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Five Thoughts: Paul Simon at MGM Grand Garden (May 27)

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Here comes rhymin’ Simon.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

1. He’s not done. “I’m not going to quit writing songs, and I don’t think I’m going to quit performing,” announced Paul Simon just a few minutes into the Las Vegas stop of what he’s billed as a farewell tour. The idea behind the Homeward Bound tour, says Simon, was just to announce a retirement from the road and “see what happens next.” Based on that, it wouldn’t be surprising if the idea to get Paul Simon a Strip residency has already taken root.

2. He made with the hits. Anyone who came to the MGM Grand to hear Simon’s marquee hits—“You Can Call Me Al,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “America”—got exactly what they wanted. Simon and his large band delivered buoyant versions of these golden hits and nearly a dozen others. Some of them received slight tweaks—notably “The Boxer,” which got a bit of country bounce—but for the most part, he performed every song faithfully, which is both wholly appropriate for a career retrospective and somewhat disappointing for an artist who continues to tinker with his sound in the sixth decade of his career.

3. He showed his experimental side. In a lengthy spoken intro to “Rewrite,” Simon talked about the evolution of his guitar playing—mastering basic rock-and-roll chords, learning Travis picking for “the songs I wrote with Artie (Garfunkel),” and even acknowledging that his playing has limits, and sometimes it’s best for him to leave the playing to someone else (see The Rhythm of the Saints LP, whose late guitarist, Vincent Nguini, received a heartfelt tribute). But for “Rewrite,” Simon demonstrated the simple, looping lead guitar style that’s dominated his last two records, and it came off great. Ditto an all-too-brief set of two songs—“Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” and Saints’ “Can’t Run But”—which Simon performed with a small string-and-horn ensemble. In those moments, you could understand why Paul Simon wants to retire “Paul Simon”—he’s eager to take things apart and reassemble them, a process that can try the patience of an audience that just wants to sing along with “Kodachrome.”

4. He gave Vegas a slightly shorter set than he’s given others. According to setlist.fm, Simon’s last few shows were 26- or 27-song affairs; Vegas got 25. Notable exclusions: “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” which he played in Portland, and “American Tune,” which he played at his Oakland show. I’m not mad—25 songs is a hell of a lot, and he can make up for the other two songs when someone gives him that residency. But “American Tune,” which Simon wrote in response to the hopelessness and resignation of the Nixon era, is essential listening right now—and Simon should keep in his touring set every night. It would have made for a slightly more hopeful show-ender than “The Sounds of Silence.”

5. He sounded great. The 76-year-old Simon has some breathiness to his voice now, and obviously he can’t sing as high as he once did—but only a lifetime fan could detect the difference. His voice remains youthful, unbreaking and free of cynicism. He’s got more than enough left in him for another farewell tour after this one.

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