Last year, Paul Simon retired from touring, playing his final British show before an audience of 65,000 fans in Hyde Park. This year, his former musical partner, Art Garfunkel, is back on the road again, opening an 11-date British tour to around 1,300 fans in an Oxford theatre, with a few empty seats.
You could tell the gap in their fortunes still bothers the old troubadour. “If Simon and Garfunkel played around England, wouldn’t we draw bigger crowds than U2?” he asked, wistfully.
It wasn’t Garfunkel’s only bittersweet reference to “my old buddy Paul”, who wrote their songs and went on to have the more stellar solo career. Garfunkel recalled “seeing Paul Simon a while ago” and then, lest we get the wrong idea, added “on my TV”. He subtly changed a lyric to their 1966 classic, Homeward Bound, crooning “Tonight I’ll sing his songs again, I’ll play the game and pretend.”
“I’m 77,” Garfunkel told the audience, almost incredulously. “Now I have to be an aging American entertainer. I wasn’t always like this.” Shuffling about in a black polo neck, the once sweet-faced idol resembled an ancient beatnik professor, stooped and bespectacled. All that remained of his formerly magnificent blonde curls were two tufts of grey poking above each ear.
On the vast stage, he seemed ill at ease. Flanked only by a keyboard player and acoustic guitarist, Garfunkel apologised for being unable to play a full version of Bridge Over Troubled Waters because he did not have enough musicians. It was an odd remark, given that he had presumably imposed such restraints on himself.
What Garfunkel offered in place of big productions were intimate interpretations of lyrics and melodies, eyes glazed in internal reverie. He performed some of the most famous songs of our times but it would have been impossible to sing along. His rhythmic flow was too individual, his melodic finesse too delicately nuanced.
The audience instead watched in a mood of rapt indulgence, which, I suspect, is what Garfunkel expects. He spoke of music as a vocation, and of his voice as a gift from a higher power. At the start of this decade, he struggled with vocal cord paresis but he has evidently conquered the problem. His singing voice remains a lovely thing, high and soft and flexible, with an ethereal, otherworldly quality.
He used it sparingly, though, taking breaks to read poetic passages from his autobiography and inviting his 29-year-old son on stage to sing in his stead. They make for a very odd couple, two bald men with choirboy voices, clenched in a tight hug, duetting on Everly Brothers classics. James Garfunkel has even changed his name to Arthur Jr and exhibits a purity of tone reminiscent of his father’s glory years. “He’s got the voice now,” said the proud father, before adding, with a self-congratulatory twinkle, “but I’ve got the hits.”
Except, of course, they are substantially Paul Simon’s hits. Which really should not be an issue. Garfunkel is a globally famous musician with an eccentric charm all his own, allied to an extraordinary vocal ability, yet he seems unable to escape the shadow of his former partner. Talking about his “five favourite American songwriters”, he listed Stephen Sondheim, James Taylor, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman and Paul Simon, the latter name invoking the loudest cheer. Garfunkel waved towards the side of the stage. “Come on out, Paul!” he joked. But the spotlight remained firmly fixed on just one old trooper.