Paul Simon at First Avenue, 5/3/11

Categories: Last Night
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Photos by Steve Cohen
Paul Simon
May 3, 2011
First Avenue, Minneapolis

An eight-piece band poured onto the First Avenue stage. An over-capacity crowd gushed down the stairs, over the rails, and pooled in the floor. 

And then, there he was, lifting a guitar around his neck and giving a "hi-how-are-ya" out of earshot of the mic. 

And so Mr. Simon would remain for his entire set--brilliantly lit and practically inaudible.

The historical significance of Paul Simon at First Avenue is beyond doubt, but the quality of the experience is in grave question. With a game wave, Simon launched into "The Boy in the Bubble," the opening track from Graceland that graduated Simon from steady fame in the 1960s and '70s to unassailable esteem ever after.  

By the time Mr. Simon finished his third song, "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," there was open unrest. What began with puzzled glances in the rear rows and flanking balconies became chants of "turn it up" venue-wide. 
The chants were in vain, and two songs later three-fifths of the paying crowd had earned a legitimate gripe. In the back rows, Mr. Simon was in competition with the busking bongo player outside the venue. On the balconies, quiet conversation drowned him out. Behind the second story glass, he was all but mute. 
Of course, for the first few rows, it was the "I-was-there-when" show that everyone expected.   For the other thousand-plus people, it was a $51.25 "what-the-fuck."
No fault of Mr. Simon's (though his voice was a bit worse for wear from last night's Convention Center show), nor of his murderer's row backing band's. 

No, pin this tail on Mr. Simon's sound guy, who patty-caked a grown-up, high-paying crowd with his astonishing lack of finesse. In fact, nail it to his forehead. 

You can only guess he didn't know the room, or the gear, or the stakes for the crowd, who rightfully expected a life-changer. No one was picking nits. This was a sound guy's dream--a gift-wrapped crowd with the most minimal imaginable sonic needs. 500 feet from Paul Simon? A listenable mix would have made for a slam-dunk and a stonecut entry in local music history.

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Photos by Steve Cohen
​The sonic bungle exacerbated a yet deeper fault--Paul Simon at First Avenue was a conceptual stretch to begin with, and the whole show operated under the assumption that staging a stadium-sized show in miniature would concentrate its intimacy. 
But too much of its blood got let. God's sake, you could barely hear the man. And though you'd hardly fault a 69-year-old man for a lack of performative passion, you'd have hoped that something, a rejoinder from Mr. Simon here or an outburst of jubilation from a frenzied crowd there, would have rescued this ready-made piece of myth-making from the impossibility of ruin. 
Mr. Simon's work, and his performance of it (as evidenced by his Convention Center performance last night), is hardly at issue. What's at issue is the squandering of a precious opportunity. Paul Simon, with a body of work and performance talents that lie beyond the reach of time, brought to First Avenue a once-in-its-lifetime opportunity, only to have it all rejected at the rim by a bumbling sound tech that didn't quite know where he was. 
And so it came about that a monument-to-be became a monumental pity. 
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Photos by Steve Cohen
Critic's bias: The critic has a deep fondness for audible sound frequencies. 

The crowd: A gang in vastly unequal parts enthused at their proximity to Mr. Simon and dismayed at the sound quality.

Overheard in the crowd: "Are you going to write that the people next to you said 'turn it up?'"

Random notebook dump: There was a snap-along during "Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes." Not okay.

Setlist

The Boy in the Bubble
Dazzling Blue
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
So Beautiful or So What
Vietnam (Jimmy Cliff cover)
Mother and Child Reunion
That Was Your Mother
Hearts and Bones
Mystery Train
Slip Slidin' Away
Rewrite
Peace Like A River
The Obvious Child
The Only Living Boy in New York
Getting Ready for Christmas Day
Love Is Eternal Sacred Light
Father And Daughter
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
Gumboots

ENCORE #1
Sound of Silence
Kodachrome
Here Comes The Sun (Beatles cover)
Late in the Evening

ENCORE #2
Still Crazy After All These Years


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26 comments
youniverse
youniverse

I saw him last night in Columbus at Vets Memorial and I agree the sound was terrible. The first half of the set you couldn't hear a word he was singing. It improved with time but by the last song it still was not a very good balance. You would think that being this far into a tour with a digital console he would have it down to a science but that was not so.  It looked as though there just wasn't enough PA to handle the room. Just a ground stack of line array on each side. It may not be entirely the FOH guys fault for this reason however I get the feeling it sounds wonderful from where he sits. Go figure.

Heavyluck
Heavyluck

The guy mixing that show mixed the other show in town and it sounded great. Bumbling? Doubtful since he got rave reviews for many other dates on that tour. I think it was simply too many people crammed into that space. How can you hear anything with your head in someone's armpit? Bottom line was they sold too many tickets and if you were under 6'5"you where out of luck!

Trynony
Trynony

Funny to see everyone who was 50 feet from the stage talking about how great it sounded. Of course it did. You were 50 feet from the stage.

90% of the people there had to make do in the middle and rear, in spots that usually sound great at much less important shows. I was middle rear and could hardly hear him, and that's a spot in the venue where you should be able to hear the band well.

And if you didn't hear the chants, your hearing is bad enough that it discredits anything you might say about how great the sound was.

Chefgirlardee
Chefgirlardee

It's true, there were sound issues, which can normally be resolved by moving through the club. However, it was jam-packed, and the boomers didn't seem to understand the concept of sharing space (2 guys would NOT let me past them), unlike at most other shows. They should have sat their fat asses in comfy chairs Monday night..All in all, had a great time. My only real gripe is the lack of a ticket stub for my 30 year collection.

jk
jk

Gotta chime in on this as well. I was 50 feet away on the left ledge off the floor and heard everything as clear as can be. I did not hear a single grumble or shout from anyone in the crowd about sound issues, and from my spot my head was above the entire floor crowd so I could see and hear pretty much everything. I did note that the volume was far lower than pretty much any First Ave show I've ever been to in the last 20 years, and that's in the 100s. I assumed the lower volume was a sonic choice by Paul or his soundperson, and being a mostly acoustic performer I was fine with that. No earplugs necessary, for once. Sure, he looked pretty mellow on stage, but I had no expectation that he gonna pull a Springsteen or that he had to try and small talk about our city. He's 69, he played well, sang well, smiled at his band and the audience reactions many times, played expected and unexpected songs from throughout his lengthy career, and seemed to me like he was enjoying himself. I absolutely loved the show and would never in a million years have paid $100+ to "see" him in a big box venue. This was exactly what I wanted and I have no complaints. Kudos to First Ave. for the booking, keeping scalping down by limiting tickets to 2 person and will call only, and making the whole will call and entry experience as organized and flowing as possible. I work at another music venue and I was impressed.

Luigisd
Luigisd

I guess I was one of the lucky ones also. 50 feet from the stage and an awesome show. You can't please everyone I quess.

sara
sara

I was on the floor and heard it great. It was one of my favorite shows there (over the last 20 plus years). People all around us were having a great time.

Wendy
Wendy

I was standing just to the side of the sound board, and everything sounded amazing -- crisp and clean, and all of the instruments voices could be heard in balance with one another. I had no idea until reading reviews that there were any issues with the sound, so I guess I lucked out in being able to stand where I did. Loved every minute of the show.

eastbank
eastbank

Have to agree with Kolby.... I was close and the show was amazing and easily one of my all time favorites as well. I left feeling very satisfied that I had seen a Legend in an Incredible Venue. Sorry to the folks in back, but up front was AMAZING!

Jeff
Jeff

I've seen hundreds of shows there and thousands if you include the Entry. Last night the sound was as good if not better than any other show I've seen there (or anywhere). I also didn't hear any grumbles or chants from anyone.

Snaggie
Snaggie

I was lucky enough to be 15 feet from Paul and had no idea there were sound issues in the back of the house. From my perspective, last nights show is in my top 5 of all time. After the show, one of the drummers and the guitar player came out front and the drummer said that Paul had hurt his ribs and was not feeling 100%. Not sure when that happened, but it could be part of the reason there were differences in the two shows.

Tornes
Tornes

I couldn't disagree more with this article. I have seen100's of shows at First Avenue and this was by far one of the best I have seen and everyone in the place was smiling, singing and having a great time. He changed from mellow to more upbeat tunes flawlessly and the sound was impeccable - every nuance of the music was able to be heard. Not sure what show you were at David but I don't think we were in the same place. How can you even write without adding at the end that you were joking and it was a truly awesome show?

Herman
Herman

What show were you at? I have seen 100s of shows at First Avenue as well and have never ever heard calls for the sound guy to turn it up. It's true people were singing along... they were about all I could hear.

Staciaann
Staciaann

We didn't notice anything amiss as far as vocals. We could hear everything quite well, but we were in the front of the house. We just heard a great show. That's too bad that you had a poor experience. Also too bad that no one was comfortable enough to let their sound guy know that no one in the back 2/3 could hear Paul Simon. Guess we were very lucky as the show was great from our spot.

E C
E C

This was not my experience. The mix was off on "the boy in the bubble" but the rest of the show sounded fine. I didnt hear any chants to turn it up or grumbles about the sound at all. It must've been drowned out by the music and the clear vocals.

Scoops
Scoops

Critic's bias: The critic has a deep fondness for audible sound frequencies. Haha.. Love it

Guest2
Guest2

Like Kolby, I was standing near the stage and had no idea of the sound issues. All I witnessed was an outstanding performance and an enthusiastic crowd. An amazing night. Those that couldn't hear really got robbed of something special.

Scoops
Scoops

First Ave is one of the best places to see a show in the country so I almost shit myself when I found out Paul was playing a show there! I was so disappointed last night that I could barely hear the music! I mean you could have conversation with someone without even raising your voice. That shouldnt happen at First Ave. I think the house speakers in the back must not have even been connected? Had a good time, but it really feels like a wasted opportunity!

guest
guest

Is this the fault of Paul Simon's soundboard operator, or is it on First Ave?

scoop a doop scoop
scoop a doop scoop

The staff at First Ave told me it was Paul's sound guy. They wouldnt say anything to the guy though because they didnt want to tell him how to do his job.

mee
mee

You summed up the frustration and confusion of the night well. It just goes to show that having a capable front of house engineer is crucial, and it's just beyond my comprehension that Paul Simon wouldn't have someone capable at the helm. I was assuming there was some major technical difficulties for the first few songs, but it never got any better.

Kolbydickens
Kolbydickens

I was one of the lucky ones I guess. Probably 50 ft away and just to his right, the show was perfect. The crowd seemed joyous and beyond happy with the quality of everything. This was easily one of my all time favorite shows.

Paulluoma
Paulluoma

and thats why real music enthusiasts gave up on first ave years ago..... give it to the ravers already!!!

Tornes
Tornes

Where do these real music enthusiasts go? I consider myself a music enthusiast but I must be a fake because I attend shows at First Av???

jk
jk

Paulluoma, I'm 40 and I go to almost 200 shows a year. Where are these "ravers" you speak of and where do "real music enthusiasts" go to see music in this town? Do tell.

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