KAHULUI >> On a beautiful night under the Maui moonlight, Paul Simon showed a few thousand fans that retirement has not dulled his skills in the slightest.
In a nearly two-hour show, the legendary singer-songwriter and a surprisingly tight band kept those fans rapt with a mix of hits, well-selected album cuts and insightful anecdotes.
The surprise in the band’s cohesion comes from how little they’ve worked together the past 10 months. Simon completed his final tour late last year — vowing to book only select benefit shows here and there — and he didn’t play with his band again until beginning rehearsals a couple of weeks ago for two shows in the Bay Area and the two this week at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center benefiting local environmental nonprofits the Auwahi Forest Restoration Project and Kua‘aina Ulu ‘Auamo.
Nevertheless, the unit — which stood at 12 most of the night but contracted to an intimate eight for one stretch and swelled to as large as 15 at times — showed no rust, ably moving between the many styles that Simon has worked in across a nearly 60-year career. Whether it was the African rhythms of songs from Simon’s landmark album “Graceland,” the reggae-tinged “Mother and Child Reunion,” selections from his Brazilian-African fusion album “The Rhythm of the Saints” or the glorious jazz-pop of hits such as “Late in the Evening,” the group rose to each moment throughout a 22-song set.
They even learned two new songs they had surely never played before their recent rehearsals, as Simon welcomed Hawaii’s own Keola Beamer to do two songs during the encore: “Seabreeze,” which Simon joined in on, and the local standard “Honolulu City Lights,” during which Simon let his new friend have the spotlight to himself.
Beamer’s cameo was just one high in a show filled with them. Sure, there were the obvious crowd-pleasers, such as “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” and “You Can Call Me Al,” which featured the evening’s biggest singalong, but there were also some that sneaked up on you, such as “Dazzling Blue.”
Coming off the powerhouse 1-2-3 opening of “Late in the Evening,” “Boy in the Bubble” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” the relatively obscure album track from 2011’s “So Beautiful or So What” calmed the audience a bit, but its poetic lyrics resonated and drew a large ovation.
Similarly, Simon found ways to interest the crowd in the lesser-known “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War” by telling the story of how it was inspired by a photo he found in a book at Joan Baez’s house during a break from their rehearsal for a festival performance.
For that song and two more that followed, about half the band left the stage and the six-member New York chamber music ensemble yMusic stepped to the front to form a semi-circle around Simon, with guitarist Mark Stewart also helping out. The reduced grouping also backed Simon on one of his biggest hits, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Simon told of writing the song as a 28-year-old almost 50 years ago during his Simon & Garfunkel days and thinking “Hey, that’s better than I usually do.” He noted the song’s larger than one person themes and hinted at the spirituality behind it, saying it made him feel like a conduit for it — “It’s yours, but it isn’t really yours.”
The song was originally sung by Art Garfunkel, and indeed, Simon’s performance almost felt like a cover, so iconic is the duo’s version, but Simon takes it to its own thrilling heights. It’s a song he probably started performing partly because people expect it from him, but the performance is far from perfunctory. Coming about halfway through the show, it drew the evening’s first standing ovation.
Not that this crowd was sitting quietly all night. For all the power found in smaller moments, there was plenty of unbridled glee as well, as Simon got the audience up out of its seats and dancing on many occasions. And he showed plenty of vigor himself, breaking into a light-footed shuffle during “That Was Your Mother” and gyrating his hips during a jazzier, swingy version of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” that gave the horns more of a chance to shine than on the recorded version.
Simon did a fair amount of ceding the spotlight throughout the evening, the two large screens on either side of the stage focusing on different band members at times. He told the story of how Nigerian guitarist Biodun Kuti came to replace Simon’s collaborator of three decades Vincent Nguini of Cameroon upon Nguini’s death in 2017, and singled out South African bassist Bakithi Kumalo, pianist Mick Rossi and saxophonist Andy Snitzer as well.
Also worthy of praise was the venue. The A&B Amphitheater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center shone under that Maui moon. The seating spreads out as wide as it does deep, making pretty much every seat a good seat, though the screens bookending the stage were still helpful.
The center also had room to accommodate a food court for concert-goers, offering varied fare, including barbecue, seafood and desserts, though the use of scrip meant meals had to be planned before hitting the booths. (Scrip could be bought only with cash, though the merch table accepted credit cards.) There were also dozens of large tables for dining before the show.
There is one more performance tonight, and gates open at 6 p.m. for the scheduled 7:30 start. The crowd is big enough that attendees planning to eat should arrive early to have plenty of time, though Tuesday night’s show was delayed about 10 minutes to give everyone a chance to file in. There were also beer and wine sales closer to the seating area and within the VIP section for in-show purchases.
The center’s volunteers did a great job getting everyone in and out of the venue without much fuss, an underrated accomplishment. Parking on-site is for prepaid customers and those with handicap placards only. For those who did not prepay, parking is available for $10 a short walk away at Maui College.