Paul Simon, Hammersmith Apollo, London

The Gospel according to Paul – still crazily good after all these years

It's seldom mentioned any more, but for those of us old enough to remember the struggles of the Eighties Left, Paul Simon still feels like a minor folk demon.

With a mixture of good intentions and dumbfounding arrogance, the singer recorded his quintuple-platinum 1986 album Graceland with the hired help of black South African musicians including Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In so doing, he flagrantly broke the cultural boycott of the racist state which opponents of apartheid had fought for two decades to enforce, unilaterally reckoning he knew better. The critique ran thus: if Nelson Mandela and the ANC said the boycott included artistic ventures, who was Paul Simon to disagree?

Such qualms now feel anachronistic. Just as today's students are oblivious to any taboo surrounding Barclays Bank, and even Queen are forgiven for playing Sun City – the apartheid Vegas – 'cos it's a shame about, y'know, the singer dying, so Paul Simon's reputation has also been quietly rehabilitated. Indeed, Graceland has become an influential touchstone of late, ripped off by hipster bands including Vampire Weekend and Phoenix. And frankly, if Nelson Mandela and the ANC could find it in their hearts to forgive crimes a million times worse than Simon's in a spirit of truth and reconciliation, who am I to disagree?

Simon has been unfairly dismissed as a lightweight, a mini-Dylan. Lyrically he may lack Bob's bite, but he has a way with romantic storytelling, a far better singing voice – piercing and pure, an avatar of sincerity – and was always more adventurous, experiment with cajun, reggae and latin jazz, as tonight's show makes clear.

The concert comes 24 hours late, on doctors' orders, and Simon gets his excuses in early regarding his fragile throat. But it holds out, even if he sings some songs with a different melody in a lower octave just in case.

These days, looking less like Artie Fufkin from This Is Spinal Tap and more like present-day Andrew Sachs, he's fronting a phenomenal nine-piece band who get through 26 guitars, two drum kits, a variety of household implements and interesting bellows-powered keyboards, and who feature original Graceland bassist Bakithi Kumalo, whose famous bass run on "You Can Call Me Al" is so finger-blurringly fast he plays it twice, just so we know we didn't imagine it.

Simon plays a light sprinkling from current album So Beautiful ... So What? (of which the tragicomic "Questions for the Angels" is probably the pick: "If every human on the planet and all the buildings on it should disappear/ Would a zebra grazing in the African savannah care enough to shed one zebra tear?"), but sticks to the hits.

We get such Seventies radio staples as "Slip Slidin' Away" and the prematurely nostalgic "Still Crazy After All These Years", written when he was only 33. We get the mendacious "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover", which lists only seven. We get a couple of Simon & Garfunkel tunes, "The Only Living Boy in New York" and a stunning solo "Sounds of Silence". We get a handful of covers: Jimmy Cliff's "Vietnam", The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" and Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train". And, inevitably, we get plenty of Graceland material, including a superbly dark "Boy in the Bubble", and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes", which inspires a spectacular outbreak of mumdancing.

For me, though, two tracks stand out. When I first heard the possibly apocryphal story behind the Maytals-backed reggae hit "Mother and Child Reunion" explained on a radio show – it was inspired by Simon seeing a chicken and egg dish with that name on a Chinese restaurant menu – I nearly broke down and cried, sentimental veggie that I am. It makes an already poignant song unbearably bleak.

The other is the jubilant calypso-funk of "Late in the Evening", in which he illustrates the oh-so-naughty line about "smoking a J" with an Olivia Newton John-style "Tell me about it, stud!" stubbing-out mime. All the way through the Hammersmith underpass afterwards, people are whistling the trumpet break.

Say what you like, Paul Simon can still keep the customer satisfied.

Next Week:

Simon Price sees Prince paint the Kent countryside purple

Rock Choice

T in the Park brings Arctic Monkeys, Plan B, Tom Jones, British Sea Power, Coldplay, The Strokes, Manic Street Preachers, Beyoncé, Foo Fighters, Pulp, and others to Balado, Kinross-shire next weekend, while fans of The Jerk will be hoping Steve Martin gives "You Belong to Me" an airing at London's Hammersmith Apollo (Fri) and Manchester Apollo (Sat).

Comments