Paul Simon's new album,

So Beautiful or So What,

is his best in over 20 years, his first worth caring about since 1990's

The Rhythm of the Saints

.

Having said that, this return to relevance by a now 69-year-old pivotal '60s generation songwriter, has also been greeted with overheated acclaim.

It finds him contemplating his own mortality with sometimes insightful ("The Afterlife") and sometimes banal ("Questions for the Angels") results.

The best thing about So Beautiful or So What is that it brought Simon out on the road with a superb eight-piece band for a sold-out show at the Merriam Theater on Broad Street on Saturday night (the first of a two-night Philadelphia stand).

Simon's two-hour set was by no means a greatest hits show, but it included enough landmark tunes to keep the graying audience happy.

Early on, there was the martial beat of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." And later, as part of a six-song, two-part encore, a revved-up to double speed "Kodachrome."

The openly nostalgic "Still Crazy After All These Years" made for a somewhat subdued and sentimental closer.

There was a pair of Simon & Garfunkel songs: "The Only Living Boy in New York" and "Sounds of Silence," which Simon performed solo acoustic, tweaking his phrasing just enough to make the familiar sound fresh.

There was a surprising nod to Elvis Presley with a superb cover of "Mystery Train" that segued sweetly into Chet Atkins' "Wheels."

At the Merriam, he covered a career's worth of musical globe-trotting, hopscotching from street corner doo-wop to South African township jive to Southern gospel and zydeco.

Did I mention that the band was pretty good?

To get a job in this always subtle ensemble, you apparently had to play at least four instruments.

If Jim Oblon wasn't holding it down on drums, he was doing his best Scotty Moore on guitar on "Mystery Train." If Tony Cedras wasn't squeezing an accordion on "That Was Your Mother," he was shaking a couple of exotic gourds, adding yet another percussive texture to Simon's shimmering sonic palette.

Other band members also merit mention:

Well-traveled Cheltenham native Andy Snitzer added brassy punch on saxophone. Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini enlivened "Dazzling Blue" and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" with his dazzlingly dexterous, pearly lines.

Above all, Mark Stewart played guitar, sax, and a host of "self-made" wind and percussion instruments, and teamed with Simon on a luminous cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun."

Besides being a bandleader par excellence and a consummate professional when it comes to both pleasing the fans and satisfying his own artistic appetites, Simon is a man with a small voice who knows how to use it extremely well.

The rounded tones of his spoken-sung conversational style suit his observational songwriting style, but he'll also surprise you with his '50s vocal-group schooled ability to blend his voice along with those of his band members on, say, the intricate African harmonies of "Diamonds."

Oh, and one more thing: the sound was perfect. Let's have more acts of this caliber playing old Broad Street theaters.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/inthemix