The first time I fell in love with Paul Simon’s music, I was approximately three years old. Every night to help me fall asleep, my mom would sing a husky version of “Scarborough Fair.” For the longest time, I thought she’d written it just for me, but as I grew older and inherited her record collection, I became forever entwined with Simon’s dusty album covers and simple melodies.
So after years and memories piled atop his iconic songs (as well as lesser-knowns like “The Obvious Child”), I was filled with excitement and anxiety going into Friday night’s concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion. I’d seen my fair share of legends before, and they’d been a mix of pure joy (Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers) and sheer disappointment (sorry, Bob Dylan). No offense to fans out there, but the fact that he was touring with Sarah MacLachlan had me a little concerned he’d grown overly sentimental with age.
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But with a full moon overhead and the weather one of those warm-cool, early summer nights, Simon took to the stage with an eight-piece band and launched into “The Boy in the Bubble.” The multigenerational crowd—lots of baby boomers and their now-grown kids—erupted in dance and cheers.
From there on out, across two hours and fifteen minutes, Simon went on to play what felt like an album of his greatest hits. There were slight variations in melody, but for the most part, each song sounded exactly like the original. With a medley of guitars, he strummed out Simon & Garfunkel oldies like “America,” “The Boxer,” and a tease of “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” as well as seminal solo hits like “Me and Julio,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Graceland,” and “You Can Call Me Al.”
He did play a few tracks off his new solo record, Stranger to Stranger, which Pitchfork called “arguably the best album of Paul Simon’s uneven post-Graceland solo career.” Each featured inventive, rhythm-driven arrangements mixed with storytelling and a hefty dose of humor, like in “Wristband,” which tells the tale of an aging rockstar unable to get into his own concert because he doesn’t have the right wristband. He also talked at length about his latest cause, as proceeds from the entire tour will be donated to the environmental nonprofit, Half Earth.
At 75 years old, Simon showed few signs of aging besides his gray hair. His voice was strong and clear as he leapt across the stage and jammed out with his bandmates. He seemed to truly love performing each song, even though he must have played most of them more than a thousand times. In one shining moment during “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” he stepped back to give his bassist of more than 30 years, Baikithi Kumalo, the spotlight. The look on his face was infectious.
“I’m so happy to be here on this beautiful night,” he said to the crowd, and then later, “I would rather play for this audience tonight than for the finest audience in the world.”
Simon’s performance was amplified by the notion that Merriweather itself had seen him several times over its storied lifetime. In fact, this was the fifth time he’d performed in Columbia over the past 33 years, including one memorable night after the release of Graceland with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba. The venue is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, and its $55 million renovation is popping up in every corner. The bright new entranceway beckons you inside, where the updated stage is bedecked with new wood and a twinkling LED light display.
After two encores, Simon closed the night with his 1964 “The Sounds of Silence.” The crowd stood still, the full moon bouncing off the old white barns and ancient trees and stretching across the lawn. It was clear as day that music lovers the state and world over were still crazy for Simon after all these years. Those lyrics and melodies hadn’t grown old for them either.