By David Menconi
DURHAM -- Paul Simon has always been a globetrotter, employing worldly rhythms and percussion long before the rest of the Western pop universe caught on. Nowadays, however, he seems more interested in bringing everything back home -- and he definitely pulls it off.
Simon rolled into a soldout Durham Performing Arts Center Thursday night with an eight-piece ensemble that was a fascinating combination of black, white, east, west, head and heart. With Simon at the lead, the ensemble combined elements of Cajun soul, cutting blues-rock, South African township jive, doo wop, reggae, island salsa, gospel revival and soul revue into what sounded like the world's wordiest zydeco band. Or maybe the world's funkiest folk-rock band.
Whatever you want to call it, it was an incredibly cool two-hour set, and the band was one of the best I've ever seen. It was sort of like watching the 1927-era Yankees or the "Showtime"-era Lakers at work. Even the drum solo was a pleasure to watch.
Back in his 1960s-vintage breakthrough period, Simon always wore his youth uneasily, mostly because his sort of alienation always seemed a lot more grownup than the peace-and-love naivete of his peers. There's nobody better at capturing that feeling of being lonely and alone in a crowd, even if the crowd is only two people.
Perhaps that's why his songs have aged so well. "The Boy in the Bubble" opened the show, a song from 1986 that still sounds brand new. And it's a song that has never stopped evolving over the past quarter-century; nowadays it sounds like third-world blues rock, menacing as ever.
The 22-song set had the requisite iconic crowd-pleasers, including "The Sound of Silence" in a solo acoustic rendition with flamenco flourishes on guitar; "Mother and Child Reunion," now more of a reggae song than ever before; "Slip Slidin' Away" as doo-wop by way of Johannesburg; and a lovely version of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" on acoustic guitars and accordion.
But the more recent and obscure songs more than held their own, including "Dazzling Blue," "Rewrite" and "The Afterlife" from Simon's new album "So Beautiful or So What." "Hearts and Bones," title track to his underrated (and unjustly overlooked) 1983 album, was heart-stoppingly gorgeous, and it served as lead-in to a medley that included Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train" and the Chet Atkins instrumental "Wheels" -- with drummer Jim Oblon playing lead guitar. A strange combination, but it came together seamlessly.
All the musicians multi-tasked on multiple instruments, most notably lead guitarist Mark Stewart, who chipped in on saxophone between solos. The other guitarist was Vincent Nguini, whose angular playing meshed with Stewart's studio-cat vibe in tones and patterns of strange beauty. Throw in the steady rolling rhythms and occasional African scat vocals of bassist Bakiti Kumalo (a Simon sideman since 1986's "Graceland"), and the music seemed to occupy a dizzying quantity of dimensions in the time-space continuum.
One wonders how long Simon, who turned 70 years old this year, can keep doing this. Here's hoping it's a lot longer, because he's never been better.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat