There must be 50 ways to play "Homeward Bound," and Wednesday night, Paul Simon demonstrated two of them.
Standing onstage at the Hollywood Bowl, the pop pioneer began the song — one of his oldest — as a stripped-down acoustic ditty, not far from the way it started out when Simon sang it half a century ago on a hit single with Art Garfunkel. Then, as he was joined by members of his nine-man band, Simon gradually transformed it into a loping country tune, like something Willie Nelson might have cut in the late 1970s.
Simon was singing about longing for the comforts of familiarity. But the music was showing how, at age 74, he's as determined as ever to cover fresh ground.
That rearranged "Homeward Bound" wasn't the only sign of creative restlessness in Simon's two-hour concert, which came just before Friday's release of a strong — and characteristically adventurous — new studio album, "Stranger to Stranger."
He also brought a bluesy bite to the once-delicate "Still Crazy After All These Years," as though he were proving his claim that he "ain't no fool for love songs that whisper in my ears." And for a third encore, he took some welcome liberties with the tempo and vocal melody of "The Sound of Silence" — not that that discouraged the folks around me from trying heartily to sing along.
Yet if Simon has defied the calcification that afflicts many rock stars his age, he hasn't rejected their smooth professionalism (or their taste for shimmery fabrics).
Wednesday's show included relatively faithful renditions of some of his most beloved hits, such as "You Can Call Me Al" — one of a handful of tunes he did from his mid-'80s touchstone, "Graceland" — and "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover"; each wore its proudly cosmopolitan vibe as naturally as Simon did his purple suit jacket.
He told some funny stories, as before "Spirit Voices," which he said had been inspired by an encounter with a South American medicine man who invited him to try ayahuasca.
"I'm up for that," he recalled saying in his signature deadpan.
He also waited until the halfway mark to introduce songs from the new album, a knowing concession to the demands of an audience eager to relive old memories. "Stranger to Stranger" was hushed and spooky, while "Wristband" rode a vivid funk beat.
In "The Werewolf," he seemed to poke a bit of fun at fans sitting in the pricey seats near the stage, gesturing in their direction as he delivered a line about how "it all goes to the wealthy."
But he was willing to mock himself too. Before "The Cool, Cool River," from 1990's "The Rhythm of the Saints," Simon's longtime guitarist Vincent Nguini stepped to the microphone to recount their experience mastering the song's tricky Brazilian groove — just one example of the far-flung borrowing that's led to criticism of Simon as a kind of artistic colonizer.
Then the Cameroonian guitarist called Simon "a great adventurer" who's gone "around the world exploiting various cultures." At that, Simon leaned over in what was surely a rehearsed bit and murmured in Nguini's ear.
"Exploring various cultures," Nguini said with a grin. "Excuse my English."