Paul Simon serves nostalgia and new at Chastain opener

paulsimon2011_mr(Originally filed May 22, 2011)

Paul Simon strode onstage and tipped his fedora toward the crowd – a fitting start to what would be a two hour throwback to gentlemanly music.

The critically decorated, generation-spanning singer opened the summer season at a sold-out Chastain Park Amphitheatre. But at times it seemed the mellow show would have been better suited at the Fox Theatre, where his introspective, musically layered songs didn’t have to compete with conversations about whether or not to throw away the tin foil covering a food container.

But, thanks to Chastain’s crisp sound and Simon’s clear and, through 90 percent of the show, robust voice, the evening turned into a pleasant stroll tinged with nostalgia.

Though the heartiest cheers and most fervent hip-shaking didn’t erupt until the second half of the concert, when Simon and his crackerjack eight-piece band rolled out a percussive feast during “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Kodachrome” – still rollicking after almost 40 years – there were numerous highlights in his career-spanning set.

Casual fans might have been disappointed not to hear radio staples such as “You Can Call Me Al” (though who can blame Simon for ditching that cheese-fest?) or “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,” but there was plenty to love in a sax-sprinkled “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and the beach blanket balminess of “Slip-Slidin’ Away.”

Besides, this is a guy who turns 70 this year and was the first-ever recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. You want to tell him what he should play?

Simon’s U.S. tour, which began last month and wraps the first week of June (he then heads to Europe) is to tout his excellent new album, “So Beautiful or So What.”

Along with the title track, which the low-key singer introduced by looking upward and noting, “Beautiful night…beautiful sky,” Simon performed three other new tracks including “Rewrite,” a pleasant toe-tapper, and the heavily syncopated “Dazzling Blue.”

His love affair with percussion – and a beautiful love affair it’s been – was fully realized on “The Obvious Child,” when half of the band played some variation of drum, and the gloriously complex “Late in the Evening,” which, like many of Simon’s songs, was subtly arranged in a slightly lower key and at a slightly slower pace.

Simon’s voice has never been about power or range. Instead, it’s his phrasing – the rhetorical questions and detailed observations turned into stories – that has always been his cornerstone, whether solo or sharing heavenly harmonies with Art Garfunkel.

So when his voice began to waver during the encores, it really didn’t matter.

Who else but Simon could retain the sparse, haunting quality of “The Sound of Silence” even while singing it solo? Or emote the lyrics of “Still Crazy After All These Years” with a sweet guilty-as-charged shrug?

The guy who lived them, wrote them and whose character is smudged all over them.

And there is only one of those.


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