What in the world is pop music going to do when Paul Simon goes away? He turns 71 in a couple weeks, so this is a question that needs to be asked sooner rather than later. In fact, it’s even a little hard to think that another chapter in the book of Simon may even ever be written after 2011’s highly acclaimed So Beautiful Or So What, a statement of a record that proved exactly how much he’s still able to masterfully craft his blend of thinking man’s pop after almost 50 years in the songwriting business.
The question of what the genre may do in Simon’s absence is one of the first that comes to mind with the singer’s latest, Live In New York City, a double disc/one DVD set profiling a June 6, 2011 concert at New York City’s Webster Hall. The set captures where Paul Simon is now both as a person and a musician, with his smiles and gestures during choice tracks painting a picture of a man who is happy with not only his own personal musical history, but also with what his own musical abilities have amounted to today.
And maybe that’s why this collection features four of the songs that appeared on his most recent studio effort—he needed to prove to listeners that the So Beautiful Or So What sessions stand on par with anything he’s done in his career. The astonishing thing this release proves, though, is that he’s right. “Dazzling Blue” remains as pretty as “Hearts And Bones” when sitting up against one another. “So Beautiful Or So What”, a track that Simon clearly holds close to him as his enthusiasm for performing it radiates off the television screen, is just as subversively angry as “The Boy in the Bubble”. “The Afterlife”, one of the forgotten gems from his 2011 effort, proves as cheeky and fun as “Crazy Love, Vol. II”. And “Rewrite” tells as vivid a story as “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, which, by the way, burns here like a simmering Stax Records party with its powerful horns allowing the chorus to slither like a snake through an emotionally complicated swamp.
It’s that kind of passion for performance that makes Live In New York City both a must for die-hard fans and a suitable introduction for newcomers. “Gumboots”, for instance, extends beyond its original short structure by allowing the musicians to breathe, succeeding in the most expansive of ways. The move proves its worth, too, as Mick Rossii’s lightning-fast piano adds a wildly fun layer to the performance that closes the initial set. “Late In The Evening”, meanwhile, offers up a hell of a salsa party just as the audience catches its collective breath after Simon and his band rip through “Gone At Last”, a gospel jam that illustrates a hot Sunday morning somewhere in small-town Alabama.
Even Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” has an added element of poignancy at this point in the singer’s career. The first song of the encore, this take on the JFK assassination-inspired classic features only the singer and his acoustic guitar for four-and-a-half minutes of hushed reverence that proves to be the most tender moment of the night. It’s a stark contrast from the Graceland tracks that demand just as much movement as they first did 25 years ago. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” is subtly rearranged for survival without the help of Ladysmith Black Mamabazo, though never once does it feel like it’s lost its punch through the years. And “That Was Your Mother” continues to showcase the singer’s signature blend of zydeco and pop in a way that should force any living human out of his or her seat. “Well I’m standing on the corner of Lafayette / State of Louisiana / Wondering where a city boy could go / To get a little conversation / Drink a little red wine / Check out the cajun girl / She dancing to zydeco!” Simon sings with his voice rising in excitement. Not only is the moment fun to hear, but it also serves as a bit of reassurance that playing these songs can still inspire the singer enough to want to keep doing what he’s doing for at least a little while longer.
Or, at least, so we can only hope. What Live In New York City does is bring to the forefront exactly how important Paul Simon is to the future of pop music. For decades now, he’s been the only one to achieve a gigantic amount of success by incorporating influences from genres of music that pop stars today can’t even imagine confronting, yet alone implementing (and no, the EDM influences that paint every Pitbull, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry or Keisha single do not count). Plus, he’s brainy. Don’t forget that the guy has always been the sophisticated answer to mindless pop music trends for people who like a side of intellect to go along with their sugar-filled lunch. That combination isn’t just rare these days—it’s nearly extinct.
Thus we should all begin the conversation now on what exactly pop music might do when Paul Simon isn’t around anymore. It’s a question that may take a little while to successfully conquer, and it’s a question that should be just a bit more relevant now than it was, say, in 2006, when the then-64-year-old released Surprise. Fortunately, the energy and ardency that appears on Live In New York City proves, if nothing else, that we have a least a little while longer to ponder such an answer.
And thank god for that.