I was about five weeks old on September 19, 1981, when the boys performed live in Central Park. Highly enjoyable. Granted, there are parts of Concert in Central Park I could do without (for instance, the way the tempos of some songs are just much too slow to translate well into live performance), but it's really pretty good. There's more kick, more energy, more spontaneity behind the music on this album. I'm not really impressed by the commentary and banter, but the sounds of the live audience enhance the experience, because you can sense their energy, their love for the duo's music, their awesome respect for some of it (like the way they react to "Scarborough Fair," "April Come She Will," and "Bridge Over Troubled Water").
I also own a VHS copy of the concert, which is great for adding atmosphere and context to it. It also makes the tension between the two a lot more obvious. As a final note, the video contains Paul's performance of "The Late Great Johnny Ace," which isn't on the album, and which, I believe, was so recent at the time that it might not have been heard before. (He wrote it as a response to the 1980 assassination of John Lennon.)
The concert opens with an introduction from NYC's then-mayor Ed Koch, then heads straight into "Mrs. Robinson." This live version omits the opening rendition of the chorus, and the opening guitar licks aren't as distinctive and pronounced as they are on Bookends. While it's not the classic version we're used to hearing, it's definitely more fun to listen to, and there's lots of excitement and passion from the performers as well as they crowd. It's followed by what is by far my favorite version of "Homeward Bound." While I love the steadiness and smoothness of the album cut, the boys are just in rare form here. There's some fun things going on with the guitar, and the audience expresses exactly the enthusiasm I have for this song. At the very beginning, when they realize what song it is from its distinctive intro, they just go wild. I love it.
This rendition of "America" has a lot more passion than there was on the album. The boys just sound really good; everything comes together quite nicely. Then things go downhill for a little bit: "Scarborough Fair" is all right; the "Canticle" is missing, but it would've been hard to work into live performance. The whole song is too slow... feels slower than the album cut. Too quiet, too slow, too serious to be done well live - something that's also a problem with "April Come She Will" and "Old Friends/Bookends." I'm not feeling the same passion from the boys here that I sensed on the first few tracks, like this was just an S&G staple that had to be done whether it sounded good live or not. I'm just feeling like a lot of the sound got swallowed up because it's such a soft piece to begin with. And messing with the timing in the third verse was just a bad idea. The audience responds respectfully enough to this and the previous track, the way such songs demand to be answered.
A few numbers later, they go into a series of songs from Paul's solo career. Like the first few songs in the concert, "Still Crazy After All These Years" just seems more sincere, not as sterile and under pressure as the version from Paul's 1975 album of the same name. The best part, of course, is after the applause dies down at the end, and we hear Art say "I'm so in the mood."
"American Tune," another number from Paul's solo career, shares its melody with "Ich will hier bei dir stehen," a Johann Sebastian Bach piece from St. Matthew's Passion. It's well done, but I have the same complaint as with some other songs - it's almost too quiet and gentle to be live, though as the song progresses, it adopts a more concert-worthy feel to it. "Late In The Evening" has a very cool sound; I especially love the intro where you can hear it best. Works well in the concert atmosphere; I can just imagine how it must have been. Lots of wild applause at the end of this energetic song. The audience also reacts pretty positively to the beginning of "Slip Slidin' Away," and it's the type of song I can imagine people singing along with.
Coming into the last few songs, we're assaulted with "Bridge Over Troubled Water." The timing is a little weird, Art messes up some lyrics, and it's not as delicate as it should be in the beginning. Still, I can imagine it live, and it must really have been something to be there for it. It works out better than you'd expect in a live setting, and I love hearing the crowd squeal with delight at this classic.
The crowd's reaction, when they realized that "The Boxer" was starting up, apparently caused the boys to falter on the second line, probably the moment of highest tension the entire night. On the video, it's easy to see that Paul is annoyed about Art's flub, but you can't tell by listening - all you hear is that sheepish smiles have crept into their voices.
What's special here is that there's an extra verse in the live version of this song. I love the flute interlude Art wrote for the album version (which Paul liked so much that he axed the extra verse in its favor), but I guess in a live situation that's harder to pull off. Instead, we get a neat extra verse out of the deal, and the audience really seems to like it. Done live, this song also lacks the dramatic effect of the old "snare drum in an elevator shaft" trick. Finally, the tempo's been picked up quite a bit from the album cut. While the song doesn't have quite the impact at the faster speed, it definitely has an effect on the crowd, and it just works better live when it's faster like this.
"The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" feels too passive, too lullaby-ish, for the mood this song is supposed to have. But it's the end of the night, so we have to cut a little slack. They close with "The Sound Of Silence," which is much slower than either album cut, but it works properly, building up nicely, generating the proper respect from the crowd, and closing out the evening very nicely. I like.
Overall, 3½ out of 5 stars. Even if you aren't a big fan of Paul Simon's solo career, this is a great chance to hear (and see!) them together live, despite the selection of a lot of songs that just don't translate well into a concert setting.