There is nothing like a good concert. The swell of the crowd, the ringing in your ears and the surreal quality of it all is like nothing else — it’s as if the band is singing and talking only to you.
There are so many concerts that I, as a nineties baby, have missed. Why couldn’t I have been born in 1949 or something? I would have gotten groovy at Woodstock. I would have rolled my eyes as girls fainted at Shea Stadium. Or I would have just cried and fainted myself, overcome by The Beatles. I would have even been a glassy-eyed Cornell student rockin’ out to the Grateful Dead in Barton Hall at that infamous concert in ‘77. But there is one concert that I lament missing most of all — Simon and Garfunkel’s concert in Central Park in 1981. From this concert comes my favorite album of all time.
If you’re sane, you know that Simon and Garfunkel are amazing. I’ve spent many hours listening to them and trying to comprehend how they can construct such perfect harmonies. I’ve wondered how they can weave such evocative emotional webs with their lyrics, and how they can just do everything right. Before I heard this album, I didn’t think it was possible for them to be any better. But I was wrong. Simon and Garfunkel are, in fact, better live than they are in recordings. This concert is not simply a regurgitation of their music: It is Simon and Garfunkel reuniting for the first time after parting ways; it is taking their eclectic style and turning it into a bona fide rock and roll concert; it is dialogue and social backstory. This concert is epic. And on a simpler level, it is two incredible musicians turning out jams like never before. In this recording, Simon and Garfunkel take their clean, graceful music and transform it into a stampede of joy and life.
Simon and Garfunkel are anything but static. Their music can sound like folk, like gospel, like blues, or something that transcends a label. The Concert in Central Park takes their style and delivers it in full force, but with more passion and variation than ever before. Every song has a new jazzy riff, a whirling harmonic dip, or an instrumental change. The iconic whistling in “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” is replaced with a vibrant, jazzy saxophone. Humming in “America” is substituted by a smooth keyboard (and again, a soulful brass section); the vocal harmonies take a higher pitch and a freer form, making it a far more effectively passionate statement. In fact, many of the harmonies go to a high pitch when they go low in the prior recordings, making the sound much freer and more passionate. And basically every classic has its tempo changed, making it an entirely new experience. Slowing down “April Come She Will” accentuates how truly sad the song is, turning a folk song into a heart-wrenching ballad. Speeding up “Mrs. Robinson” and making the vocals more staccato opens the show with an edge. They truly showcase the way they play with genre when they combine the Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” with Chuck Berry’s Motown hit “Maybelline.” These are not two songs that you would assume make an amazing medley, but the marriage of these songs is one of the most bumpin’ unions in musical history. I can only imagine how delighted I would be if I were sitting in Central Park and they hit me with that surprise.
That’s another thing that’s so special about this album. The joy and spirit of the album are palpable. Simon and Garfunkel know exactly what to say to rile up a crowd. After singing an impassioned “Homeward Bound,” a delighted Paul Simon addresses the audience, “It’s great to do a neighborhood concert!” Going back to their New York roots and sharing their love for the city with fellow New Yorkers, its no mystery why the crowd goes crazy at this moment. The same thing happens during Art Garfunkel’s beautiful rendition of Gallagher and Lyle’s “A Heart in New York,” a love song to the city. And yet, it’s not all sugary sweetness from the poet and the one-man band. In the rebellious spirit of the decade, Simon makes a sarcastic shout out to the then mayor Ed Koch, with whom many were unhappy. He also quips about people out there raising money for the city by selling loose joints: Such a quintessential hippie concert remark, and one of the things that makes it so candidly perfect.
This album is a relic; it’s an exemplification of an iconic moment for music that captures the captivation of half a million people together in Central Park. Hearing all those people on the tracks is amazing, because when the music makes emotions swell, the crowd swells with it. Things like the band messing up during “The Boxer” and giggling make them seem so real. Simon and Garfunkel’s music has a certain ethereal elegance when recorded. It is breathtaking.
But hearing them perform in such an uncharacteristically raw and passionate way is mystifying. What’s special about their performance at this concert is that the sound is so unquestionably alive and honest; it’s a parade of joy and serenity and heartbreak. It’s a moment in history, suspended in time and handed to us on a silver platter as a transcendental experience. While the album is limited to sound, the music is enough. Paul Simon said, “I hope we’re blasting Central Park West and Fifth Avenue pretty much away!” And that they did. This album is and will always be my favorite escape to a great night where everyone was feelin’ groovy.