Yesterday (July 15th) was the Paul Simon edition of the ever-successful British Summertime Festival in Hyde Park. With a career spanning more than 60 years, from his time as half of duo Simon & Garfunkel starting in 1956, his prolific solo career from 1970, through to latest 2016 album 'Stranger To Stranger' and forthcoming 'In The Blue Light', a truly eclectic demographic were out in force to hear him live, for perhaps the last time, as part of what he has stated will be his farewell tour, Homeward Bound.
Paving the way for the music legend in the uncharacteristically burning English sun were nu-folk rock band Johnny Flynn And the Sussex Wit, led by the rugged yet soothing vocals of the South African-born British singer-songwriter-turned-actor (he’s a revelation opposite Jessie Buckley in recent indie movie Beast).
American singer Bonnie Raitt, known for her political activism as well as her bluesy country-infused rock, called out the separation of mothers from their children in the US and delivered songs such as 1991’s 'Something To Talk About' and a feel-good cover of Talking Heads’ 'Burning Down The House'.
James Taylor, another American folk legend in his own right as one of the world’s best selling artists, put on quite a show before Simon even hit the stage, treating the audience to rundown of his classics perfect for a lazy summer’s day in the park including Carole King covers: 'You’ve Got A Friend' (1971) and 'Up On The Roof' (1979), and much since covered original track 'Fire And Rain' (1970) whose lyrics that seemed to resonate more than ever amid tumultuous times: “I've seen fire and I've seen rain/Iive seen sunny days that I thought would never end/I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I'd see you again.”
Plus there was 'Country Road' (1970) and 'Mexico' (1975) while he finished on Marvin Gaye’s 'How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)' (1975). A clear oversell of tickets, view-obstructing towers and a particularly bloated VIP area blocking out the majority of fans from being anywhere close to the stage, meant a lot of shuffling of picnic blankets, passive aggressive tutting and quiet elbowing for space among the mature leaning crowd. This coupled with the video screens failing to project much under the glare of the sun meant the opening tracks of Simon’s much-anticipated performance were a bit strained for many to see and follow.
But as the glorious sun sank, the challenges soon slipped away as you were reminded of the power of 1000s of music lovers hanging off an artist’s every note and word, as a teeming Hyde Park drank up the softly spoken anecdotes of the mild-mannered artist, inbetween a sweeping tour of his extensive back catalogue. Songs that no doubt had provided the soundtrack to many an attendee’s key moments in life, whether in childhood, formative years, or adulthood, or perhaps discovered via a parent’s analogue music collection.
He opened with 1968’s 'America' from the fourth Simon & Garfunkel album, telling of young lovers hitchhiking across the US inspired by a trip Paul took with a girlfriend, conveying a literal and metaphorical search for America (Bernie Sanders used the track in his US presidential election campaign), which felt both apt to hear in the haze of the summer’s heat as well as in the wake of an overwhelming unwelcome visit from the current President of a country currently in search of its soul.
While his voice seemed timid as he spoke, when singing the 76 year old was right on point. And his understated storytelling chit chat was the stuff of gold, telling us much of his music was written as rhythm tunes to dance to, “and as you’ve got no chairs you are free to allow yourself to be exhibitionist. Which also leaves me something to look forward to…”
'Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War' (1983) we heard had emerged from his looking through a book of the Belgian surrealist painter’s work and seeing that caption underneath a picture: “What a great title for a song” adding, with a tongue firmly in one cheek, “that song will go to number one.”
The songwriting genius also spoke candidly about his relationship with 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', (1970) of how, when his first wrote it, the song “came like a conduit through me” and he had thought at the time - “this is better than I usually write.” But since, he had held a strange relationship with it after he gave the song away and rarely played it since.
Now, with this being his “final tour,” he announced playing the song as claiming “a lost child”, making the already incredibly emotive song all the more moving (not least for me, it being one of my deceased father’s favourites).
While he despaired of the passing of guitarist Vincent Nguini in December last year, he celebrated the addition of Nigerian Biodun Kitu, whose African musical roots in particular he said had “re-energised the band.” We also heard '50 Ways To Lose Your Lover', (1975) 'Mother And Child Reunion' (1972), 'The Obvious Child' (1990) and 'Questions For The Angels' (2011). 'Diamonds On The Sole Of Her Shoes' (1986) was an utter delight and of course, no one could keep their feet still or a smile from beaming for the contagiously joyous 1986 mega-hit 'You Can Call Me Al'.
But with not one but two encores to follow, the placement of the uptempo track felt slightly anti-climatic, lost in the further 30 minutes of more mellow songs. That aside, 'Graceland' (the title track from the Grammy-award winning, bestselling 1986 album controversially recorded with South African musicians during Apartheid and documented in recent film Under African Skies) and 'Still Crazy After All These Years' (1975) were still to come and the closing moments included the pivotal 'Homeward Bound' from 1974, the brilliant 'Kodachrome' (1973), and Simon & Garfunkel’s 'The Boxer' (1970) with the crowd all instinctively chiming in at the “Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie.”
Nostalgic photographs capturing moments of the singer’s career and gigs filled the screens. For those waiting for The Graduate’s 'Mrs Robinson' (1968) though, it never came. Other absences included the beautiful 'Hearts And Bones' (1983), taken from the album of the same name that only retrospectively has been fully appreciated for its quality.
A solemn version of 1964 US chart topper 'The Sound Of Silence' perhaps didn’t provide the uplighting crescendo of the original. But the final song felt filled with poignancy, a premonition of the bittersweet silence to come after the singer finally retires from live performance.
The sentiment was caught surprisingly well by the lit billboards bidding the mini-festival goers goodnight via Simon: “It’s homeward bound now everyone but we’ll always be your long lost pals forever more.”
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Words: Sarah Bradbury
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