Paul Simon has long been considered one of America’s greatest songwriters, and one of her most accessible musicians, both of which were on great display at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on Monday night.
With a critically acclaimed career spanning six decades and many tunes that are permanently etched in America’s finest musical tapestry, the soon-to-be 77-year-old, Grammy-award winning legend has decided that this tour, aptly named his Homeward Bound: Farewell Tour, will be his last.
Before heading back to his home state of New York and what will be the final stop on not only this tour, but his legendary career as a live performer, Simon and his outstanding band of thirteen diverse musicians wowed more than 10,000 Pittsburgh fans with an eclectic blend of musical styles ranging from West African and Caribbean to traditional American rock and pop.
It was a chance for fans to show their appreciation to a singer-songwriter who’s given us so much joy with music that’s spanned multiple generations and genres, the likes of whom we may never see again in our lifetimes.
Simon’s immense popularity was often rooted in his accessibility as an artist, which was not only founded in his songs’ poignant lyrics that were often semi-autobiographical in nature and put his life on display for millions of fans to see, but in the stories he shared about those songs and how they came to be – with this night’s performance being no exception.
For instance, in recalling the “strangest titled song he ever wrote,” Simon spoke of the inspiration for 1983’s “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War,” which he said was inspired by a book of paintings at the home of singer Joan Baez whom he was visiting while they were practicing for an upcoming performance. She had a book of “surrealist art” that included a photo labeled with what would become the song’s title. After pondering what a song with that title could possibly be about, he envisioned the Magritte couple dancing to 1950s doo-wop musicians The Penguins, The Moonglows, The Orioles and The Five Satins, hence the song’s refrain mentioning those groups.
A photo of the Magrittes displayed at the end of the tune brought to life the imagery and drew applause from the crowd.
Or, while speaking of his most famous tune, he acknowledged the well-documented “odd relationship” he had with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the 1970 No. 1 hit by Simon and Garfunkel he says he “gave away” (to his longtime duet partner Art Garfunkel who famously sang the classic hit version). “I wrote it,” Simon said almost defiantly before admitting that he’d found it hard to sing the song live over the years because it didn’t feel like it belonged to him.
“But, this is my final tour so I’m reclaiming my lost child,” he said of “Bridge” as he and his band then offered a uniquely quiet yet powerful arrangement that was quite different from the wall-of-sound production of the original.
And just like that, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was at-once undeniably his. He also sent a thank you to the late Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin who famously recorded her own million-selling version of the song.
Later, in the lead-up to “Spirit Voices,” Simon spoke warmly of his longtime rhythm guitarist the late Vincent Nguini who’d been featured on every Simon album since 1990’s Rhythm Of The Saints. The Cameroonian musician died from liver cancer in December 2017. As the track began, Simon noted that his current guitarist – Biodun Kuti from Nigeria – was channeling Nguini as the two “must be having some conversation” right now as well as Kuti was playing Nguini’s parts.
Kuti got a bit more of the spotlight during “The Cool, Cool River,” a song on which he provided a vocal chant while playing guitar. That song also provided the eerie backdrop for a bit of drama unfolding at the floor level of the audience where a person suffered a medical emergency and had to be carried out by medics on a stretcher, unbeknownst to Simon and his band. As the song’s African rhythms intensified, however, it was almost as if the band was calling for spiritual healing as the person was being wheeled out of the venue.
Other tunes got the special treatment during the two-and-a-half hour, 26-song set list. There was the infusion of new brass and organ arrangements on his lone solo No. 1 hit, “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” and added sax during the bridge on “Late In The Evening.”
There was the all-out jam session that befitted the youthful exuberance of “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard,” Simon’s tale of an imaginary childhood indiscretion that to this day remains unsolved. The Brazilian rhythm of the original was slowed down for this live version, which had a fuller sound thanks to the lively contributions from everyone on stage.
The crowd of course loved it, just as they did seeing Simon cut the rug during “That Was Your Mother,” a Cajun-influenced track during which the 76-year-old convincingly showed off a few dance steps that would have made folks down in the Bayou proud.
After that track, Simon provided some insights into how he got his start in music at age 13 when his father handed him his first guitar. He spoke of his musical influences during the 1950s, and later during the 1960s when he traded his electric guitar for an acoustic one, took up residence in England and began to follow folk music. He then teased us with a few riffs from some of his classic Simon and Garfunkel tunes, including their first No. 1, which he would later perform solo during the set’s second encore.
That encore was likely unexpected by those who don’t visit websites and scour previous set lists before attending concerts. After all, his first encore featured “Late In The Evening” and concluded with the title tracks to his two Grammy-winning solo albums, Still Crazy After All These Years and Graceland.
It was thus understandable that some of the crowd left before Encore 2, which included the tour’s namesake “Homeward Bound,” plus “Kodachrome,” “The Boxer” and “American Tune.”
Oh, and that solo rendering of his and Artie’s first No. 1, for which Simon stood alone on the dimly lit stage – just him and his guitar – as he performed the classic tune for all who remained to see it.
That song was “The Sound of Silence,” the night’s capper and a fitting and poignant end to a great performance.
When it was over, Simon bid us a final farewell – marking the end to an astonishing concert touring career – one we were all the better for having witnessed.
Thank you Paul Simon for the music and for the soundtrack of a lifetime.
Paul Simon’s PPG Arena Set List, September 17, 2018:
- 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover
- The Boy In The Bubble
- Dazzling Blue
- That Was Your Mother
- Mother and Child Reunion
- Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard
- Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War
- Can’t Run But
- Spirit Voices
- The Obvious Child
- Questions for the Angels
- The Cool, Cool River
- Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes
- You Can Call Me Al
- (Encore) Late In The Evening
- Still Crazy After All These Years
- (Encore 2) Homeward Bound
- The Boxer
- American Tune
- The Sound Of Silence