It’s basic gig maths: the bigger the audience, and the further from the stage, the bigger the chance of ending up next to people who spend the whole show chatting, Facetiming, or taking selfies until going wild when the hit single is played in the encore.
So, in a crowd of 65 000, you’d expect to find one or two. But, during Paul Simon’s headline performance at this year’s BST Hyde Park finale, they’re as rare as photographers in the pit (access is restricted to broadsheets, so you’ll find no closeups of him here). Perhaps it’s down to Simon’s ability to engage with his audience – he has been doing this for more than 60 years after all. Maybe it’s the average age of the fans, many of whom have grown up alongside him. Or possibly it’s just that he’s written (and plays) more than just one hit single.
Whatever the reason, even the people towards the back are focused on what’s happening on stage (albeit by way of the video screens). The rhythm-based songs, as Simon so humbly describes them, spark outbreaks of joyous dancing. The lesser-known offerings (either forgotten masterpieces he’s decided to revisit or tracks from his most recent albums) are greeted with enraptured silence. The folky one-man-and-his-acoustic-guitar classics provoke enthusiastic singalongs.
Even when Simon recounts the origins of such obscurities as Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog after the War, lovingly eulogises the late guitarist Vincent Nguini, or explains the environmental survival theories of biologist E.O. Wilson with the same conversational clarity as his lyrics, they shut up and listen.
With seemingly no effort at all, he pulls the audience in close and makes Hyde Park feel far more intimate than it could with flying pigs or a full-scale recreation of Battersea power station. His is a production so less-is-more that its flashiest element is his red T-shirt. Even the political commentary is understated (“Strange times huh? Don’t give up,” is the extent of it, before a hopeful rendition of American Tune).
This approach of putting all the focus on the music recurs throughout the day, albeit never quite as effortlessly. On the Barclaycard Stage, Shawn Colvin is accompanied by her acoustic guitar and a single chair (for a bottle of water, capo, and some loose pieces of paper). And yet the unadorned renditions of her self-described “dreary” songs, like the despairing Ricochet In Time, breezy Diamond In The Rough, and murder ballad Sunny Came Home (described by Steve Earle as the ultimate breakup song), are simply spellbinding.
Never rooted to the spot, Tom Chaplin is a far more animated performer, pumping his fist for emphasis, crouching or kneeling during the really intense bits, and using the universal gestures for audience encouragement.
Like the headliner, who he grew up listening to, the former Keane frontman is a master of succinct but engaging conversation, whether he’s reminiscing about the last time he played Hyde Park (it was Live 8 in 2005) or admitting that he wrote Hold On To Our Love as a mea culpa to his wife.
But he also knows not to let the chat get in the way of the songs, performed today by a guitarist, drummer, and two multi-instrumentalists on keys, violin, and backing vocals. Playing the second of two gigs this year, they and Chaplin recreate all the heartache and drama of selections from his debut solo album The Wave including lead single Quicksand, written for his daughter.
Of course there’s time for old faithfuls like a sparkling Everybody’s Changing, impassioned Bedshaped, and, unsurprisingly, a triumphant Somewhere Only We Know, jokingly described as a Lily Allen cover.
The real cover versions happen over on the Great Oak Stage, where Bonnie Raitt makes an eclectic selection of tracks completely her own.
With her longtime band – guitarist George Marinelli, bass player James “Hutch” Hutchinson, drummer Ricky Fataar, and keyboard player Jon Cleary – she confidently puts her inimitable blues-country-rock stamp on expected American standards (Skip James’ Devil Got My Womanand Mose Allison’s Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy) as well as some left-field surprises.
Her sultry take on INXS’s Need You Tonight is even better than the original, while the swampy makeover of Burning Down The House replaces the Talking Heads’ menace with something altogether more suited to a sunny summer’s day.
Less surprising are the three songs from her Grammy-winning mainstream-breakthrough years – Nick Of Time, with Raitt on keys, Love Letter, and Something To Talk About – and, although the musicians have probably played them at every show for the last 25 years, they sound anything but pedestrian.
Just as gutsy as her vocals and fiery as her slide guitar playing are Raitt’s opinions. She speaks of recent London visitor Donald Trump with disgust and, prior to reimagining John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, speaks passionately about women’s rights.
James Taylor, although apologising for the current state of his homeland and promising that America’s soul will return, is less outspoken. Instead much of his between-song chat alternates between a touching appreciation of his fans and praising the individual members of his not inconsequential band. Featuring all-stars like drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Michael Landau, and trumpet player Walt Fowler, the 11-strong group completely reinvigorate Taylor’s greatest hits.
With the singer-songwriter looking very relaxed on vocals and acoustic or rhythm guitar out front, they especially come to the fore on the bluesy Steamroller (featuring some excellent honky tonk piano from Kevin Hays and a blistering Landau solo) and a rollicking Mexico, charged by the conga rhythms of Michito Sanchez.
Shed A Little Light, which begins as a spare piano and keys ballad, blossoms into a full-blown song of worship, while the celebratory Your Smiling Face is the perfect soundtrack to a Sunday in the park.
Something In The Way She Moves, which is the song that started it all, is the ultimate showcase of his roots in the ‘60s folk scene. And Sweet Baby James, which he introduces as a cowboy lullaby, adds a Western twang to his musically diverse catalogue.
But even if his music runs the gamut from country to vintage R&B, Taylor’s no match for the range of tonight’s headliner. Over 26 songs, Simon and the band he’s called “a tight, extraordinary group of gifted musicians” ceaselessly move his distinct narratives around the world. There are the now familiar South African flavours of You Can Call Me Al, Graceland, and Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes. There’s the detour to the Caribbean for Mother And Child Reunion and Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard. There are the the Brazilian rhythms of The Obvious Child, while the spirit of West Africa imbues The Boy In The Bubble and The Cool Cool River. There’s the rockabilly twist they put on Kodachrome and the streetwise groove of 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. And America and The Boxer are the troubadour sounds of the New York coffee houses where Simon’s songs first took flight.
The grip they still hold on people is obvious by the volume of the voices ringing around Hyde Park. But even on what he claims is his final farewell tour, the still enthusiastic Simon is interested in more than revisiting past glories. There’s room in the set for a song from his most recent album, 2016’s Stranger To Stranger, but instead of instigating a rush to the bar, the hip-hop leaning Wristband has so much attitude it quickly gets the audience moving.
There’s even a taster of his forthcoming LP, In The Blue Lights, as Simon and the six members of Brooklyn chamber ensemble yMusic play a string, brass, and vocal rearrangement of Can’t Run But. The reimagining sounds so agile it’s hard to believe the man who, earlier in the evening shows off some equally nimble footwork during That Was Your Mother, is saying goodbye to the road. If this is really it, rhymin’ Simon is going out on a high.
Review of Paul Simon at BST Hyde Park on 15 July 2018 by Nils van der Linden. Photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk.