Under a nearly full moon in Queens’ Flushing Meadows Corona Park on a gentle Saturday (Sept. 22) evening, Paul Simon -- who brought poetic detail and literary scope to popular music as part of Simon & Garfunkel before embarking on a stylistically adventurous solo career that netted 21 Billboard Hot 100 hits and two Grammy album of the year wins -- delivered the final show of his farewell tour. And while he’d just played two other hometown finale shows at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 20-21, this one was special: The 76-year-old artist was bidding goodbye on a stage just “a 20-minute bike ride” from where he grew up.
Playing your last-ever live show to an adoring crowd of thousands not far from where you spent your childhood has to be a head trip, and Simon appeared very cognizant of that reality as he looked out on the crowd after a hushed performance of “The Sound of Silence” brought the two-and-a-half-hour show to a close. “It means more than you can know,” he told the audience before walking off stage and into retirement from touring (Simon has made it clear he’s not retiring from rhymin’ in the studio, however).
That moment of Wild Strawberries-esque reflection aside, the mood of the night was overwhelmingly celebratory, more silly than serious. Simon flourishes on stage as a raconteur, sharing personal stories and askew quips in between songs. While explaining how the song “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” traces back to Joan Baez’s book collection (Baez, by the way, offered a rave review of Simon’s Thursday MSG show when she played NYCs Beacon Theater on Friday), fireworks started popping off a few miles away. With faux exasperation, Simon pointed at them and drolly requested, “Could you hold up the fireworks? I’m trying to tell a story about Rene Magritte.”
Following a buoyant “Kodachrome” -- which opens with the authority-flaunting lyric about “all the crap I learned in high school” -- Simon looked in the direction of his nearby alma mater and said, “Yeah, take that Forest Hills High School,” before chuckling and admitting, “Actually, I had a good time there.”
Forest Hills High School got a shout out earlier in the set, too -- and inspired a little athletic diversion. “This is two miles from where I played high school baseball,” Simon reflected. “It’s a little bit dark, but you know what? I think I’m gonna play a quick game of catch.”
He wasn’t joking. Simon picked up a glove and threw a baseball into the crowd no less than three times, with lucky audience members tasked with tossing it back to him. It probably wasn’t the safest activity considering the megawatt stage lights boring into Simon’s eyes, but impressively enough, after two failed attempts, the third toss arrived squarely in Simon’s waiting glove, eliciting big cheers from the crowd (and probably a few relieved sighs from the stage hands).
Between the baseball and his dancing (he busted out some fancy footwork during the Zydeco hoedown in “That Was Your Mother”), it’s clear Simon isn’t calling it a day on touring because he’s slowing down. He puts on a hell of a live show, performing emotively and reading each lyric like a master thespian. Classical sextet yMusic augments his songs with a pointed urgency (particularly on the In the Blue Light arrangement of “Can’t Run But), and his rollicking rock band bursts with an irrepressible energy on upbeat numbers like “Late In the Evening,” which saw Simon incorporate a bit of Little Richard’s “Lucille,” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.” The latter was a particular delight: His wife, Edie Brickell, trotted out to take care of that iconic whistling section, and, of course, the crowd whooped with glee to hear Simon sing about “Rosie queen of Corona” in Corona Park.
With five songs from the towering artistic achievement that is Graceland, five Simon & Garfunkel classics and the vast majority of his solo hits present and accounted for, there wasn’t much to quibble with regarding the set list. Even the songs casual fans might not be familiar with -- the aforementioned “Magritte” and “Can’t Run But,” or 2011’s “Dazzling Blue” -- are such immaculate compositions that the crowd remained transfixed when he played them, instead of retreating into their phones or leaving for the bathroom en masse.
All this, of course, makes it particularly sad Simon is done touring. Every fervent round of applause felt bittersweet; in the back of your mind, you realized this was the last time you’d be treated to one of rock’s most consistent talents performing songs that are indelibly part of our collective cultural fabric. You don’t need to have been part of the ‘60s counterculture to see reflections of yourself in beautifully articulated existential anthems like “America” and “The Sound of Silence,” and you needn’t be a divorcee searching for direction to be deeply moved by “Graceland” or “The Boy In the Bubble.” The universal appeal in Simon’s songwriting was reflected in the crowd, which -- while dominated by boomers -- was full of twenty and thirtysomethings dancing, singing and passing along smiles from stranger to stranger.
There’s something about an open-air New York City concert that fosters a sense of temporary togetherness. That was certainly heightened by the implicit historicity of the event -- particularly given Simon’s past triumphs with outdoor NYC concerts, from his legendary 1981 Central Park reunion with Art Garfunkel to his 1991 return to the Park for a packed audience. Realistically, with the top-notch musicianship, warm banter and baseball diversion, it’s a fair bet that Saturday’s concert will go down in Paul Simon lore as an essential live outing in a career punctuated by them.
For a finale, this one was perfect.