Crotchety Old Ppl

Copy­right 2011 Ben S. Pollock

Reflec­tions on the Paul Simon con­cert at Kansas City’s Mid­land The­ater on Tues­day, Nov. 8, 2011

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When a con­ver­sa­tion turns to pop­u­lar music, some­times one is lec­tured on who has the defin­i­tive voice of the gen­er­a­tion. Most of the time one learns it’s Bob Dylan. A dis­senter will insist on Bruce Spring­steen. No pon­tif­i­ca­tor, inter­est­ingly, ever calls Paul McCart­ney our sin­gu­lar icon, despite his phe­nom­e­nal musi­cal strengths.

My choice for voice of our era is Paul Simon, for the poetry and inci­sive­ness of the lyrics, the haunt­ing or dance­able melodies, that few of his songs become dated. Tal­ented or mediocre musi­cians can cover many of Mr. Simon’s songs and sound pretty good, that’s part of the definition.

Sure, I admire Bob Dylan — and have seen him per­form once, Lit­tle Rock mid-1990s (with Trout Fish­ing in Amer­ica open­ing for him) — but his list of clas­sics is far shorter. And what’s he done lately? Longevity may not be fair. One or two or a half-dozen tunes that every­one knows can define a musi­cal genius — Woody Guthrie or Yip Har­burg, say.

In the first full year of the sec­ond decade of the 21st cen­tury, 70-year-old Paul Simon has released So Beau­ti­ful or So What. He is tour­ing to pro­mote the album, and one week ago he played at Kansas City’s Mid­land the­ater. My Beloved bought us tick­ets; it was my birth­day weekend.

Rewrite” is my favorite off the CD, the nar­ra­tive (fic­tional) lament of a Vietnam-era vet­eran who believes he has a book in him. He labors at a car wash, at night he writes, and revises, his novel. “I’m gonna change the end­ing / Gonna throw away my title / … All the time I’m spend­ing / Is just for work­ing on my rewrite, that’s right / I’m gonna turn it into cash.” This is a danc­ing song. (Want to be a great song­writer? Quit writ­ing about your­self and talk through characters.)

The title track: “Ain’t it strange the way we’re igno­rant / How we seek out bad advice / How we jig­ger it and fig­ure it / Mis­tak­ing value for the price / And play a game with time and love / Like pair of rolling dice.” A haunt­ing song.

For­tu­nately, he played both last Tues­day. He skipped my third favorite, the multi­genre and partly spo­ken “Wait­ing for Christ­mas Day.” (Lyrics for all tracks can be found here.) But if he per­formed the whole album he’d have less time in his nearly two-hour show for those classics.

“So beau­ti­ful …” He played the main oldies: “Kodachrome” and “Mother and Child Reunion” from the sec­ond decade (the duo Simon & Gar­funkel being more or less the first decade), “Dia­monds in the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Grace­land” from a mid­dle decade. (Mr. Simon’s explo­rations of other cul­tures’ music is one of his great­est gifts.) “Peace Like a River ” was a charm­ing sur­prise from the sec­ond decade. I’d ask for “Amer­i­can Tune” from the first decade, but then another piece would have to go. “… so what.”

He played a num­ber of hits unfa­mil­iar to me but known to MB, such as “Boy in the Bub­ble.” Mr. Simon’s my favorite pop­u­lar musi­cian, but I’m not one to buy all of an act’s albums or mem­o­rize their bios.

He had a band of eight mul­ti­tal­ented musi­cians. Sure, it’s noth­ing new for side­man to dou­ble up on instru­ments. The guy on “winds” gen­er­ally will play any sax­o­phone plus flute; some­times play enough trum­pet for that one song that has that kind of lick. But his band went further.

Drum­mer Jim Oblon played gui­tar sev­eral times (as per­cus­sion­ist Jamey Had­dad kept the beat and moved the bot­tom of the rhythm). Prin­ci­pal key­boardist Mick Rossi had a grand piano but also did some per­cus­sion — no big deal, but the lat­ter did include strik­ing the piano keys with xylo­phone mal­lets in a cou­ple of songs. Accor­dion­ist Tony Cedras played elec­tric key­boards, close enough, but also flugel­horn and trum­pet. Prin­ci­pal gui­tarist Mark Stew­art, who acted as band­leader, every so often hit bari­tone sax, a pop­u­lar accent horn for many of Mr. Simon’s tunes. The other saxes were played by Andrew Snitzer. The square-jawed Had­dad used brushes some­times, but these were at times were the size of whisk brooms.. The other side­men were gui­tarist Vin­cent Nguini and bassist Bakithi Kumalo. He intro­duced his band­mates at the close of the last encore, rather than as a lit­tle break in the mid­dle of the main set. Each got a trib­ute and often a hug then lined up as in a the­atri­cal cur­tain call. Very appropriate.

Mr. Simon left his head bare, which was sur­pris­ing. For years when he’s played on TV, he has worn a ball cap — to dis­guise any bald­ness, I thought? Stage lights have as much if not more glare than a TV stu­dio so I was sur­prised to see his thin­ning hair, about which he was unselfconscious.

* * *

Here is a review from Kansas City’s alt weekly The Pitch. It has a com­plete set list fol­low­ing the write-up. Peo­ple like to see what’s played. The review itself is clumsy, but “… So What.”

The Kansas City Star posted a full review on its pop music blog., and it ends with a set list as well, although, tellingly, it ends with the show proper, not list­ing the five songs in the first encore nor the three songs per­formed in the sec­ond encore. It could use edit­ing, which it got for the proper news­pa­per edi­tions. The Star has a fan­tas­tic slideshow online from the con­cert. “So Beau­ti­ful …”

* * *

Open­ing for Mr. Simon was The Punch Broth­ers, a fine blue­grass quar­tet. Yes, they have appeared on Let­ter­man, Leno and the like, back­ing up the banjo stylings of comedian-author Steve Mar­tin as well. They wore neck­ties. None are broth­ers (“None is broth­ers” is incor­rect, for a change!)

In fact, the four­some (fid­dle, gui­tar, upright bass and the lead on man­dolin) and all of the Paul Simon band wore leather shoes or boots. (Hav­ing binoc­u­lars from ter­rific second-row bal­cony seats gives many pauses to spot visual trivia.) “… So what?” Well, why not cush­iony ath­letic shoes? It’s just the observation.

The lead was the happy-footed Chris Thile, a man­dolin mas­ter with a clear tenor voice. The fel­low sit­ting next to me asked me if he was the guy who had Nickel Creek. He came in late and I told him that Thile already announced the group had been together five years so I didn’t know. Googling later, I found the fel­low was right. I would love to hear this band again.

* * *

In front of us, that is, first row cen­ter, up in the bal­cony, were two young women, whose lively body lan­guage indi­cated both they know how lucky they were to get such seats yet had not ear­lier real­ized the front row’s draw­back — any stand­ing could bring glares. Both would stand then quickly sit back down. Again and again.

MB and I grew used to them. The main offender was in front of her. MB couldn’t see Mr. Simon. The girl had trou­bles with her hair, reband­ing it back every cou­ple of min­utes, her elbows wide and at ear height, block­ing both of our views of the sidemen.

But the blonde’s enthu­si­asm was infec­tious. After all, she was cheer­ing and wig­gling over a short Jew­ish man the age of a grand­fa­ther, or maybe a great-grandfather. MB after a while felt empa­thy, hav­ing once been a teen then 20ish Paul Simon fan. In a dif­fer­ent venue, all of us would be up danc­ing the whole night.

Most amus­ing was the girl’s send­ing a stream of text mes­sages to var­i­ous peo­ple on her Black­Berry. Since she held the cell phone up to write I couldn’t help — and make no apol­ogy — for read­ing over her shoul­der. Or for doing what I’m about to do: quote.

She wrote her boyfriend that he should have come. “I hate you. No, I really really love you. You should be here. I’m just kid­ding about the hate part.”

She texted some­one else:

We can’t stand and dance cuz we’re in front row of bal­cony. Besides, there are crotch­ety old ppl behind us. They hate us!”

Crotch­ety? No, that’s cur­mud­geonly, and I’ve earned it! I wanted to shout.

While I stretched my neck, watch­ing the value of our $85 tick­ets depre­ci­ate, I recalled decades of shows teach­ing me no seat is per­fect in any kind of bleacher, with or with­out defined seats. (First rows, main level? No. Too close kills sound qual­ity. Rather bring binoculars.)

I admired the youths’ self-consciousness. No eti­quette maven would be both­ered with how you feel about the rules, only that you fol­low them.

Also, the edi­tor in me admired the liveli­est one with her con­stant revi­sions to cor­rect spelling, never mind the abbre­vi­a­tions. No use of spell-check, she knew what she was doing. She deleted and retyped faster than me.

Power to the ppl.

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