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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