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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Out From the Shadows : On Latest Tour, Paul Simon Fends Off Ghosts of 'Graceland'

January 22, 1991|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — Talk about your days of miracles and wonder.

Who ever imagined a Paul Simon tour where Art Garfunkel wasn't the artist that most fans were hoping would make a surprise visit on stage?

Well, no surprise guest showed up on Sunday at the San Diego Sports Arena, the first stop on the Southern California swing of Simon's worldwide tour.

But it was clear from the audience reaction to the music of Simon's celebrated "Graceland" period that Ladysmith Black Mambazo would have caused a bigger stir than Simon's old partner if the colorful South African vocal group from the "Graceland" tour and album had suddenly walked on stage.

When Simon went into such songs as the warmly soothing "Graceland" and the disarmingly zany "You Can Call Me Al" from the Grammy-winning 1986 album, the audience responded with the energy and delight that once would have greeted "Mrs. Robinson" or "The Sound of Silence."

In fact, the audience probably would have liked nothing better than a reprise of the entire "Graceland" album.

But Simon, wisely, isn't letting the new tour--titled "Born at the Right Time"--dissolve into "Graceland II."

There were several ties to the "Graceland" days in the 2 1/2-hour concert. Five of the evening's 22 numbers were from "Graceland," and South African guitarist Ray Phiri, probably the most prominent of the "Graceland" musicians, was at Simon's side most of the way.

But Simon struggled for too many years against the Simon & Garfunkel shadow to let himself surrender to another one.

It was 20 years ago that Simon left the Garfunkel partnership, but it probably wasn't until the "Graceland" album that he convinced some of the old fans that he was doing just fine, artistically, on his own.

When Simon returned last fall with a follow-up album, he once again ran into comparisons. There probably wasn't a Simon fan alive who didn't ask, "Is this really as good as 'Graceland'?"

The new tour probably won't resolve that debate.

"Rhythm of the Saints" is a more daring album thematically and texturally as Simon continues to grapple with finding comfort and hope in a restless, uncertain age, but it doesn't seem to have the immediacy and warmth of the best "Graceland" tunes. It is going to take time to put the albums in the proper perspective.

Simon's game plan on the tour is to apply the ambitious "Saints" textures to his music--the songs from "Saints" as well as almost a dozen pre-"Graceland" numbers, including three from the Simon & Garfunkel days.

To achieve the new album's imaginative blend of Brazilian percussion, African guitar and American pop elements, Simon has assembled an international cast of 17 musicians and singers.

There are some holdovers from Simon's pre-"Graceland" days, including drummer Steve Gadd, keyboardist Richard Tee and saxophonist Michael Brecker. But the dominant musical tone comes from the aggressive energy of the four Brazilian percussionists and the African guitar contingent of Phiri, Vincent Nguini, John Selolwane and Armand Sabal-Lecco (on bass).

And Simon is neither timid nor predictable in rethinking his earlier material.

It's jarring at times to have those old familiar songs--such as "Cecilia" and "Kodachrome"--served up in fiery new arrangements, and it took the audience a while to adjust.

In fact, one of the songs--"Bridge Over Troubled Water"--was too jarring, as Tee's overactive keyboard work conflicted with the graceful currents of the pop-gospel standard. This was also the one time in the show where you did miss the Garfunkel voice.

Though the audience responded warmly throughout the first half of the show, it wasn't until Simon and the band got to the song "Graceland" that the crowd seemed to fully connect.

When Simon followed with "Al," the audience enthusiasm took another surge--singing along and dancing in front of their seats.

Simon, who knew the challenges involved in getting an audience to follow along on this ambitious musical journey, sensed the breakthrough, and the normally reserved singer paced the stage jubilantly, waving to the fans and smiling broadly.

"We're getting there," he told the crowd. "We're getting there now."

Caught up in the excitement, he led the band through a reprise of the song.

Though the emphasis in the concert is on rhythm, Simon hasn't sacrificed his lyrics, and he used the closing moments of the show to re-establish the intimacy of such works as the wry but revealing "Still Crazy After All These Years" and the poignant "Hearts and Bones."

Simon, in fact, returned to the stage alone during the second encore for "American Tune," the early-'70s tale of social-political weariness and uncertainty that seemed tailored to the week's headlines.

Equally fitting, Simon closed with "The Boxer," a song about resilience and commitment--bold, heroic qualities that have been reflected over the years in Simon's music, but never more so perhaps than in a largely triumphant tour that so fully challenges himself and his audience.

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