One of my formative musical influences when I was growing up – and I bet they were yours too – was the partnership of Simon and Garfunkel. For many years, during school term time, I would play both sides of my Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits album every night as its calming, inspirational effect would, I know, help to get me through the arduousness of the next day. Then of course they had their big falling-out; and in order to keep up I had to get both Paul Simon’s (There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Still Crazy after all these Years) AND Art Garfunkel’s (Breakaway, Fate For Breakfast) albums, and it soon became pretty obvious that the musical dynamo of the twosome was indeed Mr Simon. However, they made magic together; and in 1982 I was lucky enough to be at Wembley Stadium to see them perform in concert – it was the event that was captured for ever in the Live in Central Park album, and fantastic it was too. It never occurred to me that I would ever get to see either of them again.
And now, at the age of 76, Mr S is back on the road again, with dates in the US, Canada and Europe; and fortunately, one of them was last Tuesday at the Manchester Arena. Mrs Chrisparkle went up separately to work from the Manchester office, whilst our friend Mr Flag drove me and the Squire of Sidcup all the way up the M6 especially for the show. And was it worth all that effort and all that expense? You bet your bumper boots.
All the pre-show notifications informed us that the doors would open at 6pm (I presume they did, we weren’t there at the time) and that Mr Simon would come on stage at 7.30pm prompt, with no support act and no interval. Depending what he was proposing to play, we could be all done and dusted by 9, we thought. Let’s go up the Hilton Tower and have cocktails. Wrong. Mr Simon did not come on stage at 7.30 prompt. Nor even 7.40. At about 7.42 the lights went down and the camera close-up of the stage swung into place, projecting the details on a screen at the back of the stage. A bunch of people suddenly moved towards us in a muddlesome morass and one of them turned out to be the slight, unassuming, modest figure of Mr Simon. With a gentle musical introduction and not much in the way of accompaniment, he went straight into my favourite Simon and Garfunkel song, America. Great that he sang it, shame he sang it so early as neither he nor I were that warmed up at that stage.
However, next up was the unmistakeable sub-military drum intro to the fun and funky Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover, and we already knew this was going to be a sensational evening. It’s a lame comment to say that Paul Simon is an amazing songwriter, but it’s the truth! He can turn his hand to so many styles, from upbeat pop to harrowing soul-searching, from jungle drum rhythms to quasi classical. And all these satisfying genres were so well represented at the Manchester Arena on Tuesday night. His fourteen-piece band were on immaculate form, and the actual sound of the music (if I can put it that way) was so clear and resonant and overwhelmingly beautiful, it was probably technically the most successfully amplified concert I’ve ever attended. A great example of that was the lush accordion introduction into his next song, The Boy in the Bubble, which came over with such panache and pizzazz.
There were a few songs that were new to me; whilst I’ve always enjoyed the Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints albums, I’ve not played them so often that I’m completely familiar with all the songs. I confess I know nothing of his later albums – but I am now very intrigued to keep discovering more of his music. The next song that I knew – and that means a lot to me – was Mother and Child Reunion, which, as he pointed out, has more reggae running through it than I had realised. That was my first “ocular moisture” moment of the evening – it reminds me of my first family holiday after my dad had died, and the title says it all really. It segued brilliantly into Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, which was the first song of the night that totally captured the desire of the crowd to dance. Its infectious rhythms and irresistible melody are just unbeatable. Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t love that song? Me neither.
And then another superb change of style. Talking about unusual titles, he took us into a virtually chamber music performance of Rene and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War. Not a song I particularly expected to hear but I’m so glad he played it because it reminded me of how brilliant it is – and also, with his explanation, what those orioles are all about! After some more African rhythms, he gave his personal rendition of a song we all associate with the mellifluous tones of Art Garfunkel (they’re obviously friendly enough for Mr Simon to refer to him as Artie) and it’s another song you might expect to be kept back until the last knockings: Bridge over Troubled Water. Mr S has a curious relationship with this song, because even though he wrote it, he feels it doesn’t belong to him, and he’s trying to regain possession of it. It was a most innovative and creative arrangement; it wouldn’t be out of place on the Rhythm of the Saints album. Very moving and heartfelt; and the first performance of the evening to trigger a tear or two from the Squire of Sidcup (but that’s him all over.)
Next was a song that I hadn’t heard before, but it’s already become a new favourite – Wristband, from the Stranger to Stranger album. He sings it with such knowing glee, that delight we all feel if ever we’re able to outsmart a jobsworth. Great stuff. After that, there followed a sequence of brilliant performances based on either the brassy jazz of Graceland or the jungle beats of Rhythm of the Saints, including Spirit Voices, The Obvious Child and Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes (another superb rendition) and culminating in the sheer heart-warming pleasure of You Can Call Me Al. Mr S went off for his first pretend “that’s the end of the show folks” departure; and the Squire started welling up again because he wasn’t ready to go home yet.
After a short pause (yes, he came back) we had the fantastic dancey sway of Late in the Evening (that finally got me up on my feet), Still Crazy after all these Years, and a sumptuous performance of Graceland. All the band members then took a big round of applause and prolonged bowing at the end of that so could that possibly have been the end…. Naaah of course not. Back he came again, for five more blockbusters. By this stage, almost everyone was standing; in sincere reverence and appreciation for this man who has changed all our lives – with his writing that sometimes exposes the darkness that can be there in our soul but always letting the light flood in too. There was almost something spiritual about it. We were all there bearing witness together, singing along in our own way in hymnal tribute.
So, those final five songs; the troubled Homeward Bound, that captures so well that emptiness of being alone in a foreign town, the entertainer who gives his all for others but has nothing to comfort him. The glorious Kodachrome, that fills your eyes and heart with the colours of love for life (that was my next watery moment). The stoic The Boxer, that tells the story of survival against the odds, encouraging us to be the fighter too when the chips are down. The introspective American Tune, that blends altruism, patriotism and hope with the realities of the hard-knock life. And finally, the haunting Sound of Silence, that deconstructs 60s society and religious indoctrination and tries to reconcile them with one’s internal fears and either gives you hope or extinguishes it, depending on your mood. I knew that last one would send the Squire home a gibbering wreck. But I’m sure he wasn’t the only one.
A truly high quality experience; everything about it was supreme. The band. The lighting. The clarity of the amplification. The man. The legend. We were all dumbstruck with admiration and sheer enjoyment. As you probably guessed, we didn’t have time for cocktails in the Hilton Tower. Mr S and his band gave us a full two-and-a half hours of their time and we truly appreciated it. Everyone going to Dublin on Friday 13th July – that’ll be lucky for some. Those in Hyde Park on Sunday 15th July are in for a huge treat; and he still has eleven more US dates in September. A few times through the show he emphasises that this is, definitely, the final tour. Don’t miss your opportunity to share it with him.
My iPhone takes rubbish indoor/night-time/stage pictures, so I’ve nicked the ones the Squire took. Don’t tell him.
P. S. Yes, you’re right. Where were I Am A Rock, Take me to the Mardi Gras, Keep the Customer Satisfied, Baby Driver, Cecilia, Scarborough Fair, Think Too Much, Loves me like a Rock, Mrs Robinson, and a whole host of others? I guess he wouldn’t have finished until sometime in the middle of the night.