When Paul Simon arrived on stage at San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival on Sunday, he was beaming, and the mood was infectious. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here,” he said. “Well, I just did.”
Perhaps his exuberance was a result of a less rigorous schedule: last year saw the completion of his final tour, making this a notable performance by the 77-year-old. Proceeds from the show went to the San Francisco Parks Alliance and Friends of Urban Forests, local not-for-profit organizations dedicated to green spaces in the city. “We’ll get in there and we’ll save our planet,” he said.
The opener, Late in the Evening, set the tone for a mostly jubilant set that featured most of his biggest post-Garfunkel hits and several of the duo’s classics. His large and cohesive band, who among them played enough instruments to compete with an orchestra, performed before an enthusiastic festival crowd as the sun set over Golden Gate Park. Simon has for decades seemed reluctant to be caught enjoying himself, perhaps a remnant of his early image as a world-weary 23-year-old. Not on Sunday: “Everybody’s standing up, so I don’t have to say stand up and dance. Let’s just dance,” Simon told the audience, offering a few moves of his own. As the band steamed through Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard, Mother and Child Reunion and You Can Call Me Al – with an extra helping of bass solo from Bakithi Kumalo – it was hard not to oblige.
The night’s highlights also included a delicate arrangement of Bridge Over Troubled Water, one of a handful of tunes performed with the New York chamber group yMusic. (One of its members, Simon explained, was on crutches because “he and his red Trek had a disagreement with a curb”.) Simon’s voice may not be what it was in the late ’60s, and it has never soared like Art Garfunkel’s (Simon’s former collaborator originally performed the song). But in this tune and throughout the set, Simon used his vocal limitations to his advantage, trading vocal acrobatics for a storyteller’s patter.
The set’s most memorable moments came in a five-song encore that felt like an audition for a permanent place in American cultural history.
Graceland had its familiar blend of optimism and melancholy; Still Crazy After All These Years felt like a sigh of satisfaction. Then Simon brought a friend on stage: Bob Weir, the Grateful Dead guitarist and singer. The two had met in San Francisco in 1967, Simon said. Five decades later, they played Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer in the same city. Weir seemed as though he could have used another rehearsal, but the performance worked anyway: it had the feel of an impromptu collaboration.
That song’s tale of a resilient young newcomer to New York, with echoes of the immigrant experience, was particularly resonant – and the troubled state of the nation loomed over the final two songs, which Simon performed on his own. American Tune, released in 1973, feels like an epitaph for a lofty national project that appears to have run its course. The singer, who “doesn’t have a friend who feels at ease”, seems to have come to terms with this fate:
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest.
The set closer, The Sound of Silence, feels as relevant now as it did when it launched his career in the early 1960s, lamenting a failure of human connection – “people talking without speaking / people hearing without listening”. The song’s reference to worship of a false “neon god” would feel almost too on-the-nose had it been written today, whether describing our screens or a brightly colored president; coming as it does from a 50-year-old song, Simon’s writing feels disturbingly prescient.
The concert thus ended in a considerably different mood than it had begun. But there was comfort to be had in the timelessness of the songs: maybe, if we made it through the era when these songs were written, we can make it another few years. Either way, the crowd got an intimate moment with the legendary performer – something that, following the final show of his final tour last year, has become increasingly rare.