We here at ACL have a shortlist of artists on the “At last!” list. Paul Simon has been at the top of that list for some time, so we were beyond thrilled to have the singer, songwriter and legend on our stage for his first-ever appearance. In a performance for the ages, the New York native traversed all across his astounding five-decade career, from Simon & Garfunkel classics to hits from his solo catalog to material from his highly-anticipated upcoming release Stranger to Stranger (out June 3rd).
The band took the stage in darkness, guitarists Mark Stewart and Vincent Nguini and bassist Bakithi Kumalo laying down a bubbling African groove as the nine-piece band joined in on the instrumental “Proof.” Acoustic guitar in hand and purple blazer around his shoulders, Simon entered as the brief instrumental wound down. Then a distinctive accordion riff from Austinite Joel Guzman signaled the launch into “The Boy in the Bubble,” the Graceland hit that brought African music to mainstream radio. Simon followed that bang-up open with one of his big guns: the monster hit “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” highlighted by Mick Rossi’s organ solo and crowd backing vocals. He then leapt forward to 2011 to his acclaimed album So Beautiful or So What and the percolating pop tune “Dazzling Blue.”
“I didn’t know it was a set,” Simon joked. “I thought it was the real city of Austin.” Then it was off to Louisiana for “That Was Your Mother,” the zydeco romp from Graceland. Simon then gave a quick explanation of how some songs come to be, combining a handclapped rhythm, acoustic guitar licks and prepared piano for the So Beautiful tune “Rewrite.” The band then went into a rare cover – the Bill Doggett shuffle “Honky Tonk,” which segued seamlessly into the similarly and rapturously received single “Slip Sliding Away.” He kept going with the early hit “Mother and Child Reunion,” the Jamaican lilt of which reminded us that his exploration of international grooves began long before Graceland. Stripped of complexity but no less danceable, “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” shot the show’s energy even higher than it already was, as evidenced by the audience’s wild response.
Switching to electric guitar, Simon told a story about an encounter with a brujo in the Amazon jungle as a prelude to “Spirit Voices,” from his Brazilian-inspired album The Rhythm of the Saints. He stayed with that record for the percussion-heavy radio hit “The Obvious Child.” Simon then touched on the title track of his upcoming LP, crooning over the gentle but insistent percolation of “Stranger to Stranger,” which featured a mallet hitting the inside of the piano as part of the percussion track. “It makes me feel good that you heard a new song and you liked it,” Simon commented. “Now here’s an old song.” That song was “Homeward Bound,” one of the gems from the Simon & Garfunkel catalog and one that earned him a standing ovation.
Simon stuck with the songs of his old firm for “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” though it was used merely as an intro for “Duncan,” the Latin-tinged single from his 1972 self-titled LP that garnered much audience appreciation. Drummer James Oblon donned a lycanthropic headdress and Mark Stewart picked up a didgeridoo for the sardonic sociopolitical commentary of “The Werewolf,” on which the crowd joined him with wolf howls. Cameroon guitarist Vincent Nguini then stepped to the mic, telling a fanciful story about how Simon got the next song, the fizzy Afropop anthem “The Cool, Cool River,” which ended with a free jazz piano solo. That deliberately discordant conclusion led into one of the prettiest musical moments in the show, as Simon and band essayed the a capella intro of delightful Graceland hit “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes.” A percussion outro led directly into “You Can Call Me Al,” one of Simon’s biggest Graceland hits and most irresistible songs (and showcase for bassist Kumalo). One audience sing-and-dancealong later, the main set came to an effervescent close.
Forgoing the walk-off, Simon and band instead stayed on stage for “Wristband,” a comic commentary on backstage stardom from the forthcoming record. He then revisited the iconic Graceland one more time for the slide guitar-saturated African groove of the title tune. The crowd went nuts, but it still wasn’t over. Once again not bothering to quit the stage for the encore ritual, instead Simon eased into a gorgeous take on his standard “Still Crazy After All These Years.” He finally left the stage, but his absence was brief, as he returned solo for an elegiac “The Sound of Silence,” Simon & Garfunkel’s first hit and the song that introduced his immense talent to the wider world. A smiling Simon clapped along with the screaming crowd, taking his final bow. It was an amazing show that ACL fans will talk about for years to come, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.