“I like the idea of not knowing what I’m gonna do,” Paul Simon said Wednesday at the United Center, the latest stop on his long goodbye to life as a touring artist.
Even heading toward “retirement,” the singer sounded energized by the possibilities. Similarly, his concert was less a victory lap than a testimonial to a career defined by a restless musical search. The 76-year-old singer was still exploring his songbook for new meanings, treating it not as an immutable canon but a road map to who knows where.
In one of the deep cuts he sprinkled in among 25 songs, “Rene and Georgette Magritte with their Dog After the War,” Simon depicted a couple dancing in the moonlight to doo-wop records, “the deep forbidden music they’d been longing for.”
A neo-classical sextet, yMusic, drenched the arrangement in atmospherics that seemed to float out of one of the surrealist painter’s canvases. Like many songs in the set, it held only a tenuous similarity to its recorded version as Simon chose to explore just how many new colors he could draw from it.
The singer was backed by as many as 15 musicians, as if to add weight and depth to a career-retrospective tour that he says will be his last. But the problem with having that many instruments on stage is the temptation to use all of them, whether they’re really needed or not. The opening “America,” one of Simon’s most poignant songs, came off as overbaked with an orchestral arrangement undercutting its fragile essence. What’s more, the singer’s voice was best served by sparser accompaniment. He sounded a bit ragged at times, as he relied primarily on a conversational sing-speak delivery.
Yet most of the musical choices were astute, and the concert built an inexorable momentum with Simon’s band of globe-trotters blending piccolos and treated pianos, accordion and upright bass, strings and woodwinds, and rivers of percussion. Simon’s songs helped usher in the age of post-modern pop, a vernacular that followed the rhythm trail from West Africa to Brazil, Cuba, New Orleans and Memphis, with a nod to Brill Building songcraft and doo-wop’s satin swing.
Anchored by the lead bass lines of Bakithi Kumalo, the band’s guitarists staged a cross-continental dialogue: the rustic Americana of Mark Stewart against the African chatter of newcomer Biodun Kuti, who ably replaced the late Cameroonian virtuoso Vincent Nguini. Jim Oblon brought a sensitivity to his drumming that pushed the songs without trampling them, and Mick Rossi splashed the songs with an array of keyboard textures, including a chaos-courting solo on “The Cool, Cool River.”
Simon delighted in the musical interplay even as he led it – he directed the musicians with a wave of a hand or a nod, danced with uninhibited delight and even played an air washboard solo.
Relatively recent songs didn’t feel out of place next to the more baked-in classics. Simon treated “Wristband” as something of a novelty, but the tongue-in-cheek accounting of backstage power plays also read as sly commentary on immigration. “Questions for the Angels” merged a homeless man’s prayer with a dryly humorous reference to Jay-Z. That these songs felt so elastic in tone and temperament spoke to Simon’s evolution as a songwriter. Whereas once his songs might’ve seemed overly earnest or precious to naysayers, they now feel more open-ended, less easy to pin down and categorize.
As the set wound down, Simon returned to his acoustic roots in ‘60s folk. His sparse treatment of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” couldn’t have been more appropriate. The bare-bones arrangement suggested that the meaning of “home” had shifted over the decades for the song’s protagonist, a weary troubadour, since it was recorded in 1965, when Simon was 25.
“American Tune” was even more haunting. Like countless songs in the set, it has gained resonance over time, and Simon didn’t try to oversell it. He let the words do the work, as he described a yearning for something lost. The weary narrator floats away in a dream, in search of the unknowable, the deep forbidden music somewhere off in the distance.
Paul Simon set list Wednesday at United Center:
1. America (Simon & Garfunkel song)
2. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
3. The Boy in the Bubble
4. Dazzling Blue
5. That Was Your Mother
7. Mother and Child Reunion
8. Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard
9. Rene and Georgette Magritte with their Dog After the War
10. Can’t Run But
12. Spirit Voices
13. The Obvious Child
14. Questions for the Angels
15. The Cool, Cool River
16. Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
17. You Can Call Me Al
19. Still Crazy After All These Years
20. Late in the Evening
21. Homeward Bound (Simon & Garfunkel song)
23. The Boxer (Simon & Garfunkel song)
24. American Tune
25. The Sound of Silence (Simon & Garfunkel song)
Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.
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