Watching this new DVD release of a 1980 Paul Simon concert, I was struck by the similarities and differences between Simon and that other quintessential New Yorker, Lou Reed. Both artists are kind of like New York flipsides to one another. Not exactly diametrically opposed, but more laterally, there is something essentially street about each of them. With Simon, in some ways, a more sage-like Huntz Hall to Reed’s tougher Leo Gorcey.
Both have supremely laid-back, almost stoic personas, which make for great low-key deliveries, most often in vernacular. Vocally and lyrically, Reed is a diarist-realist, Simon a poetic-naturalist. Where Lou will say something like, “You’re just dirt, the only word for you is dirt,” Simon says, “I met my old lover on the street last night…”.
In Live From Philadelphia, Simon exudes New York cool and confidence. Looking a bit like Reed’s more sober brother in Levis, t-shirt and a leather jacket, he delivers a short, fairly laid-back set of hit songs and newer material from the then recently released One Trick Pony movie and soundtrack. The music is tight, sweet and, at times quite moving.
The press release positions this as Simon’s transitional phase, before the liberating innovations of Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, and, in some ways, one senses it. Backing him is a rather serious-looking bunch of renowned professional musicians (drummer Steve Gadd, bassist Tony Levin, keyboardists Peter Levin and Richard Tee, guitarist Eric Gale, as well as a full horn section). If, at times, it feels more like a disparate group of players with a singer in front of them than a homegrown band, what they lack in organic unity is made up for in high-quality chops.
The show’s vibe is established with opener “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”, played with that kind of easy, laid-back funk that is, in some ways, peculiar to Simon. The funkier rhythm and blues numbers — “One Trick Pony”, “Ace In The Hole” — alternate with sadder, more wistful material, showcasing Simon’s uncanny command of chord progression and melody.
While standards such as “Still Crazy After All These Years” or “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” (which, with its deft changes, might as well be called “50 Chords To Play Your Lover”) are still and always moving, it’s the lesser known songs here that really shine, such as “Something So Right”, a beautifully lilting acoustic number, or the slow, atmospheric “Jonah”, where a chime-like flute and electric piano underscore dark minor steps and half-steps to create a kind of midnight melancholy.
Another stand-out is the rousing, show-closing “Late In The Evening”, whose poly-rhythms and driving horns liven up the whole auditorium, band included, even eliciting a rare rock-n-roll scream from Simon. This is followed by three encores performed virtually solo.
Simon is truly one of the most underrated and understated guitarist, sometimes seeming to change chords five or six times without moving his hand. While he looks most natural with an acoustic guitar, he plays the major portion of this show, three encores included, on a slick black electric.
Often some strange alchemy occurs when a folk singer trades in an acoustic guitar for an electric, an obvious surge of power and, well, electricity. Just look what it did to Dylan. Though it doesn’t transform Simon in quite the same way, he’s no less fluent, proving his prowess with the hymn-like “American Tune” and equally prayerful “The Boxer”. And, of course, “Sound of Silence”, where Simon shows how one man, one guitar and a great song can hush an entire auditorium.