NEW ORLEANS — Having traveled musical highways from New York City to Memphis, South Africa to Louisiana, Chicago to Brazil, Paul Simon brought his globe-embracing words and music to the UNO Lakefront Arena.
The arena, already small by contemporary standards, was scaled down to a theater configuration that made it surprisingly intimate.
A poet with a guitar since his 1960s stardom with Simon and Garfunkel, Simon at 70 remains a vital artist.
Friday’s show, featuring an eight-man band of multi-instrumentalists, deftly blended the ace singer-songwriter’s introspective moments with sunny Afro-pop, reggae, Latin and Louisiana rhythms. For concertgoers who found space enough to move, the show eventually became a world-music dance party.
Dramatic though Simon’s performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” was played — with only his finger-style acoustic guitar accompaniment during the first encore — the set list consisted almost exclusively of his solo work.
Songs from Simon’s acclaimed 2011 album, “So Beautiful or So What,” played seamlessly alongside a rich sampling of his decades of earlier solo music.
The tender, glowing “Dazzling Blue,” for instance, captivated in the way Simon songs almost always do.
Subsequently raising the tempo, the title track from Simon’s new album featured driving guitar riffs and lyrics about a Louisiana dish, chicken gumbo with sausage, okra and cayenne pepper.
“I tell you life is what you make of it,” Simon declared in the song. “So beautiful or so what.”
Simon visits Louisiana in “That Was Your Mother,” a story song originally recorded in Crowley with Louisiana zydeco musicians for 1986’s “Graceland” album. The song’s music and lyrics, not to mention accordion, saxophone and rubboard, got Simon’s Louisiana crowd cheering.
“I’m standing on the corner of Lafayette,” he sang. “Standing in the shadow of Clifton Chenier, dancing the night away.”
Following an original Simon song from 1982, the especially poetic “Hearts and Bones,” the band segued into Little Junior Parker’s blues classic “Mystery Train,” which imaginatively segued into a mini-guitar fest featuring a stage full of pickers, Simon included, playing Chet Atkins’ “Wheels.”
Simon’s continuously instrument-shifting band members played full, faithful renditions of his recordings.
The Brazilian-flavored “The Obvious Child” featured four band members banging drums. Simon and his musicians sang a cappella vocal harmony for “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” before leaping joyfully into the full instrumental portion of the song.
“Slip Slidin’ Away” glided lazily on an intoxicating groove.
Simon’s two extended encores included his 1973 hit “Kodachrome,” a radiant homage to George Harrison via the late Beatle’s “Here Comes The Sun,” the South African and American South-inspired “Graceland” and Bo Diddley’s rock ’n’ roll classic “Pretty Thing.”
Following a sweetly self-effacing “Still Crazy After All These Years,” Simon, devotee of music and culture, thanked his Louisiana audience for spending time with him.
“It’s been absolutely a privilege and a pleasure to play for y’all tonight,” he said.