The Scene: Magness is a small hockey arena where the DU Pioneers play. It holds about 8,000 people and it was full for this show. The crowd consisted of everyone from college kids to their grandparents. With Simon just 3 days shy of his 65th birthday it wasn’t a surprise that the average age was probably in the mid 40’s. The crowd was up and down for the most of the night. Standing for the well known rockers and sitting for the quiter numbers. Overall a very good crowd and the venue staff was very friendly as well.
Lines at the cocktail concessions were a little long and slow moving but the hidden gem of the venue is the fact that they sell 24 oz Molson Canadian’s for $7 at the beer stands around the arena. It was a hell of a deal especially considering there was no line at the beer stands. Aside from the usual problems with concert sound in an arena, Magness isn’t a bad place to see a concert.
Opener: Jerry Douglas. Due to extremely poor planning on the part of the Pearl Street Grill we didn’t make it in time to catch Douglas. Come on, you are a restaurant and bar mere blocks from what is becoming a more and more popular concert venue and you can’t be bothered to check the schedule and call in more staff. The excuse of “we didn’t know about the concert and only have 2 servers and 2 cooks on tonight,” didn’t fly well with our group as we waited for 45 minutes for our food. To their credit they did throw in a pitcher of Stella on the house.
Fortunately we did get to see a bit of Douglas and his Dobro mastery when he emerged for the final encore of Simon’s set The Boxer. Douglas played along with Simon and his band and finally got the opportunity to solo right before the final verse. Matching the melody line note for note Douglas and his dobro added a haunting element to the classic.
Paul Simon: Paul Simon wrote the words “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance,” almost 25 years ago and last night at Magness Arena I felt for a time that he had foreshadowed his own career. When the band dusted off this old favorite for one of it’s only recent performances about a third of the way through the evening, I have to admit that I was a bit unhappy with the show. I was second guessing my great memories of the 3 other times I had seen Simon, and feeling like I’d “been had” by my own memory. Like loving the sound of a a train in the distance but being horrified by it’s thunderous roar as it rushes by you, had I romanticized my other Paul Simon experiences? At that point in the show I had to say “yes.”
Let me recap what led me to that conclusion. The show opened with what should have been a powerful one-two punch of “Gumboots” and “The Boy in Bubble” off of Simon’s 1988 masterpiece Graceland. However, the band seemed flat, no one in the audience had any energy at all, and quite frankly I blame all this on the fact that the sound couldn’t have been worse. Simon’s voice was hidden under layers of reverb and echos and you couldn’t tell the keyboards from the guitars. This is what a sound check is for gentelmen! Fix the problems before the band takes the stage and if you do have to do a little tweaking (as is expected) do it right away during the first verse of the first song. It shouldn’t take 3 or 4 songs to get sound issues ironed out. I assume Simon is travelling with a profession sound crew and not hiring kids from local garage bands to do his sound. Bad sound may be a pet peeve of mine, but if I am paying $80 to see a concert I fully expect the sound to be, at worst, tolerable.
It wasn’t until about 4 songs into the set, as the instantly recognizable drums of “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” broke through the wall of the mud that was the soundstage at this point, that the audience showed any signs of life. This was the beginning of a long road up for Simon and his band as they tried to climb out of the deep hole the sound crew tossed them into.
A veteran performer it was clear that Simon was up to the challenge and he was going to do his best to win over even the harshest critics in the crowd. They really seemed to feed off of the energy that the crowd was starting to show and really got things going when they took us back to the 50’s for a old time rock-n-roll version of the classic “Me & Julio Down By the Schoolyard.”
With the sound problems finally fixed (for the most part) and the crowd’s energy level rejuvenated I began to remember why I shelled out my $80 to see him again. The first highlight of the night came a little before the halfway mark when the first few notes of “Duncan” rang out. Always one of my very favorite Paul Simon songs, it was a thrill to see him perform it live. Lyrics like “Holes in my confidence, holes in the knees of my jeans,” and “well I told her I was lost and she told me all about the Pentecost,” have been burned into my memory since I was in middle school. “Duncan” is, in my opinion, one of Simon’s most well written songs. The genius of making up words like “destituted” to suit his purpose and rhyming “hock it” with “pocket,” are marks of a truly creative soul.
“Outrageous,” “How Can You Live In The Northeast” and the solo encore of “Wartime Prayers.” were the three songs that Simon chose to weave into the set from his most recent effort Surprise. There were a few cheers for the new numbers but sadly they largely served as opportunities to run to the bathroom for most people. Simon has an established and well loved catalogue of music and unfortunately most of his fans just aren’t at a point in their lives where they are broadening their horizons anymore. Surprise is an album that shows the youth of Simon’s mind and his love for music. He has been reinventing his sound for decades and his reliance on the ambient soundscapes created by Brian Eno on the new album yeild truly rewarding results that proves he is still the musician he was all those years ago.
Simon reinvented a couple of his old favorites throughout the night both intentionally and unintentionally. He dumbfounded most of the capacity crowd when his band turned up their amps and rocked through the coda to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and a fantastic new arrangement of “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” brought the crowd to their feet to close set that steadily gotten better for me. On the unintentional side, both Lindsay and I noted that he often seemed to come in early or late causing him to alter the phrasing on many of his songs. New arrangements of older tracks I understand and respect, but outstanding phrasing is one of the many things that have made Simon one of the best songwriters of the last 100 years. Maybe 30 years of singing the same songs is taking it’s toll.
In perhaps his most moving and spot on performance of the night Simon wowed the crowd with a stellar rendition of “The Only Living Boy In New York.” I recently read that Simon introduced the song this summer in Connecticut by saying that he had forgotten about it until he recently saw Garden State. He didn’t introduce it to us that way, and in fact he spoke very little from the stage the entire evening, but maybe the freshness of the song in his mind brought him back to a time when it was new to him. Back to a time when he sang it with the passion that one has when they are knee deep in the creative process.
Though he wasn’t very personable from his perch up there on the stage, and he may not have nailed every song, it was a hell of an evening. Simon is a legend for so many reasons and there is something about being in the presence of greatness, even if it isn’t as great as it once was. To use his words “oh, what a night, oh what a garden of delight, even now that sweet memory lingers,” and it will linger for years to come and next time Simon comes to town I’ll be in line early to get my tickets. Maybe he’ll become the train in the distance that he wrote about 25 years ago but along the way he’s helped to make some wonderful memories.
Stage Presence: B+
Set/Light Show: A-