Those who were lucky enough to get into Thursday’s taping of Austin City Limits were treated to something special with an intimate performance from Paul Simon. Somehow over the course of his long and illustrious career and the television show’s 42 years, Simon has never made an appearance. But he more than made up for that with a two-hour set that covered his expansive catalogue.
Wearing a shiny purple jacket, the 74-year old Simon took the stage to his 9-piece band playing the instrumental track “Proof”, greeted the audience with a subtle smile, and jumped right into the percussive throb of “The Boy In The Bubble”. Simon’s current tour is in support of his upcoming album Stranger To Stranger – to be released June 3rd – yet only a few of those songs would make the setlist. Instead, Simon gave the audience exactly what they wanted while also reminding us all just how many timeless songs he has in his canon. Hits like “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, “Rewriter”, “Slip Slidin’ Away” and the zydeco-tinged “That Was Your Mother” would make early appearances alongside newer songs like “Dazzling Blue” off 2011’s So Beautiful Or So What. These songs were brought to life by Simon’s band, who added flourishes of percussion, accordion and brass to give them a more robust sound. The crowd went wild for older hits like “Mother Child Reunion” and a stripped down yet rollicking take on “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”. The new songs that were included in the main set, “Stranger To Stranger” and “The Werewolf” worked well alongside the hits and reassured the audience that even in his elder years Simon is still dedicated to the craft. The latter tune, though memorable, bordered on cheesiness as the drummer donned a wolf head hat piece and the band howled along to electronic wolf sounds and a didgeridoo as if a full moon loomed overheard.
One of the catchiest tunes off the new record came during the encore. “Wristband” carried a hint of crankiness as Simon railed against a culture where status boils down to how much access you have. Of course, in typical Paul Simon fashion the tune was light-hearted in its jabs, instead taking on a bouncy sing-a-long feel. “Graceland” and a charming “Still Crazy After All These Years” would follow before the band said goodnight and Simon returned for a hushed solo take on “Sound Of Silence” that enraptured the audience, who took the song’s title literally and were completely mute as they watched this legendary performer alone in the spotlight. For the most part, Simon’s setlist matched what he has been playing on his current tour, one that touches on nearly his entire career and also shows fans his cross-cultural musical taste. Most of all, in a year that has seen the passing of many greats, it felt like an immense privilege to witness this musical treasure grace the stage of Austin City Limits for the first and probably only time.
Photo by Scott Newton/Courtesy of ACL and KLRU