Consider the slack, orgasmic vagueness that invades Paul Simons face as, down below, his right hand twitches, by reflex alone, into the first four chords of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”–a song that appears, even when being played by the man who wrote it, to have written itself. At times like this, in an overfilled, over-stimulated Beacon Theater, our evening’s entertainment just gets out of the way. For that handful of seconds, Simon is an instrument, a conduit, nothing more, the place where inchoate nostalgia gathers, takes form, and is applauded.
Michael Bloomberg is here. So is Tony Soprano, and Chuck Close. Paul McCartney waves from the wings and nearly causes a stampede. Arriving at the theater, I end up in the presumable background of many a photo of Bon Jovi and his wife. To get to my seat, I have to push past Steve Schirripa, who continues talking as I circumnavigate his considerable torso: Do you know how many favors I called in for this?
Once ensconced among the electricians and contractors who’d spent months rebuilding and renovating the Beacon Theater (and to whom the Dolans threw prime orchestra tickets by way of reward), and other, august members of the media (who will soon shamelessly stand and applaud when Paul Simon takes the stage, just like everyone else but me and the dude from the New York Times), I send my Graceland-addled mother a text message and wait for Simon to go on.
The CBS reporter to my left creases and uncreases what appears to be a printout of a digital photo: Simon’s setlist, maybe, bootlegged from “friends in low places.” When the lights go out and Simon emerges, bows with two hands, and commences to play the sneakily pre-Valentine’s Day come-on “Gumboots,” my seatmate smacks his hands together and whispers Son of a bitch, it’s authentic. If the blurry encore that trails off the bottom of his page is correct, Simon and Art Garfunkel are two sets and an intermission away from reuniting to play “The Sound of Silence,” “The Boxer,” and “Old Friends.” Two hours later, this is exactly what happens.
In between, it’s ample Graceland/Rhythm of the Saints/Paul Simon vintage-era reprise, broken up by a long Capeman interlude that prompted one audience member to drunkenly scream play stuff we know, as if Simon might be capable of doing otherwise. During the few songs Simon is without a guitar, as on “Proof,” he gets low and wavy, an amoeba in a t-shirt and a tie, conducting a band that, in appearance, looks to be about half grizzled, studio veterans, and half dudes with the kind of ponytails that suggest they pray cross-legged at sunrise each morning. In amongst this outfit, the diminutive, balding Simon flits around the stage, cruising by the mic at leisure, a deceptively easy delivery for a man who, at age 67, can still sing his way out of anything, it seems. When he and Garfunkel finally link up, the contrast is glaring: Simon, quietly precise; Garfunkel raspy, straining, visibly anxious.
The highlight is “Graceland,” is of course “Graceland,” the Technicolor song woven in among memories of my parents when I was young, the song Simon readily cops to being his best, whose tricky emotional line eludes the automatic play Simon brings to the rest of the chestnuts in his catalogue. Sixteen million dollars have made the Beacon curtains very red, the gilding very gold, and for a minute Simon and band appear to freeze, the stage a jewel-box diorama. “Looks nice,” my neighbor says when time has started again and we’ve finished the second set and are waiting for the encore. “Until the Allman Brothers play here, anyway–then they’ll be scraping the bong resin off the statues all over again.”