He was bent at the knees, lips pursed, betraying a smile, strumming away feverishly on his acoustic guitar. The song was “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” and Paul Simon was reliving his 14-year-old self in his 74-year-old body.
Never the happiest of souls, Simon seemed almost joyful at times Tuesday night at the sold-out Orpheum Theatre (where he plays again Wednesday). Covering a songbook that ranged from this year’s “The Werewolf” to 1965’s “The Sound of Silence,” he seemed to take pleasure in his performance instead of being preoccupied listening to the sounds of his magnificent band, something he’s been guilty of at previous Twin Cities shows.
He smiled easily and cracked some sarcastic jokes (e.g. how it must be colder in St. Paul, where he did “A Prairie Home Companion” this winter). He had happy hands, whether they were conducting the band or dancing to the music.
At a time when Simon could be slip slidin’ away into retirement, he wasn’t resting on any laurels. He was celebrating his excellent new, rhythm-obsessed album “Stranger To Stranger,” another ambitious, experimental, tuneful project. The title track was meditative, bathed in flute, French horn and muted trumpet, and punctuated with Simon’s emotive, bedazzling hands.
“The Werewolf,” one of the weirder pieces in Simon’s repertoire, featured howls, boings, a didgeridoo and Simon delivering his lyrics like a rapper over insistent rhythms.
Probably the most satisfying of the new numbers was “Wristband,” a slinky funk piece with playful but pointed lyrics about being shut out of backstage without the proper wristband as a metaphor for being locked out of privileges in life.
The privilege of seeing Simon live is, for many, to experience his back catalog. He was generous about going back to “Graceland,” doing four selections, the best received of which was the festive “You Can Call Me Al.”
But when he revisited other oldies, Simon reimagined them, taking advantage of the wonderful musicians he has from around the world and from different styles of music. Plus, the bandleader is just so restless and adventurous. He relishes the challenge of recasting his sounds.
Hence, there were crisp R & B horns to perk up “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” some jazzy harmonizing that evoked “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” on the end of “Slip Slidin’ Away” and a ZZ Top-like blues shuffle to kick off “The Boy in the Bubble.”
Simon sprinkled in some lesser known songs that fit more with his fascination with rhythm than any kind of lyrical theme. “The Obvious Child” (from 1990) had an unexpected mashup of South African rhythms and Memphis horns. “The Cool, Cool River” (also 1990) was sophisticated and complex, set to a 9/8 rhythm.
The two-time member of the Rock Hall of Fame didn’t ignore his Simon & Garfunkel days. “Homeward Bound” found the crowd singing along. “The Boxer” once again sounded like the prettiest song ever rendered about loneliness. And he closed with a solo reading of “The Sound of Silence.”
Simon played the intro on his acoustic guitar and then stopped. Something flashed into his mind. So he told about how the other night an emotional woman kept shouting a request. He couldn’t understand her. So he asked her to speak up.
“Please play ‘The Lion King,’ ” she shouted.
Everyone laughed. Even Simon, who is not Elton John.
Then he serenaded with his first hit, the one about alienation and isolation.
After 130 pretty special minutes, it was obvious that Simon is still vital after all these years.