Nobody Does It Better

from the Playboy Blog, 5/1/08

In one of my favorite Paul Simon songs, the time-tested songwriter laments, “down the decades every year, summer leaves and my birthday’s here, and all my friends stand up and cheer and say ‘man, you’re old.” He wrote that almost a decade ago. And yet, as Simon wrapped up his month-long residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last weekend, he pulled out the same fresh, unadorned voice and playful humor that have been his trademark for all those decades. And in the process, the old man outplayed all the young disciples who came to honor him.

The show (entitled “American Tunes” to separate it from the previous weekends’ spectacles, “Songs From the Capeman” and “Under African Skies”) opened with a lineup of hit-or-miss tributes. Olu Dara played a blues-driven take on “Slip Slidin’ Away” and “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings infused Simon and Garfunkel classics “The Boxer” and “The Sound of Silence” with a bluegrass bounce. Indie act Grizzly Bear experimented with plodding, minor-key arrangements of “Graceland” and “Mother and Child Reunion” that were seriously misguided. And Josh Groban’s belted versions of “America” and “Silent Eyes” sure showed off his vibrato but made me feel like I was in an opera house (well, technically, I was).

But when Simon entered the stage for a duet with Groban he brought exactly the unassuming voice and presence needed to soften Groban’s edge. The tiny (5’ 2”) hero, who put out his first album, Wednesday Morning 3AM, in 1965 as half of Simon and Garfunkel, crept onstage mid-song sporting jeans, a blue short-sleeve button shirt, and an ever-receding hairline. His looks had changed, but his sound was the same, and he still remembered almost all the words.

When Simon took over the second half of the show, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was difficult to hear even the best tributes knowing that the man himself was just offstage. Luckily, after over four decades he wasn’t about to run out of set material anytime soon. Simon encored with “Late in the Evening,” and just as he had as an underage kid, he blew the room away.

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