There were a few surprises in store for fans at the Spokane Arena on Friday night, when legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon took the stage.
The first was that his voice remains in fine, fine form despite more than six decades of work on some of the most iconic songs of the rock era.
Another was that some of his newer songs, such as the funny and upbeat “Wristband” from his 2016 album “Stranger to Stranger,” are as catchy as anything he’s written before. Surprising, too, was that many in the audience were happy to hear the new song, judging by the number of people who clapped along.
There were even a few surprises in the set list, such as “The Cool, Cool River,” a lovely track from “The Rhythm of the Saints,” and “My Little Town,” a post-breakup Simon & Garfunkel song I’d almost forgotten was theirs.
Also surprising – and refreshing – was the relative simplicity of the staging. There was no giant video screen overhead, no pyrotechnics, no elaborate set pieces. Simon, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a jacket, and his band stood in front of a fabric backdrop. The intent seemed to be to let the music, not the technology, shine.
Not unexpected in the least was that Simon can assemble a crackerjack band. The nine musicians backing him Friday played guitar, accordion, keyboards, horns of at least three varieties and a host of percussion instruments, easily recreating the big sounds that have filled albums tracing back to 1972’s “Paul Simon.”
He kicked the night off in high gear with the rollicking “Boy in the Bubble” from his landmark 1986 album “Graceland.” It was a slightly different arrangement than the one featured on the album, one that showed off the musicianship of his band to good effect.
Then came the funky ’70s hit “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and a lovely version of “Dazzling Blue,” from 2011’s “So Beautiful or So What.”
It was great to hear “That Was Your Mother,” the zydeco number from “Graceland.” The audience thought so, too, as those on the floor stood up to dance. Following “Rewrite,” also from “So Beautiful or So What,” there was a trio of iconic hits: the gorgeous Simon & Garfunkel tune “America,” the reggae-flavored “Mother and Child Reunion” and the Latin-inspired “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” both from “Paul Simon.” And the whistle solo on “Me and Julio”? Yeah, Simon still can pull that off easily.
The whole night presented a nice balance of classic Simon tunes, newer material familiar to only the most hardcore fans and beloved Simon & Garfunkel songs. “Spirit Voices,” an album cut from “Rhythm of the Saints,” served as a lead-in to the hit from that album, the fabulous “The Obvious Child.” With three horn players and five guys on percussion, it was a rocking highlight of the show.
Following that? An instrumental arrangement of the Simon & Garfunkel song “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” which segued into “Duncan,” the beloved and gorgeous ballad from “Paul Simon.” That led to the final four songs of the set, kicking off with a rocking “My Little Town” and the lovely syncopation of “The Cool, Cool River.” For “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” the musicians sang the introduction a cappella, and it was beautifully done. When it came time for the big hit from “Graceland,” “You Can Call Me Al,” those in the crowd not already on their feet joined in to dance.
After a short break, Simon was back for the first encore. He sang “Wristband,” which clearly has become a fan favorite. “Graceland” was upbeat and simply perfect. “Still Crazy After All These Years” gave off the vibe of a ’70s lounge.
After another short break, Simon and the band returned for the homestretch. He took a few minutes to talk about his work on behalf of the Half-Earth Project. The goal, Simon told the crowd, is to save the planet. To that end, he announced that all profits from his current tour will be donated to the effort.
He then sang the lovely 2011 song “A Question for the Angels,” before taking on the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Boxer.” The crowd joined in for the choruses of “lie, la, lie,” as dozens of others held up cellphones to capture video of the moment. The rocking number “Late in the Evening” kept people on their feet, and the line “I stepped outside to smoke myself a J” elicited an enthusiastic roar from the crowd.
A final bow from the band had more than a few people heading to the exit. Then Simon picked up his acoustic guitar and launched into a song that stopped people in the aisles. His performance of “Sound of Silence” was haunting and lovely and everything fans had come to expect. It was a perfect ending to an amazing night of music.
Paul Simon in concert was reviewed Friday.