BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER
While many an iconic artist has become infamous by hitting the road for what was billed as a “Farewell Tour,” only to be followed by years of touring, chances are good that in Paul Simon’s case his newly launched “Homeward Bound – The Farewell Tour” that reached Oracle Arena in Oakland Friday night is at least the beginning of the end.
Simon, the legendary 76 year-old singer-songwriter whose last studio album, “Stranger to Stranger” was released in 2016, is presenting a mix of songs from both his solo career along with hits from his Simon & Garfunkel days.
When announcing the tour, Simon said, “I’ve often wondered what it would feel like to reach the point where I’d consider bringing my performing career to a natural end. Now I know. It feels a little unsettling, a touch exhilarating and something of a relief. I love making music, my voice is still strong, and my band is a tight, extraordinary group of gifted musicians. I think about music constantly. I am very grateful for a fulfilling career and, most of all to the audiences who heard something in my music that touched their hearts.”
Entering the packed hall from stage right to a standing ovation to the mellow strains of “America,” Simon, dressed in a red shirt under a black suit, proceeded to deliver a near two and a half hour career-spanning retrospective that spanned his six decade long career in music. A two time Rock “N” Roll Hall of Fame inductee, both as a member of Simon & Garfunkel and as a solo artist, he’s sold more than 100 million albums worldwide.
“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” the last song written for 1975’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” followed. One of three Simon releases to receive a Grammy as Album of the Year (along with “Bridge over Troubled Water” and “Graceland”), it’s unmistakable opening saw the introduction of horns for the first time from his diversely talented band.
Occasionally supported by as many 16 backing musicians, Simon’s band gave him the versatility to be able to call on anything from an accordion, French horn or piccolo as needed. Later, a reggae tinged “Mother and Child Reunion” followed by the zydeco influenced “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” had the laidback crowd rising to their feet for the first time since Simon’s appearance at the start of the show.
There were times, when chatting with the audience between songs, that the surprisingly engaging Simon presented himself as quite the storyteller, bringing the attentive crowd to stone silence on numerous occasions. “I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do once I stop this”, the 16 time Grammy winner stated.
A brief two song set of “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” and “Can’t Run But” saw Simon slow it down considerably for a small string and horn production where about half of the full band formed a semi-circle behind him. It featured dueling violins and a flutist, another display of the versatility of both the artist and his band.
The timeless “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Your Can Call Me Al” from 1986’s eclectic South African themed “Graceland” signaled the end of Simon’s set, but the fun was actually just beginning as a double encore featuring nine classic tunes remained to be played.
Returning with the infectiously upbeat “Kodachrome” from 1973’s “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”, the 16 time Grammy Award winner proceeded to challenge all existing standards for best encore on record. “Gumboots,” the last of six cuts from “Graceland” preceded a spot on rendition of “Still Crazy After All These Years” prior to the ensemble gathering at center stage for a bow prior to once again briefly retreating backstage.
The final encore began with the timeless idyllic Simon & Garfunkel classic “Homeward Bound”, written while Simon was traveling thru Liverpool in 1965. Jumping forward 20 years the title track of “Graceland” followed. Next up was “The Boxer” from 1970’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Written as something of a retort to critics that were saying unkind things about his music, it was the then 29 year old Simon’s way of fighting back at his detractors.
Performing as a full band one final time, the distinctive “Late in the Evening”, the one true standout track from 1980’s “One Trick Pony”, had the joyous crowd dancing in their seats. And many were indeed “Smoking a J” to pull a quote from that song’s catchy lyrics. As the backing musicians departed the stage, Simon, solo and acoustic, put a bow on one special evening closing with “Questions for the Angels” and 1966’s “The Sound of Silence”.
Simon’s “Homeward Bound” tour continues Sunday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. He’s also the subject of the exceptional new biography, “Paul Simon : The Life”, written with his full cooperation by longtime former Los Angeles Times music editor Robert Hilburn. It’s a great read that leaves no stones unturned.