Culture Corner

Concert Review: Paul Simon at the Prudential Center (Newark, NJ), September 15, 2018

By Bernie Langs

Paul Simon sings “The Boxer” at the Prudential Center—YouTube view by audience member.

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon completed his farewell tour with an outdoor concert in Queens, New York on September 22, 2018, close to where he and his former musical partner Art Garfunkel grew up together in the 1950s. The duo joined forces in the 1960s creating hit records as Simon & Garfunkel and acrimoniously splitting in 1970 at the height of the band’s fame. Garfunkel has a fabulous voice, hitting and sustaining high harmony and lead vocal notes that few can attain in the pop/rock genre, but Simon wrote most of the band’s hits and played a mean and creative acoustic guitar on songs such as “Mrs. Robinson” and “The Boxer.” Simon’s voice is wonderfully rich and unique and he’s a masterful composer and arranger, but in the same way that Eric Clapton had many great records after he left his Cream bandmates in the late 1960s, both he and Simon could never maintain the unique fantastic sound they had as a member of a group during that turbulent decade in musical history.

I saw Simon perform at Newark’s Prudential Center one week prior to his final bow in Queens. The artist informed the crowd that although it is well-known that he grew up in New York, he was actually born and spent the very early days of his life in Newark. Simon has always had an amiable persona and has hosted Saturday Night Live many times over the years, often appearing in self-deprecating skits and showing off his natural wit and humor (see his infamous opening bit where he is dressed as a turkey for Thanksgiving while crooning his song, “Still Crazy After All These Years”). I jumped at the opportunity to see Simon in concert after viewing video of his brief reunion tour with Garfunkel—they have yet to speak again according to many sources.

Simon played many of his solo hits as well as those from his days in Simon & Garfunkel and each song was a delight for different reasons. He had a back-up band of about fifteen musicians, featuring virtuoso guitarists Mark Stewart, who played with Simon on the prior tour with Garfunkel, newcomer Biodun Kuti, as well as Bakithi Kumalo, who is a smooth bass guitar master running complex lines that are easy on the ears, yet technical wonders. The band’s lineup included drummers and percussionists, string, woodwind, and horn players, and a bevy of back-up singers. The group performed as a miraculously tight unit amid the complex arrangements. Simon’s solo career is an homage to world music, showcasing African and Latin textures throughout his compositions. In the international mode, the band tore through crowd-pleasing renditions of “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes,” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” and the grooving, reggae-inspired “Mother and Child Reunion.”

For me, the hits from the 1960s that Simon performed throughout the evening were the highpoints. The performer’s voice was unexpectedly strong for a 77-year-old man and he did not shy away from challenging vocal phrases and high notes, which he hit each time. He retains a knack for making his guitar playing stand out as both accompaniment and lead. Simon took time during the show to tell anecdotes, reminisce, and discuss the emotions surrounding his retirement from touring. He never mentioned Garfunkel by name, who flew by in only a handful of photos in the highlight film reel of his career. When Simon performed their music, the oft-times melancholy tunes took on greater significance, not just for the star himself as a farewell, but as a moment of finality for the music of the 1960s. Simon opened the show with “America,” a hit from 1968 that could have served as the thinking man’s hippie anthem. “The Boxer” was released in 1969 and it was played in Newark as a dark, yet celebratory poem on the subject of the unexpected and unending turbulence of life and love. As the emotional tone and tide rose during the lamenting chant sung by the backup singers at the end of the song, Simon’s acoustic flairs finally relieved the crowd from its grip and we were brought back to calmer waters by his instrument’s marvelous ringing, bright tone.

Near the halfway point, Simon told the audience that the next song was one he’d known immediately on composition as a more exceptional creation. He explained how he’d given it away to another artist to record and would now play his own rendition. The joke, we realized as the tune began, was that the song was “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a huge hit for Simon & Garfunkel, sung solo on the record by an emotionally expressive Garfunkel until Simon enters later with dazzling background harmonies. At the Prudential Center, the composer reclaimed his song, and the new arrangement with Simon on lead vocals was not only the best moment of the evening, but among the top performances I’ve ever heard live. I was absolutely stunned by how “Bridge” built and towards the end I became completely overwhelmed by the music. Perhaps the Sixties and its promised utopian nonsense, which I’d bought into, were now long gone and deservedly recognized as idealistic, unrealistic dreaming? Perhaps my musical heroes were now too often appearing in the obituary section than in the arts section? Perhaps Simon, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney were old men—not the youthful powerhouses who had had wowed us decades ago as they swept millions of people into the clouds with promises and sounds of sweet song? But as “Bridge” finished up, and later as the artist played the final song of the evening, “The Sound of Silence,” alone with his acoustic guitar, I knew that Simon’s music was as strong and powerful as ever and he had absolutely proven that the soul survives.

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