Review: Paul Simon plays late into Pittsburgh evening at PPG Paints Arena
If a certain poetic symmetry can be found at a bus station, perhaps it is in Pittsburgh.
It was there in the 1960s where Paul Simon’s now iconic lyrical characters in “America” boarded a Greyhound to explore the country. It was a song that helped introduce this artist, now considered perhaps our greatest living popular songwriter, as well as our nation’s one-man Lennon-McCartney, to the world.
Flash forward to Monday night and Simon, only four or five blocks away from the site of that bus station, took the stage at PPG Paints Arena for what was very likely the last time in his impressive, critically lauded career.
It seemed fitting that he should get off the fictional musical bus in Pittsburgh where for some, because of that composition, it all began.
In fact, he opened his show, the first of about 26 numbers in two and a half hours without intermission, with this brilliant exploration. When he came to the line,
“‘Kathy’ I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh, Michigan seems like a dream to me now,” the crowd exploded in cheers. Simon, smiling, soon added the line, “We’ve all come to look for America.”
And this crowd of 10,500 came to thank and bid farewell to this most consummate of artists.
Pittsburgh was the last tour stop before returning to his native New York City to officially conclude the touring portion of his award-winning life’s work this month.
In fine form
The artist, who will be 77 Oct. 13, was in fine form: energized, engaged and enthusiastic even, at one point, convincingly doing a few Cajun dance steps. He clearly was enjoying the moment and smiled freely throughout the evening, displaying an easy sense of humor.
Arms outstretched , he told the fans, “Let me begin by saying, ‘Thank you so much.’ It’s been a very interesting trip. Some nights I think about it (the closing of one chapter). Actually it is quite exhilarating letting go of what I have been doing since I was 13. It’s a big world out there and I just want to look around a bit and see what’s next. I’m not going to stop writing music.”
He was in a mood to reminisce … about his late musician-father and what he taught him; about moving to England early on to plant his career roots; about the origins of some of his songs.
Much to the audience’s delight, he encouraged them to be active participants in the night’s celebration of this most wonderful life and its music.
“If you feel the urge to get up and express yourself by dancing during the rhythmic numbers, please do,” he said. “Remember, the couple behind you might not have the same urge. But I’m with you.”
Many took him up on the invitation in such numbers as “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “The Obvious Child,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “You Can Call Me Al” and, the first encore song, “Late in the Evening” among them.
Anyone who might have left after the first encore, thinking that this already generous show was over, did themselves a disservice. The two encore segments brought seven (seven!) more numbers and they were classics all: “Still Crazy after All These Years,” “Graceland,” the aptly named tour title, “Homeward Bound,” “Kodachrome, “The Boxer,” “American Tune” and, with Simon alone on stage with just a spotlight, the final finale, “The Sound of Silence.”
Can you say “wow?”
The crowd certainly did throughout the night in showing their appreciation, awarding Simon multiple standing ovations, after which he put his hands together in a prayerful pose, smiled and bowed.
His handpicked big band was simply stunning, taking the music through various moods: rock, jazz, classical, pop, African, reggae, Cajun and other stylings.
Simon’s instrumental arrangements set the familiar songs in fresh coats of many colors without losing their essence.
The baker’s dozen of musicians backing him excelled on every piece, and were particularly strong on the uptempo, rhythmic numbers where they had the most freedom in seeking and finding improvisational joy.
The quiet numbers dazzled in their own right: gentle, shimmering, subtly powerful.
Prefacing “American Tune,” he told the fans simply, “Strange times,” quickly adding, “Don’t give up,” and the advice was greeted with cheers.
New relevancy for classic number
His 1975 composition had new relevancy for these times, including the lines, “Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on. I wonder what went wrong. I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong.”
He introduced his lovely 1983 reflection, “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog after the War,” as “The strangest song title I ever wrote.” He told of visiting Joan Baez at her house and looking through a book that had a photo of a painting entitled with what became the same name of the song.
It was done by surrealist artist Rene Magritte.
When he saw it, Simon said he asked himself, “What can the song (with the same title) be about? It could be about anything because it was surrealistic.” So he made it about a moment in time in the couple’s life as they danced, embraced in a do-wop soundtrack, to “the light of the moon to The Penguins, The Moonglows, The Orioles and The Five Satins.”
A pleasant surprise was Simon’s return to his repertoire of his masterwork, “Bridge over Troubled Water,” which he once called “My ‘Yesterday,’” referencing his friend Paul McCartney’s own masterful piece.
“I have an odd relationship with this next song,” he said of “Bridge.” “After I wrote it I said to myself, ‘That’s better than I usually do.’ “ But he said it became so identified with his former partner Art Garfunkel’s stunning rendering that Simon felt he could not do it justice in the manner in which he wished.
“But this is my final tour, so I am reclaiming my lost child,” he said. His new, quite tasteful arrangement, with his musicians interpreting it with gentle beauty, was perfect for the night, drawing yet another standing ovation. “A big thank you to Aretha,” he said after “Bridge,” an apparent nod to the inspiration he found in the late singer Aretha Franklin’s own vocal take on the song.
His “Sound of Silence” has won new ears in the modern era with fresh takes by groups such as “Disturbed,” but Simon held the crowd with the version with which they are most familiar.
“And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people, maybe more,” they sang with him.
And, when the song was over and Simon raised his guitar high in appreciation and farewell, these 10,000 people responded with boisterous waves of love and thanks.
It had been quite a memorable night.
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.