Still something to say after all these years

Paul Simon | Hammersmith Apollo, London Eliza Carthy | The Scala, London
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The Independent Culture

On Monday, Paul Simon put on his first British show since he was here promoting Rhythm Of The Saints in 1991. He was determined to make up for lost time. He and 10 other musicians spent two-and-a-half hours showcasing his new album and rummaging through his back catalogue, and two hours of that time passed in one solid block before the encores - two hours of jazzy, ethnic pop and busy, international polyrhythms; two hours during which Simon hardly paused to speak to the audience, but played song after song after song; two hours of sitting on hard theatre seats, unless we wanted to stand up and risk a ticking off by the Apollo's security staff. Frankly, I don't know how Simon, at 58, had the stamina for it. There was the odd change of pace - the a cappella intro to "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes", a gossamer guitar duet on "The Teacher", an incense-scented Eastern take on "Bridge over Troubled Water" - but I could have done with the sound of silence a little earlier.

On Monday, Paul Simon put on his first British show since he was here promoting Rhythm Of The Saints in 1991. He was determined to make up for lost time. He and 10 other musicians spent two-and-a-half hours showcasing his new album and rummaging through his back catalogue, and two hours of that time passed in one solid block before the encores - two hours of jazzy, ethnic pop and busy, international polyrhythms; two hours during which Simon hardly paused to speak to the audience, but played song after song after song; two hours of sitting on hard theatre seats, unless we wanted to stand up and risk a ticking off by the Apollo's security staff. Frankly, I don't know how Simon, at 58, had the stamina for it. There was the odd change of pace - the a cappella intro to "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes", a gossamer guitar duet on "The Teacher", an incense-scented Eastern take on "Bridge over Troubled Water" - but I could have done with the sound of silence a little earlier.

The real Simon fans, however, were made of sterner stuff. Short of Art Garfunkel turning up to do the harmonies on "Homeward Bound", there wasn't much else they could have hoped for from the concert, but they kept calling for more. They, too, were making up for lost time. Simon had spent much of the 1990s slaving over The Capeman, a Broadway musical based on the true story of a murder in 1950s New York. The production was dogged with problems, culminating in a picket outside the theatre by protesters who felt that Simon had treated the killer too sympathetically. The show closed after just a few performances and the spin-off album, Songs From The Capeman, was barely acknowledged by the public. As if to reinforce the notion that The Capeman was just a blip in a career that had been synonymous with consistency, this year Simon released a greatest hits compilation, Shining like a National Guitar, and followed it with You're the One, his first new album, bar Songs from the Capeman, since 1990. Its opening lines are a statement of intent: "Somewhere in a burst of glory/ Sound becomes a song/ I'm bound to tell a story/ That's where I belong". And so begin 44 minutes of sensitive observation, complicated rhythms, Middle-Eastern scales and New York chords.

On Monday, the title track, especially, stood out as an exemplar of clever, grown-up pop, while the arduous emotional journey of "Darling Lorraine" was almost a musical in itself. Simon strode up and down as he sang it, acting out the scenario. After years of fretting over costumes and casting for The Capeman, he must have been relieved just to be singing on a stage again, where he belongs. It says a lot that while the other members of the band snuck off to the wings during a three-man percussion jam, Simon stayed on stage to dance along. True, he made for a comical figure as he fluttered his fingers while looking not unlike a fey Danny De Vito. But he also looked happier with himself than he had done on previous tours (the baseball cap never left his head, but at least he's got rid of the wig). Let's hope Simon doesn't leave it so long before he plays in Britain again. And let's hope he doesn't play for quite as long, either.

During Wednesday's concert, Simon dueted on "Scarborough Fair" with the British folk music hero, Martin Carthy. The night after, Carthy's daughter Eliza put on her own show. The blue-haired fiddler has just released her third album, Angels & Cigarettes, and for giving folk music a contemporary remix, it has been tipped as a potentially Corrs-like crossover hit.

I'm not so sure. For one thing, feelings as raw and personal as those captured in her songs aren't ideal for Radio 1. For another, Carthy and her gang of mod-crusties turned in an informal, variable performance rather than a sensational one, and some of her tunes were less whistleable than others. I'd compare her to Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues rather than The Corrs, an opinion which I don't suppose will worry her one bit.

Eliza Carthy: Hop and Grape, Manchester (0161 275 2930), 9 November; The Platform, Morecambe (01524 582803), 11 Nov; Lomax, Liverpool (0151 7079977), 12 Nov; The Cockpit, Leeds (0113 2443446), 13 Nov; Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton (01902 552121) 14 Nov

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