Three songs from the end of his Tel Aviv concert on Wednesday night, during what he had introduced as “my favorite of all the songs,” Art Garfunkel stopped singing mid-verse.
He had already motioned to someone near the front with a noisy radio gadget, presumably a security guard, to silence it. But the damage had been done. Garfunkel was singing “Kathy’s Song,” raising Paul Simon’s music toward paradise, and, ironically, just before he got to the line, “My mind’s distracted and diffused,” the infernal device had rendered him, well, distracted and diffused.
Garfunkel apologized. He explained that, onstage, performing, “I concentrate.” He resumed the song. The audience applauded warmly, empathetically. The show went smoothly on.
But briefly, a spell had been broken. Which was one of the two most remarkable things about Art Garfunkel’s Bloomfield Arena concert: A 73-year-old man who’s evidently a little eccentric; who punctuated his show with selections of “poetic prose,” read off the backs of envelopes, from the autobiography he’s writing; who sang with just an acoustic guitarist and a keyboard player for company; and who was performing another man’s 50-year-old songs, had nonetheless managed to cast a spell across a vast, open-air soccer stadium.
At one point he called it “God’s gift.” At another, “the bird in my throat.” He told us he’d lost it four years ago, and that it had been hard work to regain it. He admitted that arguably the greatest of the songs, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” with which he closed out his performance (bar his final blessing, of which more in a moment), was now “a challenge” for him. But The Voice came through. Not quite as pure. Certainly not effortless. But still feathery, ethereal, beautiful.
Garfunkel began and ended the show with Hebrew invocations, sung with a white satin kippa on a head now bereft of that golden halo of curls. With his white shirt and black waistcoat, he looked, in those cantorial bookends of his concert, like an observant Jew, tallit-clad in a synagogue — precisely the venue where the pre-teen Garfunkel first tested and realized the uniqueness of his singing.
The 19-song set between the prayers was a non-Jewish-state-specific roll of classic and less well-known Simon and Garfunkel material, with an Everly Brothers cameo from his son Art Jr., a flash of Randy Newman, and a dash or two of solo material. He gave us “The Boxer” and “April Come She Will” and “Homeward Bound,” and we were won over.
The interspersed autobiographical readings were brief and tender enough to engage rather than irritate, and not without humor. Reading an excerpt in which he described Simon and Garfunkel in their late prime as “the hottest tour on earth,” he paused and reflected, “Maybe that’s a little pompous,” enjoyed the audience’s laughter and mused, “Hmm. Could change that.”
Some of his other between-song patter confirmed that Artie Garfunkel is a bit of an odd bod, in the nicest possible way. “I must say your attitude to me is sublime,” he vouchsafed early on. Which it doubtless was, but how many musicians would have chosen that adjective?
He introduced Simon’s “The Side of a Hill” as an anti-war song, saying that it was “a weird thing to do in Israel.” Why weird? Honestly, I don’t know what he meant. Did he think we would love or hate him for playing the tune? “On the side of a hill, a little cloud weeps / And waters the grave with its silent tears / While a soldier cleans and polishes a gun / That ended a life at the age of seven years.”
He certainly wasn’t being mean. He amended the lyrics of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to promise, “I’m on your side, Tel Aviv, when times get rough.” At one point, albeit lightheartedly, he compared the Bloomfield Arena to Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House. You have to be a true Zionist to do that.
He recalled, in another between-song chat, that he walked across America in the 1980s and 1990s, and that last year he walked from Ireland to Istanbul — a little nutty, he acknowledged; not something to applaud, he advised when we tried; just what you do when you’re a New Yorker and you need some “horizon.” This was part of an anecdote which also featured him singing “Ol’ Man River” to some cows, one of whom I think he said was moved to tears. An evening with Art Garfunkel, as you may have gathered by now, is not your ordinary concert.
At times, the patter was treacly sweet. He fawned over his son, an admittedly fine singer who ended the Everlys’ “Let It Be Me” with a frankly outrageous falsetto. And his own saccharine composition “Perfect Moment” would have reminded us, had we managed to forget for so much as a second, of the contrast with the poignant, bittersweet, melancholy songwriting perfection achieved by Paul Simon, the man of whom Garfunkel said, “For two-thirds of a century, his arm has been around my shoulder.”
Garfunkel recalled that he’d played in Israel before, in 1983, alongside Simon. Which brings us to the second remarkable thing about an evening with Art Garfunkel — the degree to which, The Voice notwithstanding, Paul Simon is missed.
Simon’s absence colored every line of every one of his songs. Garfunkel cherishes those songs, performs them with deliberation, respect, distinction, love. Garfunkel’s was and is the voice that lifts them to rare purity. And still they are depleted.
Art without Paul is Art with less energy, Art shorn of rhythm, Art incomplete. Art without the science. And Garfunkel knows it best of all.
Plainly, for all their well-documented fighting, he feels the void constantly on stage. “Forget everything you’ve read,” he said late in the show, before hailing Simon for so enriching his life. He spoke of “My friend Paul.” He called “Come on out, Paul,” when listing some of his favorite songwriters. He recalled Simon playing him his latest best song yet, “The Sound of Silence” for the first time in his roach-filled New York apartment. “We go back to 11 years old,” he noted. He read out a supremely strange autobiographical snippet about a Simon birthday party at which the talk centered on which of the two would outlive the other, and what the victor would say at the funeral of the vanquished.
Simon is hardly the indispensable vocalist that Garfunkel is, but Artie’s set was momentously conspicuous for its missing harmonies. Art Jr.’s fleeting appearances aside, this really was a solo performance, and everywhere the audience was contributing the missing second vocals, Simon’s vocals — most especially on “Scarborough Fair,” which was naked without them.
The Voice can still weave its magic. Someone sitting near to us was weeping silent tears at the sheer beauty of “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” this writer’s personal highlight. Rarely can the Shehecheyanu blessing with which he bade farewell have been sung with such pure grace. Garfunkel can elevate us, transform an evening. He can cast a spell.
But Simon and Garfunkel? God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson, for them, heaven holds a place.
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