic guitar and sang Homeward Bound. During the song, the video screens that had previously only shown close-ups of Simon and his band showed a montage of images from his career, starting with a picture of Widnes railway station, where Simon began the song more than 50 years ago. As the final image (one from the mid-1980s I think, when Simon was in his mid-40s) faded and the screen showed Simon alone on stage, it was impossible not to reflect on his advancing years. Whether this effect had been intended or not, I don’t know, but it certainly added a layer to a song that was already carrying a lot of significance, what with the whole tour bearing its name.
Simon briefly lightened the mood with the deathless Kodachrome (do the millennials in the audience even know what Kodachrome is, asked Sara on the way back to the station), then returned to the weighty. The Boxer. It says a lot about the depth of Simon’s catalogue that as I did a mental inventory of the songs he’d played to try to work out what would be in the encores, The Boxer never once occurred to me. The Boxer. A song any songwriter would dine out on for the rest of their careers, and I’d forgotten about it.
I guess this is because however great The Boxer is, it’s not American Tune. I heard American Tune first (the live version from Greatest Hits Etc.) and it’s always been my push-comes-to-shove favourite Paul Simon song. It was magical, and would have brought tears to my eyes even if the US wasn’t currently being governed by a cabal of the criminal and the unhinged.
Simon finished with The Sound of Silence – an apt choice to end his last UK performance with the song that started his career, but for me it was almost an afterthought after American Tune.
Pop music has given us few more significant figures than Paul Simon, and few whose careers are more worthy of emulation. He never got lazy as an artist, always pushing himself to learn more, expand his musical vocabulary, try new things. His attention to detail and dedication to his craft is evident in every bar of music he’s ever recorded, and was just as evident on stage on Sunday. I feel privileged to have been there, and while there were things that could have been handled better (the sound, the lack of seating/shaded areas), I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
*Here’s that final verse from Wristband:
The riots started slowly
With the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland
Towns that never get a wristband
Kids that can’t afford the cool brand
Whose anger is a shorthand
For you’ll never get a wristband
While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.