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Bridging troubled water once more

Simon and Garfunkel are on tour again. Who’s listening this time around?
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As they get set to walk off to look for America together for the first time in several years, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel come together in one of the nation’s most uncertain hours, apparently willing to bury the hatchet — and not in each other, for a change. But in a time of a more muted social protest, who’s listening to these champions of the sound, and the spirit, of folk music from the 1960’s? Can they bridge troubled water for a new generation?

When this celebrated duo announced on Sept. 9 they were reuniting for their first North American concert tour since 1982 (it begins Oct. 16 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.), it sent up one of those curious pop-cultural signals: To crib from the Peter Allen-Carole Bayer Sager classic, everything old is new again.

The coming reunion of S&G is part of a growing passion for bringing back music from the 60’s and 70’s. The surviving members of the Beatles and the Who will soon release new versions of their classic records, while tours by Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and other veteran acts prove the enduring appeal for music of the past.

S&G prepare for their first concert tour in two decades during a time in America that parallels their heyday. The symmetries between then and now aren’t easy to ignore: American life in the 1960’s was colored by vast generational and racial unrest, and an unpopular war that divided the generations.

Today, social unrest remains — both aggressively quantified (in the ubiquitous opinion polls) and percolating underground (in Internet chat rooms, on weblogs or talk radio) — as the war in Iraq has created a new polarity in American life.

The trouble with reunions
The worst thing about reunion tours may be the best thing about them: Like archeological finds preserved in amber, they’re an exhibition of frozen moments. We listen to their music through a recollection of some kinder, gentler past that may have really been less kind or gentle than we remember. Reuniting musicians recall their own earlier vitality, and that of the people mature enough to remember them the first time around.

“Bands that are huge are rarely cited as an influence on the next generation,” said Charles Cross, biographer of Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen and other rock luminaries. “They have a hard time aging well. I don’t know if Simon & Garfunkel’s music appeals to a younger audience. In some ways, it hasn’t aged as well as some other acts. Other than Evan Dando and the Lemonheads doing a cover of ‘Mrs. Robinson’ about eight years ago, their songs aren’t being done. I don’t hear Jack Johnson or Dave Matthews citing them as a influence. There aren’t a lot of folk bands that managed to have an influence on today’s current music.”

The challenge of a reunion tour is more acute when there’s more than music at stake. For all their ties to 60’s-era rock culture, Simon & Garfunkel are more properly the product of the heyday of folk music, that American musical idiom historically linked to grassroots social protest. Groups like the Weavers and Peter, Paul & Mary; and singers such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Odetta and Phil Ochs formed the foundation of modern folk — and a spiritual basis for populist activism — in the 1950s and 1960s.

Days of patchouli
How will a tour of two stars from the vanguard of the folk era come across in a time when social protest is fragmented and muted, if not downright stifled? When they take the stage later this month, will Simon & Garfunkel be preaching to the choir — their old core audience — or reaching out for new converts?

“To me, it really evokes a certain time,” said Cross, who admitted to being “old enough to remember when they first came around.” They’re a group whose work is stuck in the 60s. It’s almost a sensory device to make you remember that time, a more innocent time in America — patchouli oil and incense and kids with long sideburns.”

“I loved it growing up, but their music is so damn melancholy,” he said. “It’s got one emotional tone, a melancholy emotional tone perfect for a rainy day or a time when you’re sitting around feeling nostalgic. It’s hard to remain vital when you’re so set in one particular time and mood.”

Two guys from Queens, $250 tops
Sales of tickets for the S&G tour concerts have reportedly been brisk. There’s no ready way to know the ages of those people buying the tickets, but a snapshot early-October survey of S&G concert prices on the Ticketmaster Web site revealed prices for floor seats at various venues from $85 to a high of $250 — higher than tickets for the Aerosmith/Kiss tour, whose top seats sold for half as much over the summer.

Despite the wide appeal of Simon & Garfunkel’s music when they were actively performing — their songs lamenting alienation, war, suicide and the dysfunction and despairs of life in the era animated by the Vietnam War — it remains to be seen if the power of their long-ago message has any traction with younger listeners.

At least some younger would-be listeners won’t be able to afford it. Older concertgoers spend more for tickets than younger ones; the Census Bureau reports that U.S. consumers between 35 and 44 spend about twice what’s spent by those between 25 and 34. So it’s hard to see how such prices help Simon & Garfunkel widen their audience beyond the affluent listeners as old as they are.

“I think they’re too high,” Cross said of the prices. “That’s one of the things that makes the band less vital. By doing that, they’re self-limiting their audience. It doesn’t seem right. If they did this for a more reasonable ticket price, they’d probably get a younger audience. But there’s not a 16-year-old alive that’s going to pay 250 dollars to see Simon and Garfunkel.”

Once in a very blue moon
So who’ll show up? It’s no surprise to Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert trade publication Pollstar, which monitors concert ticket sales:

“It’s clearly the baby boomers that grew up with the music," he said. "I don’t think you’ll find a lot of teenagers to buy tickets, not that they could afford them anyway. They have a huge fan base based on the enormous number of albums they’ve sold in decades past. But as a live act, they’re one that few people have seen — except for a few dates 10 years ago, and a few more 20 years ago. If you’re a fan, this is a rare opportunity — maybe your only opportunity.”

Bongiovanni said the once-in-a-blue-moon factor behind the tour may work to the group’s advantage. “Judging by the response the public hasn’t had any great resistance [to the price]. They’ve been adding extra shows,” he said. “What they did 20 years ago is immaterial — they’re touring off their history. It’s going to appeal to a lot of people who don’t go to many shows.

“Any time an act stays away as long as they have, you have to wonder how strong the demand’s going to be, and it appears it’s there,” he said.

‘Back in time’
But for Simon & Garfunkel diehards, attention paid to ticket prices may be a matter of realizing the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Is “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” any less vital an aural document today than a generation ago? Has there ever been a better, more necessary time for the healing power of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” than right now?

For Cross, the music of Simon and Garfunkel is a glass through which we glimpse the past, not just darkly but wistfully as well.

“It reminds us there was an era where protests were a central part of societal change,” he said. “It also reminds us how lame our current musical background is. Music is so diverse these days. A number of bands have done anti-war songs, but they’re not being sung at the poorly-attended peace rallies these days.

“You almost won’t go to hear the music, which I’m sure will be sweet,” Cross said of the tour. “In some ways, what they’re selling is a chance to go back in time, a simpler time when rights and wrongs were clearer. Like it or not, they were the soundtrack of those times.”