Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Paul Simon and the Kodachrome express, last night at the Midland

The baby boomers came out in force for Paul Simon.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 9, 2011 at 10:10 AM

Three songs in last night at the Midland, an audience member shouted “Happy Birthday” at the star of the stage, Paul Simon, who turned 70 years old last month. “Thank you,” he said, drolly. “I really love to keep thinking about these decade birthdays for weeks and weeks afterward.” Big laughs from the baby boomers in the house. And it was mostly baby boomers in the house. I'm pretty sure I saw former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in the lobby.

Well, Simon is kind of the boomers' guy. He speaks to them, for them, in a more relatable way than almost any other figure of their generation. Paul Simon possesses all the qualities of a dear old friend: He’s smart, funny, charming, honest. He talks about the good old days, but with wisdom and perspective — he sings a tribute to Kodachrome, but is aware of the danger posed by nostalgia. Simon’s lyrics have a universality to them, but they’re also peppered with clever details; his songs are accessible, but often musically complex, and drawn from catholic influences. What kind of person does not like Paul Simon? I am not sure. I am not sure I am interested in meeting such a person.

It seems as though Simon — who hasn’t played in Kansas City for over a decade — could have quite easily sold out the Sprint Center, so it was a nice surprise to see him in the more intimate confines of the Midland. I have never attended a show at the Midland with such rigorous assigned seating. The entire floor, from the stage all the way back to the bar, was outfitted with seats, with ushers walking up and down, showing folks their spots. The Paul Simon crowd does not wish to stand for long periods of time. When they buy a concert ticket, they want to know that there’s a specific, reliable seat that correlates to that ticket. They want to wear loose jeans and knit sweaters, and they need dim lights along the balconies and edges so they can find their seats. They want Dewars, goddamn it. The Midland was happy to accommodate.

Prior to Simon’s set, a comfortably seated crowd watched as the Punch Brothers performed a set of bluegrass-folk songs. The five-piece band — banjo, violin, acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, mandolin — huddled together as if for warmth near the center of the stage, outfitted in suits, vests and ties. Their 45-minute set included the Roger Miller song "Kansas City Star" (with its quiet dig at Omaha, where the band was set to play the following evening), many plucking sounds, and various references to old-timey things like rye whiskey. The Punch Brothers are all 30-ish, and they'd go over great at a joint like Harry's Country Club. The crowd awarded them a hesitant, Seinfeld-esque standing ovation.

Simon took the stage — he is so little — in blue jeans and a plain white T-shirt with a black cardigan over it, and boom, right into “The Boy in the Bubble." It’s a pretty wordy song, and Simon occasionally skipped over lines, or delivered them quickly as the end of the verse approached. I was concerned that this might be a symptom of old age, and that it might sour the concert experience a little bit. But it never really happened again. He led his nine-piece band through about 30 songs, many of them hits, some of them quiet old favorites, a few of them songs from recent albums that the crowd didn't know so well. A dignified mix.

After a funky, brassy "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," Simon spoke of Monday's earthquake/thunderstorm, which he'd experienced from a hotel room in town. "You've got a loud sky here," he said. On "That Was Your Mother," he set down his acoustic guitar and performed some sprightly dance moves for us. A saxophone rose loudly in the mix as the song climaxed. Huge applause. During "Hearts and Bones," my eyes became — how do I say this? — un-dry.

"Peace Like a River," from Simon's 1972 self-titled solo album, was a special treat. Its tones were darker, swampier. "The Only Living Boy in New York" would have been an absolute thrill of a deep cut to hear live, were it not for that film which we shall not mention by name. But it is still a gorgeous song, regardless of its new, unfortunate association. It was also the only song of the evening where you felt the void of Garfunkel — the harmonies were deeper, where Garfunkel would have brought something celestial.

We were treated to two encores, which stretched the show to a solid two hours. Simon performed a solo, acoustic version of "The Sounds of Silence," and "Here Comes the Sun," with a light accordion buzzing in the background. But he also picked up the pace, with some zydeco flavors and horns on "Crazy Love II" and "Late in the Evening."

The most Paul Simon moment of the evening for me arrived near the end of the set, on the very popular "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," which finally convinced the crowd to stand up and dance. It's a good song, maybe even a great song, though never a huge favorite of mine. But as the Afro-jangly opening guitar lick gave way to that feverish, fretless, world bass, I spun back about 15 years, to a summer afternoon, eating a peanut butter sandwich in my car on my lunch break, listening to a dubbed version of Graceland on an old Maxell XL II tape, hot black asphalt baking in the sun outside my window. During "Diamonds" last night, I could smell that asphalt. There was no asphalt to smell in the Midland. But my brain was telling my olfactory receptors that I could smell it. What do you call an experience like that? Do you call it magic?

SETLIST

The Boy in the Bubble
Dazzling Blue
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
The Afterlife
Mother and Child Reunion
That Was Your Mother
Hearts and Bones
Mystery Train (Junior Parker cover)
Wheels (Chet Atkins cover)
Slip Sliding Away
Rewrite
Peace Like a River
Obvious Child
Only Living Boy in New York
Love is Eternal Sacred Light
Gumboots

ENCORE

Sounds of Silence
Kodachrome
Here Comes the Sun
Crazy Love Vol. II
Late In the Evening

ENCORE II

Graceland
Oh Pretty Thing (Bo Diddley cover)
Still Crazy After All These Years

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