Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound tour arrived at the United Center Wednesday night as part of a fond, globe-trotting farewell to generations of fans. At 76, Simon claims he’ll be ready to retire from the road following hometown dates in New York City in September. He addressed the topic following a slinky performance of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” suggesting that the change will allow him to think about new things. “Like, what am I gonna do?,” he said.
“Write more music,” shouted a fan near the front. Simon smiled and promised he would.
Although he may be tapping the brakes, Simon exuded playfulness and ease alongside his magnificent 14-piece band while celebrating one of American pop’s most beloved catalogs. Inspired by Joel Guzman’s festive accordion, Simon even did a spry Elvis Presley shimmy during zydeco romp “That Was Your Mother.”
With a deep bench of songs, even major hits including “Slip Slidin’ Away” were crowded out of the retrospective set list. Nonetheless, highlights spanned Simon’s career.
The wide-eyed vision of Simon & Garfunkel’s captivating “America” wound its way toward the jaded working musician’s tale of “Wristband” from 2016’s “Stranger to Stranger.” Favorites from groundbreaking 1986 album “Graceland” peppered the concert with Simon’s influential Afro-pop fusion. When introducing the ebullient “The Boy in the Bubble,” the singer-songwriter encouraged those who felt moved to rise and dance. “Keep in mind that the couple behind you may have a different philosophy,” Simon hedged. South African bassist and “Graceland” veteran Bakithi Kumalo reprised his slippery, fretless figures during “You Can Call Me Al.”
Nigerian guitarist Biodun Kuti filled the big shoes of Simon’s longtime sideman Vincent Nguini, a 30-year fixture who passed away in December. Simon praised both guitarists’ similar, deep roots. Kuti’s animated fingerpicking elevated “Spirit Voices.”
Saxophonist Andy Snitzer took a scene-stealing solo during “Still Crazy After All These Years.” “The Cool, Cool River” concluded with Mick Rossi’s outlandish and manic piano. Chamber ensemble yMusic transformed the surrealistic nostalgia of “René And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” into a rich and alien tapestry.
Introducing “Rewrite,” Simon described his restless search for new sounds and inspiration. It was revealing to recognize that before being transformed amid layers of raucous Brazilian percussion during another of Simon’s forays into ethnomusicology, the 12-string jangle underpinning “The Obvious Child” had much in common with “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.”
A generous encore included “The Boxer” as a country shuffle featuring mutton-chopped guitarist Mark Stewart’s deft fretwork. The United Center audience joined Simon for the powerful “lie-la-lie” climax. After the fever pitch subsided, the band left Simon alone on stage with his acoustic guitar.
The show closed fittingly with a pin-drop version of “The Sound of Silence,” a song originally recorded when Simon was merely 22. That he still delivered shivers with the song at 76 testified to a lifetime dedicated to songcraft and performing. Simon may have harbored boyhood dreams of playing baseball for his beloved New York Yankees, but he clearly chose the right path.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
The Boy in the Bubble
That Was Your Mother
Mother and Child Reunion
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard
Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War
Can’t Run But
The Obvious Child
Questions for the Angels
The Cool, Cool River
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
You Can Call Me Al
Still Crazy After All These Years
Late in the Evening
Encore 3: (solo acoustic):
The Sound of Silence