Thursday, September 20, 2018
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Review: Paul Simon, adventurous as ever, bids Tampa farewell at Amalie Arena

Paul Simon has a Tampa story.

A few years back, he brought his son to Tampa for a Yankees Spring Training game. The team asked him to throw out the first pitch, because, well, he's Paul Simon. He wrote the line, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio." Who's going to tell him he can't pitch?

"So I'm standing on the mound and I see all the Yankees, they're all standing on the steps, looking at me, and I'm thinking, Why would they be so curious?" the 76-year-old legend told 10,000 fans Friday at Amalie Arena. "I throw my pitch, and it's a strike. Later, I found out the reason they're all standing on the steps is they all contribute to a pool to see how many bounces the ball's going to take when a celebrity throws out the first pitch. The only guy who bet on me was Tino Martinez."

Fun story, and this was the night to tell it, because for Simon, there isn't going to be a tomorrow. Friday's concert was part of the legendary singer-songwriter's "Homeward Bound" farewell tour, a long goodbye to America that included one last stop in Tampa.

We are now two weeks from the end – an end, at least, in what is billed as Simon's final headlining concert in his hometown of Queens. If he really is done, mentally and emotionally, his performance in Tampa did not betray it. This was a night of Simon in all his curious, late-career glory, a meticulous, omnivorous troubadour who never got comfortable standing too long in one place. He may be leaving, as the old song goes, but the fighter in him still remains.

Paul Simon performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Sept. 7, 2018. (Luis Santana | Times)

This being a farewell tour, the emphasis is on crowd-pleasing classics, and Simon played many of them dating back to the days of Art Garfunkel. Sometimes he was faithful to his old, familiar arrangements: Openers America and 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover got a brush of rustic Americana; Graceland kept its gentle Sun Records backbeat; Still Crazy After All These Years clung tightly to its soft-focus yacht-rock keyboards.

But never did the familiarity of these songs breed lethargy. To the contrary, Simon and his 13-piece band worked overtime to inject them with new life. The soulfully funky Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes cut straight into You Can Call Me Al, a jubilant transition proving just how gracefully Graceland has aged. There was an Emeril-sized BAM of zydeco and New Orleans big-band stomp coursing through That Was Your Mother, Late in the Evening and Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard, the last of which saw Simon whistling and dancing with the meter and melody, tossing a little acoustic Eddie Cochran shimmy into the end.

That's the thing: Simon still seems to have so much gas left in the tank. His show in Tampa came the same day he released In the Blue Light, a creative reimagining of some personal favorites from his catalog. That spark showed in spades when he showcased those songs with a stripped-down band consisting largely of the chamber-pop sextet yMusic.

First they played Rene and Georgette Magritte With their Dog After the War, an enveloping arrangement reliant on bold cello and fluttering violins that suits Simon's warm warble; then they played the fantastic curiosity Can't Run But, a mélange of muted trumpet and eccentric woodwinds that received an entirely deserved standing ovation. They turned older favorites like 1990's The Cool, Cool River into a magical stew of jazz and juju, building to a cataclysmic crash of global influences.

Most remarkably, yMusic and the rest of the band utterly transformed one of Simon's most famous songs, a song with which he's long lamented having a "strange relationship," Bridge Over Troubled Water. Their rendition felt organic and natural and alive and beautiful, a rekindling of the emotion long since lost in a maudlin and overplayed hit. Simon likened the new yMusic arrangement to "reclaiming my lost child," and if it doesn't get cut in a studio, it's a crime.

Paul Simon performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Sept. 7, 2018. (Luis Santana | Times)

RELATED COVERAGE: As Paul Simon hits Tampa, we asked legendary rockers: What makes a rock star want to retire?

This is why Simon's farewell tour feels hard to accept. Even though he skipped a few classic songs (Mrs. Robinson, Slip Slidin' Away, Cecilia), against all logic, it was the rare show where it would've been nice to hear even more of the new stuff – and according to Simon, it's the last new stuff we'll ever get. We'll have to make do with our memories.

As the night stretched on – one encore, two encores – Simon dutifully waved on each ovation, accepting the goodbye he's more than earned. Old photos scrolled behind him on a sparse and intimate Homeward Bound; the spotlight narrowed in for a folksy, Western-tinged The Boxer; he offered a cryptic benediction before American Tune: "Strange times, huh? Don't give up."

And at the end, as The Sound of Silence faded and the crowd watched him take his final bows, there was still hope this might not be the last Tampa sees of Rhymin' Simon. See, the Yankees aren't going anywhere, and they'll always need celebrity fans to throw out the first pitch of Spring Training. Perhaps they'll turn their lonely eyes to Simon. He's still got a hell of a heater.

— Jay Cridlin

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