“I like the idea of not knowing what I’ll do when this stops,” Paul Simon told the Erwin Center crowd a few songs into his Monday concert, by way of addressing the “farewell tour” designation of his current trek across America. Now 76, Simon is leaving the road at what’s probably an appropriate time. But his fans will surely miss him.
Playing 25 songs across two and a half hours, the New York musician reminded us why he became one of the great songwriters of the 20th century. From the formative folk-rock standards of his 1960s Simon & Garfunkel days to the street-smart poetic grooves of his 1970s solo departure to the rhythmic world-pop that marked his middle-age 1980s explorations, Simon has been a constant creative force, ever shifting but almost always interesting.
It hadn’t been that long since we’d seen Paul Simon in this building. He was among the major names who took part in a Hurricane Harvey benefit here in September, alongside Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Leon Bridges and others. And he played twice in Austin in 2016, taping “Austin City Limits” for the first time ever and performing two nights at Bass Concert Hall.
Those relatively recent appearances might have accounted for the show not being near a sellout. Lots of upper-deck seats went unfilled, and compared to the previous evening’s George Strait concert at the same venue, the concourses were uncrowded and easy to navigate before the show. It’s possible the venue’s theater-style setup that uses just half the available space would have sufficed on this night.
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If sales were slightly disappointing, though, the performance was not. Simon spares nothing when it comes to assembling a support crew. More than a dozen musicians accompanied him, from string players to woodwinds and horns to drums and percussion to African bass and guitar virtuosos. Austin got in on the act, too: On accordion was Joel Guzman, renowned for his work with Los Super Seven, Los Aztex, Joe Ely and more.
Simon touched on plenty of hits, opening with the Simon & Garfunkel gem “America” before hitting 1970s highlights such as “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.” His 1986 landmark “Graceland” and 1990’s “Rhythm of the Saints” both got plenty of attention; the set included nine songs from those two records, including “You Can Call Me Al” and “The Obvious Child.” He also reached ahead for some of his more recent material, touching on three songs from 2011’s “So Beautiful or So What” as well as the whimsical “Wristband” from 2016’s “Stranger to Stranger.”
Some of the best moments were when Simon turned down roads less traveled. The six members of yMusic, a pop-classical outfit from New York that are part of the band on this tour, formed a chamber-music core during a brief but splendid mid-set stretch that included the exquisitely impressionistic “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” from Simon’s 1983 album “Hearts and Bones.” And “Questions for the Angels,” dedicated to environmentalist and biodiversity specialist E.O. Wilson, featured lyrics that rank with the best Simon has ever written: “If an empty train in a railway station/ Calls you to its destination/ Can you choose another track?”
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A two-part encore included many of the songs the audience was most eager to hear, including “Homeward Bound,” “The Boxer” and finally “The Sound of Silence,” delivered solo acoustic to close the show. The inevitable hard part: Simon has been far too prolific across 50-plus years to include all the high points. If you’d always wanted to hear him play “I Am a Rock” or “Mrs. Robinson” or “My Little Town,” you may never get that chance.
But is it really goodbye? One need only remember that Sunday’s George Strait concert came four years after his own “farewell tour” stopped here to figure that Simon might return someday. He even admitted as much early in the show, saying that “I’ll write some music, and I’ll play again.”
Whether it’ll happen in Austin is more iffy, perhaps, but Simon has some solid connections to our town. Most members of his wife Edie Brickell’s band, New Bohemians, live here. In recent years, Brickell and at least one the couple’s musically inclined children have recorded at Arlyn Studios just south of downtown. And Guzman’s presence doesn’t hurt, either. Odds are, we’ll see and hear Simon here again.
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
23. The Boxer
24. American Tune
25. The Sound of Silence