There were properly over 30 kinds of musical instrument on stage, from such humble staples as the tambourine to much more uncommon contraptions, at least to western ears, such as the single-stringed gopichand that Paul Simon was offered in India. Its twanging sound led him to dub it “the twanger”. “I have a way with words,” he told the Royal Albert Hall drily. His a variety of drummers resisted the urge to punctuate the remark with a “ba-dum ching”.
The show was the second of Simon’s two dates at the venue in support of his new album Stranger to Stranger, which finds the singer-songwriter, 75, in formidable form. Typically at gigs when a rock veteran unveils their most current material, punters locate an urgent excuse to go to the bar. Here it was a minor disappointment that only three new tracks have been played.
“The Werewolf” featured the gopichand and an infectious handclap beat in a tale of gothic US anxiousness, sung with reassuring wit by Simon, a genuine demonstration of his way with words. “Wristband” featured elastic bass-playing and deft vocals. “Stranger to Stranger” was a hazy shimmer of music with tenderly sung lyrics about the work necessary to preserve going: “It’s just tough operating/The exact same piece of clay/Day after day/Year following year.”
Simon’s present as a songwriter is the capability to make the challenging sound straightforward. The demonstration of this ability, aided by a crack band of nine, produced up for the modest distribution of new songs.
There was a profusion of notes and rhythms, a world of music arranged into supple melodies. Musicians moved between the scores of instruments, wielding gourds and cowbells, swapping piano or electric guitar for sax or trumpet. For the samba-influenced “The Clear Child” there were five drummers.
The trail led from Louisiana zydeco (“That Was Your Mother”) to the Amazon (“Spirit Voices”) and southern Africa (“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”). Simon & Garfunkel classics such as “The Boxer” sounded significantly less winsome, invigorated by the variety of musicianship. Simon rationed the high notes but otherwise his voice seemed to have hardly aged, a gentle lilt, nonetheless a token of optimism.
He devoted the 1960s satire of “Mrs Robinson” to the US election, which took spot the evening of the show, but otherwise forbore from political comment. His music inhabits a diverse space, a harmonious republic of sonorities. “Words and melodies, effortless harmony, old-time treatments,” he sang in “Stranger to Stranger”. For two and a half hours, in the hands of an old master, that remedy worked its magic.