As I watched Paul Simon perform at Bellco Theater on Friday, I kept wondering: “Does he still enjoy doing this?”
Which isn’t to say that the 74-year-old singer-songwriter wasn’t trying to put on a good show (or one worthy of Bellco’s minimum ticket price of $64.50). If anything, Simon seemed like he was trying too hard to please, with jerky dance moves and between-song bantering that fell just on the side of awkward, as if they, or even the entire tour, were forced expectations that Simon was trying his damnedest to fulfill.
That’s because, even with his music legacy firmly cemented, Paul Simon is not someone that you can accuse of merely going through the motions on a nostalgia tour.
Rather, what’s remarkable about Simon is that he still pushes as hard as ever – with an almost masochistic focus – to stay fresh and to surprise. And in order to do this, he clearly relies on audiences to be his feedback loop, laying everything he has out before his listeners so they can decide: Does the old guy still “got it?”
By and large, the answer is yes.
This became apparent on Friday night when comparing some of his new songs like “The Werewolf” and “Wristband” – cuts from his thirteenth studio album, Stranger to Stranger, which he’s releasing on June 3 – to his older material.
The quirky and sporadic “Werewolf” and the electro-flamenco fabric of “Wristband” are immediately distinguishable from Simon’s back catalogue and are suggestive of an artist who is still, quite deliberately, experimenting with different strokes.
Of course, the same can really be said of any album in Simon’s career. Just compare the Afrobeat textures of 1986’s Graceland to Simon’s earlier albums, or Simon’s early solo career to his time with a certain Art Garfunkel. Simon has always experimented by pushing his music in new directions, and for the most part, he’s succeeded.
At Bellco, the audience appreciated the sheer diversity of Simon’s music and talent through a set list that offered an evolutionary journey through Simon’s songwriting, including plenty of fan favorites — “50 Ways to Leave your Lover,” “Call Me Al,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Still Crazy After All These Years" — thrown in.
With nine bandmembers backing him up, including a horn section and a specialty percussionist, Simon was able to honor all the complexities, various rhythms and soundscapes that he’s honed during his (ongoing) career.
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By the end of the evening, the thought I had grappled with – Does he still enjoy doing this? – had shifted to a realization that I believe more accurately describes Simon at 74: He needs to do this.
It also seems that Simon tries so hard not because he’s egotistical, but because his career has been built upon challenges he’s posed to himself to both explore the outer edges of his artistry and to move his audiences in new and profound ways.
With Friday night’s excellent performance, Denver was the beneficiary of that impulse. And although Simon has said that this latest album may be his last for a while, it’s pretty clear that he’ll be back with another before too long.
He has to.