Paul Simon at Riverside Theater
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Paul Simon turned 70 last month, but judging by his marathon two-and-a-half performance Friday at Riverside Theater, the legendary singer-songwriter isn’t interested in taking it easy as he enters his golden years. Simon led his expansive and energetic band on a joyous, cherry-picking journey through his bountiful back catalog, ranging from his first major hit, “The Sounds Of Silence” (performed alone, and quite beautifully, on guitar), to a generous sampling from his fine new album, So Beautiful Or So What. The obvious delight Simon took in performing at the Riverside belies his somewhat prickly reputation; the creative resurgence signaled by So Beautiful has clearly carried over to his live shows, which makes this period as vital as any in his long, illustrious career.
Like many of his songwriting contemporaries from the ’60s, Simon has been concerned with matters of mortality and legacy in his recent work. But unlike Bob Dylan and Neil Young, Simon approaches this subject matter with humor and a certain lightness that’s very appealing. Simon performed one of his best new songs, “Rewrite,” on Friday, smiling his way through a narrative that expresses a father’s regret for not always being the man he wanted to be. But like the rest of So Beautiful, “Rewrite” isn’t about dwelling on the past, but seizing the moments you have left with all the vigor you can muster.
The best (and most surprising) aspect of Friday’s show was how loose and spontaneous it seemed. Simon isn’t known for working off the cuff on stage or in the studio; he works with top-flight musicians and typically rehearses them into borderline catatonia. But the embalmed sound of Simon’s past tours was nowhere to be heard this time around. Simon mentioned several times during the show how the band was performing songs it had only recently started playing; for the encore, he invited openers the Punch Brothers to join in on ragged but spirited takes on “Cecilia” and “The Boxer.” All the while, Simon was having a ball, and the infectious fun coming from the stage fully compensated for the occasional bum note.
The Afro-pop grooves of “Late In The Evening” and “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” were more polished, with Simon’s vocals sounding especially impressive. On the stunning Simon And Garfunkel favorite “The Only Living Boy In New York,” he reached for the song’s high notes and hit them—perhaps not with the pure clarity he had in 1970, but his slightly worn tenor still emanates warmth that’s affecting in a completely different way. After all these years, Simon still demands attention because he’s making music that he could’ve only made at this point in his career. So Beautiful Or So What is an album made by a man who’s lived a lifetime of ups and downs; on Friday at the Riverside, Simon showed he still has plenty of ups left in him.