22 Years Ago: Paul Simon Plays Central Park
On Aug. 15, 1991, with nearly 30 years of classic songwriting behind him and a pair of recent hit records under his belt, Paul Simon returned to the scene of one of his most distinctive successes with Simon & Garfunkel.
The event, dubbed ‘Paul Simon’s Concert in the Park,’ was deliberately (some would argue self-consciously) designed to evoke the massively attended ‘Concert in Central Park’ reunion show that Simon & Garfunkel staged 10 years earlier. Unfortunately, the anniversary wasn’t marked with an appearance from Simon’s erstwhile partner, who dejectedly told the New York Times the night before the concert that he hadn’t been asked to perform. “I’m not good enough to be invited,” he shrugged. “My guess is that it would hurt his sense of stature.” Telling the reporter he was planning to be out of town during the concert, he added, “I’d rather wish Paul well from afar.”
But if the fans missed Garfunkel in ’91, they didn’t show it by staying home — people turned out in droves for the show, which was part of Simon’s world tour in support of his ‘Rhythm of the Saints’ LP, released the previous year.
In fact, early estimates put Simon’s Central Park solo show among the most heavily attended events in history, suggesting that roughly 600,000 people turned out to watch a set stuffed with classic hits and intermingled with newer numbers (you can watch the entire concert, taped from its local live broadcast, via the video embedded above). In later years, New York City officials determined that the maximum number of people that can fit in the Park’s 10-acre lawn area was far lower — 48,500 — but as photos taken from the show prove, Simon drew a pretty impressive throng. As a parks commissioner put it to the New York Times, “You look out at the sea of people from the stage, and your mind tells you, ‘That’s what hundreds of thousands of people looks like.’”
However many people were there, they couldn’t have asked for a much nicer day; historical weather data puts the high in Central Park for that day at a perfectly pleasant 82 degrees. And though Simon front-loaded the set list with newer songs, he was coming off two of the bigger records of his career; unlike veteran acts who have to brace themselves for a mass exodus to the beer vendors whenever they play something from a later album, he was arguably never more popular as a solo artist.
Like Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Concert in Central Park,’ Simon’s ‘Concert in the Park’ was subsequently released as a two-disc live recording and home video, although it didn’t reach the double-platinum heights of its predecessor, topping out at fewer than 500,000 copies sold. And ultimately, the show and album ended up putting a capstone on an era in Simon’s career; following this tour, he remained out of the studio for more than five years while devoting his creative energies to his Broadway show ‘The Capeman.’