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Pop Music Review

Simon's Still a Rock

The singer-songwriter has had plenty of ups and downs in his career, but he shows at the Wiltern that his musical gifts remain undiminished.

November 18, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Paul Simon's concert Thursday was a reminder of how humbling pop music can be for even our most distinguished artists.

There have been lots of times in the singer-songwriter's long career when he seemed invincible as a record maker, gathering Grammys and platinum albums almost at will.

But, as with all pop stars, there are times when the applause and acclaim don't come as easily--and Simon has run into his own troubled water, with his "Capeman" misadventure on Broadway and with a new album, "You're the One," that is struggling to find an audience.

On this brief tour, which includes a third show tonight at the Wiltern Theatre, Simon is put into the position of having to prove himself once more.

It's not the first time the veteran craftsman has faced this test. Simon was considered passe by many industry observers in the mid-'80s after the commercial disappointment of his "One-Trick Pony" movie and his "Hearts and Bones" album, but he bounced backed magnificently with "Graceland," the joyful album that is now considered his masterpiece.

This time Simon has rebounded from "Capeman" with another tastefully designed album, but its tone is far different from the uplifting, open-armed rejoicing of "Graceland." Where many of Simon's most successful tunes over the years--from "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" to "Boy in the Bubble"--are as irresistible as a brightly decorated Christmas tree, this new music is more understated, and it takes time to absorb its nuances.

"You're the One" is a series of reflections on such topics as aging and relationships--a sort of looking back on life's lessons that is similar in some respects to Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind." But Simon's tone is gentler and more optimistic.

The safest thing for Simon to do in concert would be to bury the new material among the sure-fire barrage of hits, but he is too proud and demanding an artist to do that. On Thursday, he offered a generous chunk of the new tunes and placed them in prominent places in the 2 1/2-hour show.

He even opened the concert with "That's Where I Belong," a music man's reaffirmation that is typical of the personal undercurrents of the new album: "Somewhere in a burst of glory / Sound becomes a song / I'm bound to tell a story / That's where I belong."

The song has a particularly seductive melodic flow and Simon, backed by a spectacular, percussion and horn-driven 11-piece band featuring the incomparable Steve Gadd on drums, sang it with the self-assurance of his biggest hits.

He then made an equally daring move by going right to the title tune from "Graceland," causing an explosion of excitement in the theater. It's the kind of knockout punch most artists save until the end of the evening because it's hard to follow that energy.

But Simon, like a proud parent showcasing all his children, turned to "One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor," a wry, obscure song from his early solo days, before going confidently into the title song from the new album.

Like the intricate and revealing "Darling Lorraine," another new song, "You're the One," deals with the contradictions of relationships--the mysterious ways delight and disappointment can suddenly give way to each other. The song didn't receive nearly the kind of audience outburst of "Graceland," but it stood up well in the context of the show.

Simon frequently redesigned the arrangements of his older material dramatically. He and the band--which includes two exquisite guitarists in Mark Stewart and Vincent Nguini--gave the '60s pop anthem "Mrs. Robinson" some of the festive instrumental shading that has enriched Simon's music in recent years--touches drawn everywhere from the Mississippi Delta to South African townships.

Simon also offered sharply rethought versions of such tunes as "Kodachrome" and "I Am a Rock," turning the latter folk number into a blistering, rock 'n' roll exercise that would have sounded at home on Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" album.

Simon is not a commanding vocalist, but he's a brilliant songwriter whose music offers a rare blend of sophistication and warmth, commentary and wit, optimism and warning. On this night, however, he showed us as much about his character as his talent. If his songwriting gift is one reason he has been one of the creative cornerstones of pop music for all these years, another is his toughness.

In the words of "The Boxer," which he sang during one of the many, unnecessarily drawn-out encores, Simon too is "a fighter by his trade"--and he remains in championship form.

*

* Paul Simon plays tonight at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., 8 p.m. $62. (213) 380-5005.

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