Paul Simon, Bloomsbury, London

Bloomsbury, London

Paul Simon has always had a heavy heart and so worked at a light touch. From the Buddy Holly and Everly Brothers of his teens, through the folk and gospel close harmonies of his 20s, to the Latin, white reggae, soft-rock, township jive and samba of his mature years, he has sought a musical buoyancy for lyrics of increasing retrospection and poetic density.

Of the four songs from the new Eno-assisted album Surprise played tonight, Outrageous confesses curmudgeonliness, exhausted vanity yet redemption in the eyes of God. Or does it? As in another new number aired tonight, How Can You Live in the Northeast?, Simon's late flowering raises more questions than answers.

His songs are carefully conceived, precision-engineered and assembled rather than the products of instinct, and his over-control is manifest even before he walks on stage. Fifteen racked guitars awaiting their moment suggest that no sonic nuance has been left unrehearsed.

A head showing all of its 64 years rests on contrastingly spry shoulders, as this trim figure in jeans and black T-shirt greets his audience with a relaxed quip. His multi-tasking six-piece band, marshalled by elite drummer Steve Gadd, scrupulously fulfil Simon's vision of cushioning his sweet regretful voice in fussily tasteful arrangements.

Of the dozen songs in the set, which includes The Boxer, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, Slip Slidin' Away and Graceland, the best performance is of the least considered: the band unclench on Cecilia as if reliving the tune's footloose romance. Contrastingly, an exquisite tenderness beats at the heart of the new song Father and Daughter, addressed to his five-year-old daughter Loulou, but again the band's busy craftsmanship sullies what should be an intimate sense of connection.

There has been a lot to admire, but if the earth failed to move, it was because Simon the anxious craftsman can't help getting in the way of Simon the voice of yearning and consolation.

· Broadcast on Radio 2 on June 3 at 9pm.

Mat Snow

The GuardianTramp

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