“Hello, my friends,” Paul Simon exhorted on Friday night at the TD Garden, immediately after leading a spirited run-through of his 1975 cad’s guide to life “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” It was an appropriate way for Simon to greet those who were in attendance for his last Boston show; earlier this year, the 76-year-old folk-pop legend announced that 2018 would be given over to his final tour, and Simon took the opportunity to muse on the meaning of “final” during his greeting, letting the crowd know that he’d still be writing and recording music while also noting that his future lack of tour commitments “opens up a whole host of possibilities.”
Simon’s career has been defined by him finding possibility and blowing it wide open both musically and lyrically, whether looking close to home as he did in the wayward-youth rave-up “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” to Simon & Garfunkel’s flowy chronicle of seeing the USA through bus windows, “America,” training his vision on the wider world as he did on his blockbuster albums “Graceland” and “The Rhythm of the Saints,” or breaking down and rebuilding the idea of how to make music like he did on 2016’s “Stranger to Stranger,” which used instruments designed by the avant composer Harry Partch as the backbone of its leftfield songs. Friday night’s performance revisited all those stops on Simon’s long journey, both via faithful recreations and 21st-century reinventions, with Simon’s wistful, witty monologues the connective tissue.
Friday’s set opened with “America,” the longing of which took on new resonance against the tumultuous backdrop of 2018; it was one of a few songs Simon pulled from the records he made with former partner Art Garfunkel. The tour is named after their sweetly melancholic 1966 single “Homeward Bound,” and Friday’s show closed with Simon, solo and in his second encore, performing the canonical “The Sound of Silence” as the audience sang along. But the night’s most intriguing performance from that period was of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which Simon reworked as a showcase for its devotional lyrics as well as the new-music ensemble yMusic, a New York strings-and-winds sextet whose members bolstered Simon’s backing band. yMusic and Simon have been collaborating since last year, when they performed at the Eaux Claires Music Festival in Wisconsin; Simon’s promise that he would keep writing music even while being off the road made the idea of future collaborations tantalizing.
While Simon punctuated the 26-song set with observations on his lengthy career and a nod to his late guitarist Vincent Nguini, a longtime collaborator of Simon’s who passed away in December, his lyrics offered further observations on the state of the world — a nod to his folk roots, as well as an indicator that his explorations double as learning opportunities. The twisty, searching “Questions for the Angels” was preceded by a nod to the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, who was in the crowd, and his ecologically minded Half-Earth project; “Wristband,” from “Stranger to Stranger,” was tense and sparse, its lyrics turning a post-smoke break tangle with security into a rumination on inequality; “You Can Call Me Al” talks about the confusion offered by landing in a new place, contrasting it with iridescent guitar lines and joyous horn breaks.
The night was spirited and warm, a celebration of past glories that nodded toward what might come next. At the end of the second encore, after a “The Sound of Silence” that had audience members hoisting their cellphones and singing along to the darkly existential lyrics, Simon gazed out at the audience, then extended his arms out toward the crowd. It wasn’t a goodbye as much as it was a thank you, one that was mirrored by both sides.
At TD Garden, FridayMaura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.