Some famous couples: yin and yang, fire and ice, push and pull, sun and moon, Simon and Garfunkel. Although nothing in popular music should surprise anymore, millions of jaws dropped at the most recent reunion of these folk-pop legends. Family pets were closely watched for signs of amour, red states held hands with blue states, you get the picture. But really, I don’t know what the hoo-hah was all about besides marketing. It doesn’t make the music sound any better or worse if Paul finally adds Art to his Friendster list and writes him a testimonial. What matters is the performance, and here it is, culled from five sold-out shows that took place December 3-8, 2003, in New York and New Jersey. The two-CD set is accompanied by a DVD that covers most of the same ground, with a few extra numbers throw in. The results are pretty much what you’d expect. If you’re a devotee of the two men and their story, you will probably find it all very touching and significant. If you’re more concerned with the songs themselves and how they sound as they near their 40th birthday, your reaction will most likely be mixed.
This set wants desperately not to be received as a nostalgia-act, oldies-circuit cash-grab. It wants to be pure. At the same time, the opening montage on the DVD is comprised of photos of the duo from childhood to today, interspersed with footage of Vietnam protests, MLK, Oliver North, etc., all tugging at pop culture’s collective heartstrings. But the twin objectives of artistic purity and nostalgic pandering aren’t necessarily opposed, especially since Simon and Garfunkel songs have always sounded nostalgic. But they only achieve their intended vitality when the songs are strong enough to withstand the spectacle of Madison Square Garden, press conferences, and David Wild’s unbearably pun-filled liner notes. Seriously, “And in the end, the experience became more deep and real and somehow ended up with lots of grown people feeling, well, groovy” begs for your cynicism toward the project; the lovely “Scarborough Fair” does not. The audience singalong on “The Boxer” almost demands that you throw the whole lot into your aunt’s Christmas stocking and be done with it; the gently retooled harmonies on the same song talk you down from such drastic measures.
The songs are presented palatably close to the recorded originals, only slightly slower. A few songs get solo embellishments from Warren Bernhardt on piano and Rob Schwimmer on keyboards. Ironically, it’s the more fully arranged material that ends up sounding the most dated. The hushed, gentle opener “Old Friends/Bookends” is stark and affecting, the words and melody given room and opportunity to be even more relevant in 2004 than in 1968. In contrast, “Mrs. Robinson” descends into Adult AOR jamminess, until it ceases to be a song, and is instead a pair of bell-bottoms or a string of love beads. The DVD illustrates the dual nature of the performance even more. Paul Simon’s demeanor occasionally lapses into boredom; Garfunkel is nearly always the eager beaver, looking an unfortunate lot like he came right out of A Mighty Wind. “El Condor Pasa” and “The Only Living Boy in New York” are so strong and timeless as to rein in both performers’ worst tendencies, and you sense the audience is on pins and needles, not just singing vaguely along. Other highlights include the ever-poignant “America” and a visit from the Everly Brothers (one song represented on the CD, three on the DVD). These moments are probably enough to make the set worthwhile to fanatics, but if you’d rather hear the songs in their best form, stick to the originals.