These, as some would tell us, are dark days indeed. Disaster is round the corner and the youth are running wild in the street. Those who predict the fall of Irish society would find much comfort in the O2 tonight. People are sitting in neat rows, watching the action in front of them as opposed to through the screen of their mobile phone and the security are tapping their feet rather than cracking heads. It’s all very civilized.
Perhaps a little too civilized in fact. Paul Simon arrives on stage to enthusiastic applause and the odd whoop, surrounded by a number of musicians (including the cousin of State’s own Kara Manning, fact fans). An unassuming prescence, the first part of the show slides through Simon’s solo career in easy fashion. The sound is crystal clear, Simon’s voice rich and strong and it’s all very nice – relaxing like a warm bath. But we can have a warm bath at home and have battled the early evening traffic to be here for something a bit more stimulating. A swinging ‘Slip Sliding Away’ gets the crowd – including our security friend – moving in their seats but it’s not until the clattering samba of ‘The Obvious Child’ that the night finally gets going.
The resulting atmosphere is ramped up further by the introduction of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who enter to a standing ovation, due perhaps to the knowledge that this is where the main event begins. The South African vocal group,as well as the musicians who will shortly join them, know plenty about dark days, with their own personal worlds changing hugely in the twenty six years since the release of the Graceland album. For Simon, too, it has been a difficult period. As captured in the brilliant Under African Skies documentary, it was only last year that he received the belated, if not entirely complete, acceptance of the ANC for his breaking of the cultural boycott against the Apartheid regime.
It’s hard not to be moved when they hit the perfect harmonies of ‘Homeless’, echoing exquisitely around the arena. They also bring a much needed sense of performance to the night. Joseph Shabalala may not be as agile as he once was but the younger members of his troupe make up for it and they are a joy, performing their own number before the whole ensemble raise the roof with ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’. This is what we are here for, for Simon and his old colleagues to roll back the years. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite happen. ‘I Know What I Know’ is the first clue, what should have been a joyous explosion of sound merely pleasant. ‘Boy In The Bubble’ follows suit and it’s not until Thandiswa Mazwai struts on to step into the shoes of the late Miriam Makeba that again things pick up. Some may take this as their cue to head to the bar but they’re missing one of the night’s highlights, especially a sublime ‘Under African Skies’. It takes the album’s most mainstream moment to really raise the roof, ‘You Can Call Me Al’ prompting a very polite rush of the stage and massed dancing in the aisles.
Maybe we shouldn’t have watched Under African Skies before heading to the show, excitement buoyed by the thrilling archive footage of the musicians at work. Maybe you just can’t ever relive the initial magic. Maybe the problem is Paul Simon himself, a hugely likeable but largely anonymous figure amongst the massed musicians. When he returns, man alone with his acoustic guitar, for an encore of ‘The Sound Of Silence’ the effect is astonishing. An unnecessary new arrangement fails to throw the crowd, who sing the original version anyway. It’s magical, as is a version of ‘The Boxer’ that builds to a crescendo and leads into rollicking ‘Late In The Evening’.
For one night, then, the dark days are banished. History has been revisited, if not repeated. We take our leave to discover the rain clouds have gone. It’s a new night of new possibilities. A Garda stops us in our tracks, warning us that a drunk is waiting down the way to give us hassle. And with that, reality returns.