Is it? Isn’t it? The concept of a “Farewell Tour” has been so sullied by false endings and cry wolfing that it’s hard to work out how seriously to take it. Is this, Paul Simon‘s victory lap, a genuine goodbye or just a ticket flogging ploy?
For his part, when he addresses the issue tonight, Simon seems serious enough that *this* is over. Although “this” is taken to mean large scale solo arena tours. It’s caveated enough to cover him for future projects, of which he hints there’s plenty in the pipeline.
But *this* is also a funny way to say goodbye, disappointingly thin on Simon & Garfunkel material, and over-keen to impress on us the value of more recent work, as if we are ever going to have a chance like this again.
Really, we need no convincing. 2016’s Stranger to Stranger showed us that the man’s creativity still flows clear. But like fellow septuagenarian namesake McCartney, Simon has always seemed driven by a need for greater validation, as if writing some of Western culture’s canonical songbook weren’t enough. He’s haunted by Garfunkel, as McCartney is by Lennon. All the royalties and plaudits in the world won’t shrink that resentment to a former partner. He needs us to appreciate his work as high art, not mere songsmithery.
There’s another of his generation Simon emulates here too – Bob Dylan. Dylan, the old contrarian, can’t help himself constantly tweaking songs, and likewise Simon. He has to syncopate lines or change words, run lines into each other or leave them hanging. There’s hope after two songs, when he signals he wants more vocals in the monitor, that this off-beatness isn’t deliberate. But it is. He can’t bear to play them straight even for a final outing.
All the same, America, with which he opens, is tear-jerkingly beautiful, a distillation of the melancholy of hope. 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover is another mood entirely, but sets up the expectation that this is going to be hits straight through, an impression furthered when Boy In The Bubble comes out.
But Simon is like Dylan in another way too. He’s clearly more in love with his newer material. These songs are sung straight, and with visibly more pep. Once you see him singing tracks from his last couple of albums, it almost feels like he resents having to give the audience what they want.
His patter is great, though. He explains his love of rhythm and if we want to dance “that’s absolutely cool with me”. In a reflective moment, he takes us back to his first foray to London in the 60s, where Martin Carthy taught him finger-picking, then to the 70s when he learnt he could transfer his guitar songs to piano and Bridge Over Troubled Waters and Still Crazy… was born. He jokes he’s not going to go through all the decades, but you wish he would.
The band are as accomplished as you’d expect. To open, they act almost as Simon’s big band, then mid-way through they gather around him seated in a semi-circle, like a chamber orchestra for songs like Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War. They accompany him in a stripped-back version of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon hoping to stake his own claim to the song that so many others, and Garfunkel most of all, took ownership of. It’s an interesting treatment, but the definitive version’s been done. It gets a standing ovation on familiarity alone.
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and You Can Call Me Al get the crowd out of their seats, not to return, as they lead on to two encores, the first featuring Still Crazy After All These Years and Graceland, the second featuring a solo Simon on acoustic guitar finally addressing his 60s legacy with Homeward Bound, The Boxer, and The Sound of Silence.
This ought to be a musical moment to cherish forever, and might be if the audience would only treat it with the reverence they would a jazz or classical gig. But arena crowds aren’t like that, and they proceed to shatter the spell, outsinging Simon and hollering at inappropriate moments. The Sound of Silence. The clue should be in the title. But at “ten thousand people, maybe more”, a huge whoop goes up. Do you get it? There’s more than ten thousand people in the Hydro, you see. And he just sang about ten thousand people! WOOOO-HOOOO!
Simon’s farewell is therefore not what it could have been. The man himself, still very actively creative, seems reluctant to address the full span of his early work, even in this final reckoning, until forced to by convention as an encore. And too many of his audience are there to photo-tag and box-tick, not to be awestruck by a master. It’s sad to leave knowing that there’s songs we’ll never hear and that those we have were in some cases reduced to karaoke.