Few performers with nearly 50 years of songs can afford to leave a handful of masterpieces out of their sets and still satisfy an audience. Paul Simon succeeded in doing just that Wednesday night (Apr. 20) at a sold-out Pantages Theater in Hollywood.
Simon lets rhythm drive his current show in support of his exquisite new album, “So Beautiful or So What” (Hear Music/Concord Records), emphasizing indigenous sounds he incorporated over the last 40 years from Jamaica, Mali, Memphis South Africa, the Caribbean and Louisiana. A half-dozen songs from the new album are featured in the set, which, if history repeats itself, will rarely be altered by Simon. The new tunes showcase Simon and his strikingly strong eight-piece band at their most confident.
On this night of his fulfilling two-hour set, Simon had surprises up his sleeve: a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam,” which neatly segues into his own “Mother and Child Reunion”; a rural take on Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train”; and gentle guitar-accordion trio rendition of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”
Of the new songs, “Rewrite” came off best, the percussion and guitar sounds inspired by the music of Mali and giving the tune a unique texture, with Simon talk-singing words of thankfulness. That concept, thankfulness, ran through several of the songs he selected from “So Beautiful So What,” among them the ballad “Love and Hard Times,” inspired by his wife Edie Brickell, and the swamp-rock shuffle “Love & Blessings.”
He had plenty of hits to perform — “Boy in the Bubble,” “The Obvious Child,” “Gone at Last” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” being the ones that got the crowd dancing. Retreating to his first post-Simon & Garfunkel solo album, he came up with the bluesy “Peace Like a River,” one of several songs that allowed him to demonstrate his deft guitar picking skills. But after two hours he left the stage without performing “Graceland,” “American Tune” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and yet the entire evening felt whole.
He dipped into his songbook with Garfunkel for only two tunes: “The Sound of Silence,” performed solo, and “The Only Living Boy in New York,” which has turned into something of a money-maker for Simon the last few years through placements in the movie “Garden State” and an oft-played Honda Accord commercial.
Simon’s performance Wednesday was the fourth night of a 42-show tour through North America and Europe that began in Seattle April 15.
Here is Paul Simon’s setlist:
“Crazy Love Vol. II”
“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”
“So Beautiful or So What”
“Vietnam”/”Mother and Child Reunion”
“That Was Your Mother”
“Hearts and Bones”/”Mystery Train”
“Love and Hard Times”
“Peace Like a River”
“The Obvious Child”
“The Boy in the Bubble”
“The Only Living Boy in New York”
“Love is Eternal Scared Light”
“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”
“The Sound of Silence”
“Kodachrome”/”Gone at Last”
“Here Comes the Sun”
“Late in the Evening”
“Still Crazy After All These Years”