Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Paul Simon: Still creative after all these years

Paul Simon / Feeling groovy late in the evening.

Paul Simon's 13th solo album, Stranger to Stranger, is just out to critical acclaim, and following two recent weekend concerts at UC-Berkeley's Greek Theater, the 74-year-old singer/songwriter stopped by City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco last week for an insightful conversation with Dave Eggers that was a benefit for the writer's 826 Valencia project.

For over 90 minutes, Simon, whom New Yorker critic Kelefa Sanneh recently labeled as "one of the most accomplished overthinkers in the history of popular music," spoke both thoughtfully and haltingly about a variety of things, including: his new album, a series of songs filled with experiments in rhythm and texture throughout its lithe 37-minute duration; his creative process; his approach to writing music and composing lyrics that paint an imperfect world; and the emotional outpouring from singing "The Boxer" on the same night as Muhammad Ali's death, just moments after learning of The Greatest's passing.

As Simon spoke about the physics of sound – "the tone of the universe is a slightly flat B-flat" – he also strummed a faux air guitar, picking at the melody with his right hand and moving the fingers of his left hand up and down his imaginary fretboard. Later on, he reached for a guitar positioned behind his chair to illustrate a chord progression as he crooned the notes to a song.

On Stranger to Stranger, Simon's collaborators include the Italian electronic producer Clap! Clap! and long-dead composer and inventor Harry Partch, whose variety of homemade instruments contributed to the texture and dreamlike ambience of the album.


On "The Werewolf," for instance, Stereogum.com, writes: "Warped banjo, hand claps, and intricate down-home percussion are interjected with peculiar invest bursts. Simon soulfully warns of a werewolf's impending approach with some vivid storytelling and irresistible melodies."

Always a storyteller, Simon shared a funny anecdote about a 2004 Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert that he and his former music partner Art Garfunkel gave on the grounds of the Rome Colosseum. He said that while Garfunkel was singing an extended solo, Simon gazed out at nearby residents listening from their apartment balconies while thinking to himself, "I wonder what an apartment like that would cost?" He also talked about his 1986 ground-breaking album Graceland, and waxed about what it's been like being in the midst of a late-career renaissance.

"He has managed to become neither a wizened oracle nor an oldies act, and his best songs convey the appealing sensation of listening to a guy who is still trying to figure out what he's doing," wrote Sanneh in his New Yorker article, "Cool Papa," published last month.

Paul Simon and Dave Eggers / Old friends.
"Ain't no song like an old song," Simon once wrote, and the New York native has been practicing his craft for the past 50 years, releasing a new album about every three years or so. Although Simon said he doesn't keep up with the latest music trends and hits, he remains an attentive listener with a curious mind, one who always is collecting raw ingredients and rhythms for the future. Writing music, he noted, gets harder.

"But harder is fine. It's not like harder is the opposite of fun."

By night's end, Simon broke out an acoustic guitar and sang "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)," which served as a nice bookend. He left to a standing ovation from the mostly Baby Boomer audience at The Nourse.

It all made for a memorable and enjoyable evening.

Photos: By Michael Dickens © 2016.

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