At Nissan Pavilion Friday night, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon stayed mostly within familiar repertoires. It wasn't a greatest-hits show per se, though both touched down on audience favorites with regularity. The only real surprise--and a genial treat it turned out to be--was hearing the veteran songwriters providing fresh-baked harmonies on two personal chestnuts.
Simon and Dylan have never toured together before, and if they've ever sung together, it hasn't been in public--until now. At the close of Dylan's opening set--the two alternate headliner status on this tour--the grizzled icon introduced the man "who needs no introduction" and the two slip-slided into the Simon and Garfunkel classic "The Sounds of Silence." Pristine these particular harmonies were not, but they were delivered with an offhand, ragged charm that gave the song an elegiac edge, particularly when Dylan essayed the melody on harmonica.
The duo then took a break from their own considerable legacies for an invigorating foray into Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day." It's the kind of primal but melodic rock-and-roll that inspired both writers at the start of their careers. They obviously enjoyed covering someone else's standard, as they did less convincingly on Dion's "The Wanderer." Then the two went "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" in rough-hewn tandem, with Dylan's band propelling the song with familiar urgency while Simon's inherently legato lines intertwined nimbly with Dylan's inevitably fractured phrasing.
Dylan's opening set confirmed that the exuberance and pleasure rekindled in performances following a life-threatening illness three years ago continue unabated. Dressed in a stylish black Western suit, Dylan, 58, looked totally relaxed and confident, and sounded as comfortable and committed as he ever has. He's clearly having great fun playing full-throttle guitar--both acoustic and electric--and playing off fellow guitarists Mike Campbell and Charlie Sexton. When the three revved up in unison on a bracing "Highway 61 Revisited," there was neither speed nor sound limit. There was matching momentum to "Like a Rolling Stone," still electrifying after all these years.
As always, Dylan paid no particular attention to familiar song structures; none of his variations rendered classics unrecognizable, but some were not familiar from the first notes. "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Tangled Up in Blue" were only slightly renovated, but "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" felt like a norteno ballad, and "Blowin' in the Wind," with all its questions still unanswered, took on a curious but ultimately compelling lope. Other highlights included a taut, accusatory "Masters of War," the yearning "Just Like a Woman" and rough-and-tumble renderings of "All Along the Watchtower" and "Silvio." The most moving moment came when Dylan explored the graceful serenity of "Not Dark Yet," mourning the dying of the day just as twilight slipped into night.
Simon, 57, has not toured in eight years and he seemed eager to rekindle his catalogue sales, drawing from almost every one of his solo albums after opening and closing with Simon and Garfunkel classics: a somewhat lugubrious "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and a spare, moving "The Boxer," respectively. A punchy but needlessly expansive "Mrs. Robinson" cropped up mid-set.
As has long been his habit, Simon surrounded himself with a huge band--11 in all, including three percussionists--in order to provide richer, deeper and more diverse textures for his meticulously constructed material. Over the last 15 years he's been as interested in rhythm as he used to be in melody. Many of the best moments in Friday's concert came from his most realized album, "Graceland." The title song, along with "Boy in the Bubble" and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," were built on the jubilant polyrhythms of South Africa's township jive. The latter two songs featured exuberant drum blowouts by Steve Gadd, Jamey Haddad and Steve Sheehan. "Diamonds" segued seamlessly into "You Can Call Me Al," another exhilarating up-tempo workout that had the crowd of 20,000 bopping energetically, as did "Me & Julio (Down by the Schoolyard)."
Simon seemed to enjoy his road revival. He's not the most charismatic of performers, opting for stolid big-band leadership. Too often, though, the dynamics and the bracing rhythms overrode subtleties of melody. What was missing was the quieter, more reflective side of the latter-day Simon catalogue. On Friday, it was represented only by the rippling melancholy of "Further to Fly," the wistful "Slip Slidin' Away" and an elegant "Still Crazy After All These Years." Simon's only recent song, "Trailways Bus" from the failed "Capeman" musical, was supple and mesmerizing, built on a haunting vamp by Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, but that was pretty much the extent of risk in the show.
By night's end, it was the crowd that went crazy, drawing Simon back for two encores, letting their long-lost pal know they'd rather not wait another eight years to hear these songs coming from the original source.
CAPTION: Paul Simon Friday night at Nissan Pavilion, where he shared a double bill with Bob Dylan.
CAPTION: Bob Dylan, shown in March, played Friday with a renewed exuberance.