There were well over 30 types of musical instrument on stage, from such humble staples as the tambourine to more unusual contraptions, at least to western ears, such as the single-stringed gopichand that Paul Simon was given 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 various 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. Usually at gigs when a rock veteran unveils their latest material, punters find an urgent excuse to go to the bar. Here it was a minor disappointment that only three new tracks were played.
“The Werewolf” featured the gopichand and an infectious handclap beat in a tale of gothic US anxiety, 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 effort required to keep going: “It’s just hard working/The same piece of clay/Day after day/Year after year.”
Simon’s gift as a songwriter is the ability to make the difficult sound straightforward. The demonstration of this skill, aided by a crack band of nine, made 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 Obvious 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 less winsome, invigorated by the range of musicianship. Simon rationed the high notes but otherwise his voice seemed to have hardly aged, a gentle lilt, still a token of optimism.
He dedicated the 1960s satire of “Mrs Robinson” to the US election, which took place the night of the show, but otherwise forbore from political comment. His music inhabits a different space, a harmonious republic of sonorities. “Words and melodies, easy harmony, old-time remedies,” he sang in “Stranger to Stranger”. For two and a half hours, in the hands of an old master, that remedy worked its magic.