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Sounds of comfort

Times Staff Writer

You knew a lot about what to expect from Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” reunion tour concert even before the principals stepped onstage Monday at Staples Center.

The odds were that the voices, for the most part, would still be stirring and that the old songs would be stylishly played, because Paul Simon is too much the perfectionist to hit the road again with Art Garfunkel if everything didn’t feel right.

What wasn’t certain, however, proved to be the evening’s most endearing feature: the subtle warmth between these occasional combatants.

Simon, remember, stepped away from the partnership at the height of the duo’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” fame in the early ‘70s because he found it difficult to work with Garfunkel. Then he got so irritated during the making of a reunion album in the ‘80s that he erased Garfunkel’s voice from the tracks and turned “Hearts and Bones” into a solo work.

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In returning to the road together for the first time in two decades, Simon & Garfunkel played the nostalgia card at the beginning of the two-hour concert by showing photos from their high school days on an overhead video screen.

In the same spirit, they opened, predictably, with “Old Friends,” which includes the lines: “Can you imagine us/ Years from today/ Sharing a park bench quietly?/ How terribly strange/ To be 70.”

Simon was in his mid-20s when he and Garfunkel included that song on their “Bookends” album, and the idea of being 70 was surely as distant as Paul McCartney’s ruminations in “When I’m Sixty-Four.” But he and Garfunkel are 62 now, and the song, like many others, took on a sense of added dimension and character.

If the opening was so nostalgic that one could picture the singers doing the concert in rocking chairs, they quickly shattered that possibility.

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On the second number, “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” and for most of the rest of the evening, the pair employed a seven-piece band, led by drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Mark Stewart, to inject the tunes with the vigorous rhythms of Simon’s work on “Graceland” (and beyond).

At times, the arrangements might have felt jolting to fans used to the tame recorded versions, but the change was essential to keep the evening from being simply a stroll down memory lane. Time after time, the arrangements gave the music a renewed spirit and spark.

Simon isn’t a gregarious performer by any means, and things seemed a bit distant early on as the musicians went through such familiar hits as “At the Zoo” and “I Am a Rock.”

The chill started to break, however, when Garfunkel told the audience he figured this was the pair’s 50th anniversary because they’d met in school in New York in 1953, both cast in a production of “Alice in Wonderland.” Simon playfully countered that he thought of it as the 47th anniversary of their first argument. They started singing together at age 13, he said, and had that first argument at 14.

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The lines felt rehearsed, but the performers delivered them with charm and went immediately into a version of “Hey Schoolgirl,” a hit they had under the name Tom & Jerry while they were in high school. It’s a flimsy tune, built heavily around some of the harmonies and rhythm patterns of such early Everly Brothers hits as “Bye Bye Love.”

In an inspired move, Simon & Garfunkel invited the Everlys on the tour, and brothers Don and Phil came onstage at that point to sing three of their hits, “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Let It Be Me” and “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” before Simon & Garfunkel joined them on a spirited rendition of “Bye Bye Love.”

Simon was visibly thrilled to be singing with his early heroes. Given his normally reserved demeanor, it was a sweet glimpse of Simon the fan.

Many feel that Simon’s best writing came after the break with Garfunkel, and some of the older songs are indeed burdened by a self-conscious poetry. But he pretty much avoided the awkward early songs in choosing the material, which ranged from the delicate “Kathy’s Song” to the exotic “El Condor Pasa” and “Cecilia.”

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He and Garfunkel reached into Simon’s solo material only twice -- on “Slip Slidin’ Away,” a 1977 song that Simon on Monday said he always thought could have been an ideal Simon & Garfunkel tune, and “American Tune,” a 1973 number that Garfunkel on Monday said he wished he had sung on record.

The latter is one of Simon’s most inspired works, a reflection on Washington policies that may strike some listeners as being as timely and affecting today as it was during the Vietnam era.

Standing at the microphone at the end of the number, Garfunkel referred to his partner touchingly. “Isn’t he a great writer?”

When Garfunkel later reached for the highest notes on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Simon smiled in admiration and gently placed a hand on the singer’s shoulder in salute.

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Simon & Garfunkel’s voices are huskier now, but Garfunkel still has moments when he conveys longing and wonder with his old angelic purity. Simon’s voice showed no signs of the cold that forced the postponement of Friday’s concert at Arrowhead Pond (that show has been rescheduled for Sunday).

At times, Simon & Garfunkel stepped away from the band to recapture the intimacy of such early jewels as “Homeward Bound” and “The Sound of Silence.” In the former, especially, you felt a shift between the youthful perspective of the original version and the more mature viewpoint of the singers now, both approaches linked by an understanding of the importance of emotional comfort.

The evening’s most moving moment may have come near the end, when the pair teamed on “The Boxer,” an expression of resilience and commitment:

In the clearing stands a boxer

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And a fighter by his trade

And he carries the reminders

Of ev’ry glove that laid him down

And cut him ‘till he cried out

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In his anger and his shame,

“I am leaving, I am leaving,”

But the fighter still remains.

Simon wrote that song in the late ‘60s from the viewpoint of a young man feeling the weight of the world but also feeling invincible and vowing to survive.

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On Monday, Simon & Garfunkel presented it from a much different vantage point, acknowledging greater vulnerability but ultimately vowing to move on.

It was a beautiful merger of partnership and art, one in which the old friends were also clearly old masters.

*

Simon & Garfunkel

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Where: Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim

When: Tonight and Sunday, 8 p.m.

Price: $55-$250

Contact: (714) 704-2500

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Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com


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