Art Garfunkel came to the Hylton Center last night, and his concert was more like a holiday visit from a favorite uncle holding forth on the couch in the living room. A near capacity audience of mostly baby boomers wildly applauded every comment, song and poem that came from the mouth of this talented, gentle pop music icon.
The evening didn’t begin with much promise, as we were treated to about ten minutes of formless ethereal music before the show started. The level of conversation grew louder during this time until I could hardly hear the music, which was all right with me. But then the lights dimmed and the audience fell silent as keyboard player Warren Bernhardt and guitarist Tab Laven took their positions. A follow spot swung toward the right side of the stage, the curtain drew back and the man himself walked out onto the stage, greeted by a crescendo of applause. Garfunkel did indeed look like a favorite uncle, his famous Afro diminished by a balding crown, the sleeves rolled up on his white shirt, and holding a piece of paper in his hand.
He started not with a song but with what he called “prose poems,” soon to be published by Alfred P. Knopf. The first poem pictured himself as a young man, just beginning his climb to fame, standing on a balcony of a hotel overlooking Central Park and wondering where public acclaim would lead him. He also wrote about a large inflatable globe that he keeps in his bedroom and that his son plays with, rolling the large ball all over their apartment, and trying to talk to the world through its air valve. The poem ended with a mediation on the actual world and the people in it, and his son’s place in the universe.
Then Garfunkel sang a medley of “You Bruise Me” and “All I Know.” I was concerned that, at his age, his voice would have faded, as has happened to Gordon Lightfoot, whose songs are now delivered in a raspy whisper, but I needn’t have worried—Garfunkel’s voice still had that same ethereal quality and warm tone that it has always had. He had a cold or was suffering from allergies so that his voice faded on the higher notes, but I could close my eyes and the years dropped away and I was listening to him sing on my roommate’s cheap Zenith stereo in 1970. The audience responded warmly to Garfunkel’s efforts.
Garfunkel also talked about his famous walks. He first crossed Japan on foot in the early 1980’s, and then walked across the U.S. incrementally between 1983 and 1997. In May 1998, he began an incremental walk across Europe, starting from Ireland and ending up in northern Greece. He went back to Ireland in early 2014 and reached Istanbul, Turkey in August of that year.
Garfunkel sang the most popular songs from his career, but he mixed in some new material. “A Perfect Moment” presented a lovely, lyrical picture of two lovers wanting to keep that moment forever, but the most striking “new” material came when he recalled recording “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” with Paul Simon. They had recorded the first three tracks of the song in July of 1966, but Garfunkel felt it needed something more. Protests against the Viet Nam War were just beginning, and he proposed that he write a counter-melody using words from a song that Simon had written earlier. Garfunkel sang that song, “On the Side of a Hill,” which depicts rain falling on a battle scene and includes the lines
War bellows, blazing in scarlet battalions
Generals order their soldiers to kill
And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten
which he wove into the ballad from England.
The remainder of the concert consisted mostly of old favorites: “Ninety-Nine Miles from L.A.,” “Kathy’s Song” and “Homeward Bound” among them, interspersed with more poems.
I expected that Garfunkel would conclude with “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and he did, but in an unexpected way. Before he and his guitarist launched into the song, he explained that they hadn’t finished the arrangement yet, so when they sang it, they stopped abruptly before the bridge and last verse. The audience didn’t mind in the least, leaping to their feet and applauding thunderously.
As an encore, Garfunkel did something very unusual. He talked about his belief in God, remembering at five years of age that he sang in the synagogue and made the old men seated before him cry. It was then he realized that God had given him the gift of his voice and of music. With that as an introduction, he said, “Now I’ll put you to bed,” by singing a lovely, lyrical setting of “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
Thy love go with me through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.
This was a spiritual way to end a heavenly concert. May Art Garfunkel, in the words of Leonard Nimoy, another Jewish celebrity, “Live long and prosper.”