Review: Paul Simon, still lively, at the Mann

Paul Simon.

Paul Simon initially made his bones in the 1960s writing self-consciously poetic Simon & Garfunkel songs like “The Sound Of Silence,” with which the 74 year old songwriter, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, brought to a close his two-hour plus sold-out show at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Fairmount Park on Saturday.

The impression that Simon is an archetypal strumming singer-songwriter - first and foremost, a word guy - still lingers. On “Homeward Bound” and “The Boxer,” the two other S & G songs he sang, members of his multigenerational fan base mouthed the words in unison.

But of course Simon is at least as much, if not moreso, a music guy. That became fully clear with Graceland, the watershed album in Simon’s prodigious career that came out 30 years ago this August that incorporated South African mbaqanga and Louisianan zydeco, among other global rhythms, into a sonic strategy that’s provided the template for his subsequent work.

Evidence of an adventurous musical spirit was on display on Saturday dating back to “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” the Peruvian folk song that, with added Simon lyrics, was a S & G hit in 1970. At the Mann, Simon’s dazzlingly versatile 10 piece band performed that song as an instrumental intro to “Duncan,” a deep cut from Simon’s 1970 self-titled album about a lonely musical drifter that employs Andean flutes.

Simon is touring behind Stranger To Stranger, his first solo album in five years and his best since 1990’s The Rhythm Of The Saints, another globe trotting (primarily Brazilian focused) rhythmically rich collection which he drew from for four percussive, percolating songs on Saturday.

Oddly, he did only three from the uniformly strong new record, which finds the septuagenarian synthesist delving into digital music making techniques without ever coming off as a mere dilettante.

One of the those was “Wristband,” the catchy single that does not quite succeed in extending the credential used for backstage access as a metaphor for societal discontent among the economically downtrodden and dispossessed. Nice try, though.

Another was “The Werewolf,” a spirited musical melange that goes moaning in the middle of the night with the aid of Peruvian percussion, a one stringed Indian instrument called a gopichand, electronic beats by Italian dance music artist Clap! Clap! and a didgeridoo.

Who the musicians who aided Simon in bringing this wondrously worldly sound to fruition were was unclear: Other than guitarist Vincent Nguina, who introduced himself while telling an affectionate story about Simon’s travels in Cameroon before “The Cool, Cool River,” they were never named.          

Simon’s recent songs are suffused with a certain melancholy, but they never get down in the dumps musically. “Time marches on, at any tempo it chooses,” he said early in the 27 song set while joking about his failing eyesight before “Rewrite,” a tune about the art of revision from 2011’s So Beautiful or So What.

Later in “The Werewolf,” he sang of the mythical beast of mortality waiting outside the door: “The doorbell is ringing, could be the elves /  But it’s probably the Werewolf, it’s quarter to twelve.” Time may be growing short, but Simon’s music is as fully alive as ever.

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