Concert Review: Paul Simon brings the world’s rhythms to Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre

Less than a week into his tour to support new album “So Beautiful or So What,” Paul Simon hit the stage with a band so confident in its musical abilities that from the first notes of show opener “Crazy Love, Vol. ll,” they were fully in command and in the groove, literally.

The April 21 Pantages Theatre show, Simon”s third in three days in Los Angeles, drew largely from the stellar new set, which debuted at No. 4 this week on the Billboard 200. There”s an open-hearted vulnerability in much of the album as Simon explores big-ticket questions about love and God, but much of it is surrounded in such jubilant, uplifting melodies that it”s easy to overlook the gravitas of the situation.

For example, on “Love is Eternal Sacred Light,” he begins by singing about the big bang theory and then seamlessly moves lyrically into a bang of a different sort: a terrorist explosion in a marketplace, but it all plays out to a jaunty world-music beat. On the new album”s most vulnerable piece, “Love and Hard Times” – exquisitely rendered live-Simon sings about God and Jesus paying earth a “courtesy call” before the song morphs into a seemingly totally different tune about finding love in time. Only a lyricist as skilled as Simon could tie the two together with their theme of salvation, whether heavenly or earthly.

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Simon”s never been what one could call a flamboyant performer and this show was no exception. For most of the night, he stood solidly planted in front of the mic, every now and then conceding a shoulder shrug or a little toe tapping. But even he couldn”t resist the amazing musical gumbo happening around him on stage. During cajun rave-up, “That Was Your Mother,” he bounced around the stage, reveling in the music being made around him,  playing air-accordion and air-washboard. Yeah, you read that right.

Simon”s music is an amalgam of the Caribbean, South African and Delta rhythms and instrumentation he so loves. He created a loving framework for his influences last night; for example, going from Jimmy Cliff”s stirring “Vietnam” into “Mother & Child Reunion,” or segueing from the title track of 1982″s “Hearts & Bones” (his most underrated album) into Elvis Presley”s “Mystery Train.”

Each song was rendered beautifully by his incredibly eloquent band. It wasn”t just the talent of the right musicians surrounding Simon, all of whom played multiple instruments; it was the sound communion they created between themselves and the audience. There were enough instruments on stage to stock a music store, but no note ever seemed superfluous.

Simon”s vocal range has always been fairly limited–that”s what he had Art Garfunkel for–and he”s lost some of his ability to sustain notes, but his voice still has a warm, reassuring heft to it.  He saved some of his strongest singing for last song, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” hitting every nuance perfectly.

The appreciative audience lapped up every song, although they seemed glued to their seats despite the joyous noise coming from the stage, even during a rendition of “The Obvious Child” so ebullient that if felt like a full New Orleans Second Line parade would break out behind Simon.  It wasn”t until exultant main show closer “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” that they shook loose the shackles of the narrow Pantages Theatre seats to shake along to the music.  Then, during the six-song double encore, which included a lovely cover of “Here Comes The Sun,” the crowd remained standing, especially during the one-two punch of “Kodachrome,” which has the 20-somethings in front of me pogo-ing,  and an insanely delightful “Gone At Last.”