First UK gig in over 20 years from the Felix and Oscar of dream-folk

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Simon & Garfunkel

THE M.E.N. ARENA, MANCHESTER

Wednesday July 14, 2004

FOR THOSE WHO believe in eternal magic, it’s something of a dodgy start. Framed under a single spotlight for “Old Friends/Bookends”, Paul’n’ Art appear a little nervous. The harmonies sound twitchy, out of focus. Back-up band in tow, “A Hazy Shade Of Winter” doesn’t augur well either, its brittle catchiness smothered by a heavy-handed guitar riff. “I Am A Rock” fares better, but then they dovetail perfectly into a glistening “America”. And they’re away. And how.

The Beatles, Dylan and early Beach Boys aside, it’s hard to imagine a songbook more indelibly stamped on the collective subconscious than this. Simon’s 1965-70 output remains exquisitely timeless. Unlike their aforementioned peers, though, the planet’s greatest duo are fully intact, if a little time-ruffled. Now both 62, twiggy Art’s features have grown sharper, his hair still akin to candyfloss laying ambush to an egg. Portly Paul looks like a gnomic Lloyd Grossman and recedes from all sides. It’s a wonder they’re here at all, given their squabbling history. It’s one of the greatest losses to pop that Simon & Garfunkel have been unable to fully heal the rift that wrenched them apart during 1970’s commercial career-peak, Bridge Over Troubled Water. At times, they’ve come close. Following 1981’s Central Park gig and European tour, they began recording Think Too Much in ’83, only to split again midway through (the songs were salvaged for Simon’s own Hearts And Bones). Last year’s surprise performance at the Grammys, however?picking up a lifetime achievement award?seems to have re-stoked the fire. It’s still, you feel, a delicate entente. What’s striking tonight is the almost total lack of eye contact. Art appears the more conciliatory, initiating one priceless exchange after explaining how they first met in a school production of Alice In Wonderland. “This is now the 50th anniversary of this friendship I really hold close.” When the applause settles, Paul tells how they started recording two years later: “So this is the 48th anniversary of arguing… Anyway, we don’t argue any more. We’re exhausted.”

Whatever the motivation, it’s irrelevant once they’re flowing freely. There’s barely time to ponder the amount of levels that 1968’s “America” now exists on? Simon’s wistful, hitchhike-and-Greyhound search for the lost innocence of his homeland?before “At The Zoo” kicks in, morphing into the irresistible “Baby Driver”. Then it’s the sweetly plucked reverie of “Kathy’s Song”, memories of passing the hat in the ’60s folk clubs of Blighty, and bringing the house down with: “I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets/To England, where my heart lies”. Suddenly it all makes sense. Why forgo the past when it tastes as tender as this?

After a quick blast of 1957’s sub-Everlys debut single “Hey Schoolgirl”, the real thing appear. Don’n’Phil, the original brothers at war and S&G role models (spiritual guides from the baby-faced blink of early incarnation Tom & Jerry to the preppy subway-cherubs of ’60s New York), are up there, impeccably rolling out “Wake Up Little Susie”, “All I Have To Do is Dream” and “Let It Be Me” with the soothe and slide of honey. When the headliners join them for “Bye Bye Love”, it’s impossible not to be awed.

Resuming with “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”. and “Homeward Bound”, they stay in celestial orbit. “The Sound Of Silence” gives way to the quiet explosion of “Mrs Robinson”. There’s a bruise of regret over “Slip Slidin’ Away”, which Simon introduces by way of, “This wasn’t recorded by Simon & Garfunkel, but it should have been.” With Art’s luminous voice adding a feathery dimension here, it now seems a blinding oversight.

For all the ’60s-in-amber nostalgia, though?and yes, it’s the grey crowd in tonight?there’s a resonance to these songs that lends a gentle poignancy both personal (the autumnal decay of “Leaves That Are Green”) and political (“An American Tune”, with its visions of the Statue of Liberty “sailing away to sea” in “the age’s most uncertain hours”). But it’s the hits everyone’s here for, and when the hushed piano ushers in “Bridge Over Troubled Water” ?delivered spectacularly by Garfunkel?you’re reminded of its uniqueness: a monster jukebox ballad that remains oblivious to time and space, and never fails to move. After its sweeping crescendo, the encore?”Cecilia”, “The Boxer”, “The 59th Bridge Street Song” included?seems almost anti-climactic. They might be doing this for themselves, as opposed to each other, but no one can sabotage heavenly chemistry. Unforgettable.