The Observer MAY 28, 2006 - by Kitty Empire


The folk-rock legend needs to cut the clutter and allow the songs to shine.

As Paul Simon strides onstage for his first solo London gig in six years, a strange thing happens. No one gets out their camera phone. Most gigs these days begin with a silver forest of digital gizmos sprouting above the head of the audience, and the strobing of flashes. It's not that this audience of Radio 2 competition winners and media liggers isn't glad to see Simon. On the contrary. There is a palpable quiver of delight at the folk-pop icon's every move. He stands a mere few feet away, rather than an arena mile. These days, it's actually more of a rarity to see him without Art Garfunkel. Estranged for decades, the two formally buried the hatchet three years ago and embarked on a highly lucrative worldwide reunion tour.

It's a sign of the age and decorum of the audience at this intimate venue that few dare to snap Simon - who turns sixty-five this year - in the modern manner. Looking around, even the giddy competition winners look like BBC staffers; as though their line managers would have a fit if they did something so vulgar as aim their Nokia at the great man.

Modernity and the past remain in great tension throughout tonight's gig. Simon's thirteen-song set draws enthusiastically from all eras of his career, from his latest album, Surprise, from Graceland, Simon's solo smash of 1986, and from his youth with Art Garfunkel. He's as happy to sing old favourites like Slip Sliding Away or The Boxer as he is to preview tracks from Surprise like How Can You Live In The Northeast?, a song about intolerance that's easily the most appealing from his uneven new offering.

Throughout, his subdued, effortless singing voice sounds exactly as you remember it, warm and breezy by turns. His lyrics remain a constant joy. (Well, except for one on the new album where he gushes about his eleven-year-old (Father And Daughter). But the song's arrangements - tailored to fit his voluble, six-strong band - are consistently challenging. His lilies come in for some serious, superfluous gilding

Boy In The Bubble, one of the singles that re-established Simon's reputation as a pop force in the '80s, is almost unrecognisable - an aggressive, reverb-drenched trip-hop rendition. Slip Sliding Away creaks under the weight of six players, adding muted horns and layers of guitar and keyboards. Some songs begin simply, with lovely a capella vocals (like the set opener, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes) or with Simon playing his acoustic guitar. But within a few bars in come the accordions or the unsuitable rhythms or some other extraneous muso wheeze. It's not that his band aren't fluent. Guitarist Vincent Nguini is an especially lovely, fluid player. Having this many players onstage makes a lot of things possible, not least some gorgeous, multi-part vocal harmonies. On You're the One the lines You are the air / Inside my chest make time stand still for a second.

But most songs tonight seem to be struggling to free themselves from some awful instrument shop calamity. Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard comes out bizarrely brash, with three guitarists making a great din of strumming. By contrast, Love Me Like A Rock actually benefits from a bit of doo-wop.

It's not hard to understand why Simon rearranges his greatest hits. How many millions of times has he played Boy In The Bubble in the last twenty years? How often has he wheeled out Cecilia, a rollicking analogue to The Beatles' Ob-la-di Ob-la-da? Reworking songs keeps musicians from getting bored. Playing the songs like they sound on the records would doubtless please his more conservative fans, but not Simon. Even though he made his first impact as a straight folk-pop artist, he has been a particularly ardent experimentalist in the decades since then. His search for new sonic landscapes (to quote from the credits on Surprise) upon which to loose his lyrics has famously taken in Latin and African music, and latterly avant garde producer Brian Eno, whose spacey hand is all over Surprise.

There is, however, a limit to how much monkeying around even Simon's songs can take. Tonight's set would have benefited from a thorough decluttering, a little more less is more. His songs need not be preserved in aspic. But, as tonight, they can be easily ambushed by over-fussy playing. Perhaps Paul Simon needs reminding that for forty years simplicity has been his greatest asset.