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Paul Simon at the Vic: So beautiful, but so what?

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Paul Simon in concert Monday night at Chicago's Vic Theatre. (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)

Paul Simon's impact on succeeding generations has been as varied as the influences he himself has adopted and adapted. His early folk styles echo in the music of Fleet Foxes, Tobias Froberg, even Dave Matthews, and his beloved African rhythms drive the collegiate rock of Vampire Weekend. He's collaborated with the band Grizzly Bear.

But those are possibly fleeting examples. We can't unfortunately go so far as to call Simon's influence pervasive. Monday night's concert at Chicago's intimate Vic Theatre (he plays once more Tuesday at the Chicago Theatre, though Monday night he enthused, "I love playing in a club!") showcased a half-century career spanning myriad styles that -- because they are usually expertly written and played -- can sound deceptively mild, but those polyrhythms and long, conversational lyrics aren't for the musically meek. For young indie-folkies, it's usually easier to cover Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen instead.

Add to that Monday's ecstatic but not young crowd, and one wonders if his long-term legacy is in jeopardy. Either way, the span of it makes for a pleasant and powerful parade on stage.

• 7:30 p.m. May 17
• Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
• Sold out

In a lengthy and lively set Simon sampled nearly every phase of his varied career, from his folk-rock beginnings and smooth '70s heyday to the rhythmic rebirth of "Graceland" and the artistic and commercial success of his new album, "So Beautiful or So What."

I say "rhythmic rebirth," though Simon's beatific approach has been beat-oriented from the start. His talented eight-piece band Monday night -- each of them at various points wielding blocks, shakers, time-markers of every description -- deftly showcased the syncopation inherent in early reggae ("Mother and Child Reunion," which flowed seamlessly from Jimmy Cliff's "Vietnam") up to the zydeco blast of "That Was Your Mother," as well as the now-effortless world music informing the new album. Simon swings between styles, sometimes wildly -- the smooth-jazz sax of "Hearts and Bones" was followed by a guitar trio jam through "Mystery Train" -- but our iPod-shuffled ears have finally caught up to him, making it all sound easy and normal.

The new songs certainly aren't written from a youthful perspective. "Dazzling Blue" contemplates CAT scans and loneliness, while "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light" chronicles life linearly from the Big Bang and looks for a place Simon, facing 70, can "exit and rest." But Simon is nothing if not upbeat, even at his moodiest. Saying Paul Simon was demonstrably excited is like saying comedian Steven Wright guffawed, but Monday night Simon was animated, sometimes agitated, waving his arms and biting into "The Cool, Cool River" like a preacher from the day before.

It's a shimmering legacy, full of amazing grace and musical riches, with much to be discovered -- still.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on May 16, 2011 11:17 PM.

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