As the 10th anniversary of the events of 9/11 came and went, I, of course, remembered where I was when I heard the horrible news, and I reflected on how our country has been changed by that and our various responses.
But, perhaps somewhat oddly, I also remembered watching the first live broadcast of Saturday Night Live after that day, in which Paul Simon opened the show with a moving performance of “The Boxer” while then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and firefighters and police officers stood stoically at attention. Somehow, this song hit the right tone for me at the time, with the phrase “But the fighter still remains” being a particularly impactful moment.
This is just one minor way in which Simon has been part of our musical and cultural landscape during the past five decades or so. If I had to choose one era of his music, I’d have to say that I’m most fond of his songs recorded with Art Garfunkel, but his subsequent solo output is definitely staggering in its quality and diversity.
At the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday night, the crowd was treated to a generous two-hour sampling of Simon’s body of work, which surely has to be regarded as one of the finest collections of songs to emerge from an American songwriter in the past century.
Since Garfunkel wasn’t along, not surprisingly there were only a few Simon & Garfunkel songs: a captivating solo acoustic version of “The Sound of Silence” and the brilliant “The Only Living Boy in New York,” appropriately originally written in response to Garfunkel’s absence from the recording sessions for their final album. After the latter, Simon sighed, “Ah, the Sixties.”
From the other end of his creative life, the 70-year-old Simon played several tracks from his just-released album, So Beautiful or So What, which is being hailed as one of the best of his career. It included the title track that has a rhythm worthy of The Talking Heads, and the catchy, rich sounding African-influenced “Rewrite.”
The 25-year old album Graceland, which successfully mixed Simon’s thoughtful songwriting with the energy, rhythms and style of South African music, was particularly well represented at the concert. Like that album, the show kicked off with “The Boy in the Bubble.” Other highlights from the album were the title track “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “Gumboots” and the more zydeco “That Was Your Mother,” all of which got a lot of baby boomers on their feet dancing. These songs provided a reminder of just how important rhythm is to much of Simon’s material, something often overshadowed by his erudite lyrics and wonderful melodies and harmonies.
Of course, there were some ‘70s classics thrown in as well: “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “Kodachrome,” “My Little Town” and “Still Crazy After All These Years,” which, suggestively, closed the show.
One can bemoan all the songs that were left out. Many of the characters from Simon & Garfunkel’s songbook didn’t make an appearance, including Kathy from several songs, “Mrs. Robinson,” “Cecilia” or “The Boxer,” who moved me so much 10 years ago. And lots of beloved solo songs were also MIA, including “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard,” “American Tune” and “You Can Call Me Al.”
So, sorry Paul, next time you come to town you’re going to have to double the length of your concert! Only then can we truly appreciate all of the musical gifts that you’ve given to us over the years.
The Boy in the Bubble
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
So Beautiful or So What
Mother and Child Reunion
That Was Your Mother
Hearts and Bones
Mystery Train (Junior Parker cover)
Wheels (Chet Atkins cover)
Slip Slidin’ Away
Peace Like a River / avant piano solo
The Obvious Child
The Only Living Boy in New York
Love Is Eternal Sacred Light
My Little Town
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
The Sound of Silence
Gone at Last
Here Comes the Sun (The Beatles cover)
Crazy Love, Vol. II
Late in the Evening
Pretty Thing (Bo Diddley cover)
Still Crazy After All These Years
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.