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.