Birthdays and Concerts

Yesterday it was my birthday
I hung one more year on the line
I should be depressed
My life’s a mess
But I’m having a good time

– from “Have a Good Time” by Paul Simon

Okay, so by the time this gets posted, it will have been two days ago instead of yesterday, but this lyrical clip just felt appropriate because I spent a couple of hours on my birthday (July 28th) with Paul Simon. It wasn’t just Paul and I, mind you — we were joined by Paul’s excellent band, my wife and daughter, and approximately 8,500 other audience members, who were packed into the Pacific Amphitheatre at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa, California.

It was just a coincidence that Paul’s concert happened to fall on my 46th birthday, but I can’t think of too much better a birthday present than getting to see and hear one of the greatest American songwriters of the past four decades perform his songs. Or maybe I can… Maybe on some future birthday, that could be me up there in front of that big an audience, singing my songs, and having everyone in the audience know them and love them, and be singing along, the same way we were with Paul. That’d definitely be some birthday!

The thing is, Paul Simon’s never been one of my favorite artists. I don’t consider him to be a particularly good singer, though I do think he delivers his songs in an extremely believable fashion. I don’t think many would argue with me if I said Art Garfunkel sings “Bridge Over Troubled Water” way better than Paul. Still, when you hear this song that has been sung by fairly powerful singers like Mr. Garfunkel, Elvis Presley, and, for any younger readers and other American Idol fans, Clay Aiken, delivered by the much less technically adept Mr. Simon, you just believe it a bit more. And here’s this short guy that’s 64 years old, wearing a T-shirt and a baseball cap — hardly many women’s idea of a sex symbol — up there singing for 8,500 people. There’s no pyrotechnics or anything. We’re talking just topnotch musicians and a believable singer.

Oh yeah, but then there are all those great songs! Whether it’s Simon’s absolute classic songs, of the sort that have been covered by many other artists over the years, like the afore-mentioned “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, or his highly unique “artist songs” off the Graceland album, or even the latest material off Surprise, we’re talking the kind of songwriting that puts you into the scene and makes you feel like it could have been you. And maybe Simon’s physical stature and unassuming singing voice simply adds to that effect.

This Paul Simon concert was a far cry from the massive stage sets, walls of video screens, and pyrotechnics at the last two big name concerts I attended. While I can understand why some of the lesser artists out there need to invest in show technology to try and compensate for lesser songs, I’ve never understood why big name artists, with deep, quality song catalogs feel they have to do that. Perhaps it’s to justify $200+ ticket prices or something (versus the $65 price for better seats at the Paul Simon concert)? There’s something refreshing, though, about an artist like Paul Simon who can let the songs and the performance stand alone. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s the way I prefer to see music delivered, with the focus on the songs and performance, rather than on the spectacle.

Come to think of it, I’ve generally lived my life in a manner that favors content over appearance. Maybe that makes me a dinosaur in this modern age of ever-present marketing hype. As birthday presents and concerts go, though, I think it might be hard to imagine a concert that embodied the notion of content over appearance moreso than a Paul Simon concert. And that’s kind of cool, coincidence or no.