If we take Paul Simon at his word, he’s never coming back to Philadelphia again.
Or at least not in the manner that he played the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday: On a full scale, 15-piece band tour that takes the measure of a remarkable 60-year career that achieved the rare feat of growing more musically daring as it went along.
The 76-year-old Simon is out on what he’s calling “Homeward Bound: The Farewell Tour.” And while he hasn’t said he’ll never perform live again or quit writing songs, he is among the most prominent — along with Elton John and Joan Baez — of baby boomer acts who spawned a thousand trend stories earlier this year by announcing that, after one just more tour, they will be retiring from the road.
The singer-songwriter opened the date-night show before a sold-out crowd — made up largely of fans in the artist’s age range, though the couple making out in the row in front of me during “You Can Call Me Al” were at least 40 years his junior — by joining his stupendously capable and wildly adaptable band on stage for the 1968 Simon & Garfunkel hit “America.”
That song about a sojourner seeking truth in his travels, which was used with permission by Bernie Sanders in his 2016 presidential campaign (and in a Volkswagen commercial the next year), got one of the evening’s biggest cheers for its “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike” line.
And its hitting-the-highway-in-search-of-adventure travelogue served as a neat analogy for the exploratory nature of Simon’s ever-evolving career, which famously took him far beyond the borders of the U.S. as he reshaped his sound with rhythms drawn from Africa and South America.
The 27 songs that followed included four more by Simon & Garfunkel, including three that were part of a crowd-pleasing encore. “Homeward Bound” was accompanied by a photo montage of Simon through the years, from his teenage days when he and Garfunkel were known as “Tom and Jerry” to the 1980s Graceland era with South African vocalist Miriam Makeba.
The quietly feisty “The Boxer” hinted at the pugnacious stick-to-itiveness that has served Simon well through the decades: “I am leaving, I am leaving / But the fighter still remains.” And “The Sound of Silence” finale was performed solo acoustic, with the video screen gone dark, just one man and his song more than enough to hold the room rapt.
In between, the show ranged throughout the songwriter’s capacious catalog, with plenty of hits and no shortage of deep cuts. He didn’t shirk on serving up such hits as “Kodachrome” or “The Boy in the Bubble” or “Mother and Child Reunion,” but as my seatmate observed, his body of work is so deep that he could have built a parallel set made up of just as many hits without repeating a song.
Almost all of the songs were rearranged to some degree, but never to the Dylanesque extent of being unrecognizable. Rather, Simon, whose never dazzling conversational vocal was in perfectly good shape, with only occasional moments of scratchiness, allowed his backing band to shine in appropriate contexts, with the players never merely showing off.
Louisiana accordion player Joel Guzman wheezed and squeezed on the zydeco number “That Was Your Mother.” Guitarist Biodun Kuti, a new addition to the band since the death of longtime Simon collaborator Vincent Nguini last year, shone on “Spirit Voices,” from 1990’s Rhythm of the Saints, and his electric guitar interwove with acoustic player Mark Stewart on such Graceland cuts as “The Boy in the Bubble.”
Most of Simon’s musical excursions are hybrid in nature: West African guitar lines meld with Brazilian drums, and the band shape shifts as need be. The drummer plays resonator guitar when called upon; a backup singer is also a flautist.
The band-within-the-band concept was most effectively demonstrated in a midshow segment in which Simon gathered in a semi-circle with yMusic, the New York seven-member string and horns chamber ensemble.
With them, he pulled out two rarities, both exquisitely rendered: “Renee and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War,” from 1983’s Hearts & Bones, a surrealist love letter to the R&B vocal groups of the 1950s that Simon grew up listening to, and “Can’t Run But,” from Rhythm of the Saints. That was followed by a satisfyingly fresh arrangement of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a song that he remembered as not so much writing but “being a conduit for.” “This being my final tour,” he said. “I have to take my child back.”
Early on in the show, after “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Simon said: “As I go along on the this tour, the more I think about it, the more liberating it becomes in my head. I don’t know what I’m going to do, and I love the idea that I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Simon also admitted, however, that that’s a partial fib, and that he’s not going to be able to help himself from doing what he’s always done: “I’m going to write music.” He has a new album coming out in September.
Simon might be tired of touring, but road weariness has always suffused his songs. “Don’t expect me to be bright and bon vivant,” he sang Saturday on “American Tune” from 1973 on Saturday. “So far away from home, so far away from home.”
But while his lyrics have tended toward the introspective and observational throughout his career, the music grew brighter and more energetic (as well as increasingly subtle — not an easy trick) as time passed. So though Saturday’s show had its melancholy saying-goodbye moments, it was mainly a vibrant celebration of a long career whose creative restlessness has still continued to pay off, after all these years.