Paul Simon took the stage for the last time in Pittsburgh on Monday, September 17, 2018, for a memorable career finale at PPG Paints Arena.
Depending on the route chosen, it was only four or five blocks from the site of the bus station where, in the 1960s, Simon’s now-iconic lyrical characters in “America” boarded a Greyhound to explore the country.
It’s a song that helped introduce this artist, now considered perhaps our greatest living popular songwriter, as well as our country’s only man, Lennon-McCartney, to the world.
In my review of that 2018 gig, I wrote that it seemed fitting that he got off the fictional music bus in Pittsburgh where, for some, because of this lineup, it all started.
Last weekend, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra rekindled those memories in “The Paul Simon Songbook,” a concert trio that wrapped up earlier this month.
World-class songwriting deserves in-kind accompaniment and that’s exactly what the internationally acclaimed symphony, under the direction of incredibly versatile pop bandleader Byron Stripling, has delivered.
Stripling, who has lived up to his reputation for possessing an infectious smile and captivating charm, is a virtuoso trumpeter, singer and actor, in addition to a conductor who has performed solo with over 100 symphonies at worldwide.
It is said that millions of people have heard his trumpet and voice in TV commercials, TV theme songs including 20/20, CNN and movie soundtracks.
He leapt onto the stage on March 5 and, in a high voice, greeted the audience with an enthusiastic “Come on Pittsburgh!” presenting the symphony as “one of the greatest orchestras in the world”.
He recalled that Paul Simon turned 80 last year and that the music world has enjoyed his songs for more than half a century – songs, he said, filled with “a lot of humor and passion”.
Then he let touring trio of singers Emily Drennan, singer-guitarist Paul Loren and Daniel Berryman, who brought their own impressive resumes, set about opening Simon’s songbook with “Graceland,” “Mrs. Robinson”, “Scarborough Fair”, “Homeward Bound”, “Cecilia”, “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”, “59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)”, “Sounds of Silence”, “America”, “The Boxer” and an energetic “Kodachrome”.
It was a simply delightful two hours, with the first half spotlighting Simon’s work with Art Garfunkel, and the second half focusing on his solo endeavors.
The singers brought their own take on familiar hits and lesser-known works, presenting them with interesting stories behind the material and taking turns as featured vocals.
The arrangement of the “59th Street Bridge Song (“Feeling Groovy)” was billed as a classic version of a pop song.
(I once shared with Art Garfunkel the story of my falling over that same bridge in one of my four New York City marathons, playfully assuring him that I didn’t feel so groovy at the time- Drennan is also a New York City Marathon finisher.)
It was interesting and quite pleasant to hear a female voice (Drennan) lead “America”.
She encouraged the audience as they broke into cheers singing the familiar phrase, “As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh.”
She was also the lead vocals in the beautiful Peruvian folk song “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” with her memorable lines, “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail. Yes, I would, if only I could, I sure would.
Audiences were invited to sing along to several numbers throughout the evening, including the upbeat “Cecilia” and the chorus “La, La, La” in “The Boxer.”
After the intermission, the program resumed with the cheerful “You Can Call Me Al”, “Take Me to Mardi Gras”, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, “Mother and Child Reunion”, “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “Love Me Like A Rock”.
Bandleader Stripling then came forward to introduce ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, as ‘a song about what’s happening right now’, then asked the audience to ‘take 10 seconds to meditate’ on the war in Ukraine and to send its people Positive Thoughts
They did, and the singers offered the comforting lyrics: “Like a bridge over troubled water. I will ease your mind.
“Me and Julio Down By the School Yard” ended the evening on a cheerfully upbeat note, sending grateful audiences home with smiles on their faces.
On a personal note, this was the first time my wife Joanie and I were at Heinz Hall since the pandemic began on March 9, 2020, for one of the most memorable concerts of our lives: Paddy Moloney (died October 20, 2021, at age 83) and the Chieftains and the Pittsburgh Symphony.
I noticed then that we considered music to always be a gift.
Few times in our half-century of blessing to chronicle music and musicians has this gift been unwrapped with such profound resonance and joy as that night.
And perhaps, I wrote then, “as we move forward into what lies ahead, it may comfort us to remember that, if nowhere else, we can always, always find and enjoy our musicians.”
Saturday evening with the “Paul Simon Songbook”, we feel that we are off to a new start.