Paul Simon at Winspear Opera House
Having just seen Paul Simon’s concert at Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre, two things are certain:
1. Even without Chevy Chase, done live, “You Can Call Me Al” is a joyous, romping, crowd-pleasing show-stealer.
2. If you’re a Paul Simon fan who was in town Tuesday night and you made a conscious decision to pass on this show in favor of, say, Netflix – you made a huge mistake.
Somehow, some way, not against all odds but certainly against several, the singer-songwriter (best known as the much-better half of ’60s/’70s folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel) gave an exhilarating performance that would have been remarkable for almost any musician but is flat-out astonishing for a guy closing in fast on 76.
Making his first appearance here since he split a show with Bob Dylan at the old Blockbuster Pavilion in 1999, Simon – wearing jeans and a navy-blue jacket over a gray T-shirt that read “Biodiversity” – took the stage with a smile, a quick salute and a gracious nod, resting a ball cap adorned with a lowercase “e” on his mic stand. (More on that hat in a minute.)
And while some fans might have been nervous at the outset, when his voice was drowned out by his eight-piece band during jaunty opener “The Boy in the Bubble” (off 1987’s “Graceland”), it turned out to simply be a temporary sound-mixing problem; by Song 2, the jazzy “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (off 1975’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”), the technicians had their act together and it became clear he had nothing to hide.
In fact, Simon kept fans guessing all night. Just when you thought it was a nostalgia show, he’d trot out a highbrow cut from 2016’s “Stranger to Stranger,” or blindside you with a pop-culturally relevant lyric from a stunningly beautiful acoustic song like 2011’s “Questions for the Angels” (e.g. “Downtown Brooklyn/The pilgrim is passing a billboard/ And catches his eyes/ It’s Jay-Z/ He’s got a kid on each knee/ He is wearing clothes that he wants us to try”).
Or, just when you thought the concert was over – after all, he’d brought the house to its feet with a standing-O-worthy rendition of “Graceland” and then to its knees with the brilliant “Still Crazy After All These Years” (oh, that sax solo!) during the first encore – he reloaded his guitar and come back firing with five more songs in Encore No. 2.
He was also quick with a joke. In his first bit of banter, as he came out of 2011’s South Indian-infused, country-folk-steeped “Dazzling Blue,” Simon craned his neck eastward and exclaimed: “I’m so happy to be here. Look at that moon!” Two people immediately shouted, “Look to your left!” since, to the west, a dazzling blue and pink and purple sky painted a far prettier picture.
The singer obliged and seemed to catch a full glimpse at the colorful palette, feigning surprise as he threw up both palms. Then, he twisted it: “Charlotte Metro,” he cracked, as the crowd realized he was looking at the big sign on the west side of the amphitheater adorned with its title sponsor’s logo. “Thanks for pointing that out!”
A couple of songs later, Simon asked whether anyone had a request. Several hundred people shouted at once, calling out pretty much every big hit in his oeuvre. Then, he twisted it: “I’m sorry, I don’t do requests,” he quipped, before launching into Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” the classic folk-rock anthem that came back into consciousness last year when Bernie Sanders used it in a campaign ad.
That song, of course, doth protest; but it’s mild, and Simon wasn’t going to let the night slip by without providing some much more direct political motivation.
Though he did the majority of the show without ever putting on that “e” cap, Simon returned for Encore No. 2 with it atop his head for the first time. And, finally, he explained.
“This cap that I’m wearing,” he said, “it represents an organization called Half-Earth that was started by a scientist, E.O. Wilson, of Harvard. His book, ‘Half-Earth’ – which I recommend to anyone who is interested in ecology and the planet and saving what we’ve got – had a great effect on me. So the proceeds from this tour are all going to his foundation.”
Then Simon sang “Questions for the Angels,” which in addition to the Jay-Z line posits: “If every human on the planet/ And all the buildings on it/ Should disappear/ Would a zebra grazing in the African savannah/ Care enough to shed one zebra tear?”
But he wasn’t finished.
“Anger is an addiction,” he said a few songs later, as he prepared to close the show. “The brain likes it. … And right now, we’ve got a nation of addicts. Who is the dealer? The media. Don’t give in to it.”
Seconds later, he stood on stage alone with his guitar and – somehow, some way, not against all odds but certainly against several – he absolutely nailed “The Sound of Silence,” his voice defying his age to sound the best it had all night, even after 2 hours and 15 minutes of almost nonstop use.
Simon made it almost to the end when a whistle blared obnoxiously from a nearby passing train. Without missing a beat, he quipped: “So beautiful.”
It quelled fans’ annoyance, and it also summed up the night.
Paul Simon’s setlist
1. “The Boy in the Bubble”
2. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”
3. “Dazzling Blue”
4. “That Was Your Mother”
6. “America” (Simon & Garfunkel song)
7. “Mother and Child Reunion”
8. “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”
9. “Spirit Voices”
10. “The Obvious Child”
11. “Stranger to Stranger”
12. “Homeward Bound” (Simon & Garfunkel song)
14. “Hearts and Bones”
15. “The Cool, Cool River”
16. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”
17. “You Can Call Me Al”
20. “Still Crazy After All These Years”
21. “Questions for the Angels”
22. “The Boxer” (Simon & Garfunkel song)
23. “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor”
24. “Late in the Evening”
25. “The Sound of Silence” (Simon & Garfunkel song)