When AJ Swearingen and Jonathan Beedle play the music of Simon and Garfunkel, they aren’t trying to imitate anyone.
“We can just be ourselves. We’re not trying to sound like them. We’re just lucky that the blend is there,” Beedle said. “When we’re doing the show, we’re us. There are no wigs involved.”
Since the two met nearly two decades ago and discovered a mutual love of the beloved folk rock duo from the 1960s and 70s, they have performed the Simon and Garfunkel catalog in many cities and settings. More recent, however, is the version they bring to the Milwaukee Symphony next week, in which classic songs like “America,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “Mrs. Robinson” are enhanced with the backing of a full symphony orchestra.
That idea came from Michael Krajewski, a busy pops conductor who is always on the lookout for new orchestra concerts. When his manager sent him a YouTube link to a concert by Swearingen and Beedle, “I was really impressed with the quality of what they were doing,” he said, and he hired orchestrator Christopher Wills to add the symphonic dimension. “He certainly kept the essence of the songs,” Krajewski said. “They’re obviously great melodies, but we wanted to make sure the orchestra was not intruding or covering the singers. The audience can hear the songs as they remember them, but with an added touch.”
Although Swearingen and Beedle understand the style and love the music, Krajewski said that listening to their versions and the originals back to back would show obvious differences. “But the music speaks to them so clearly, it sounds very authentic. Audiences understand that.”
“When you’re an artist first, you do bring your own personality to anything you do,” Swearingen said. Speaking of the Simon and Garfunkel catalog, he said, “Sometimes it almost feels as if we had written it.” Beedle, who sings Garfunkel’s vocal part, agreed, “No one can do Art Garfunkel but Art Garfunkel. But you’re singing this music, you have to live it.”
Krajewski, the principal pops conductor of the New Mexico, Long Beach, and Jacksonville symphonies, goes way back with the music of Simon and Garfunkel; he heard the duo perform “Bridge Over Troubled Water” live before it had been released. “They’re probably the most popular singing duo of all time, and their songs are known by many generations,” he said. “And that makes them good material for a pops concert.”
The fully-orchestrated versions of the classic songs add “a lot of texture and layers of musical tapestry,” Swearingen said. “It brings a lot of these chord changes to life.” Beedle added that even though onstage the songs work beautifully with just a guitar, the studio recordings contain fuller instrumentation than most people remember. “It doesn’t get in the way, but it’s so powerful. It’s a magical thing. Sometimes I get so engaged in what I’m hearing that I forget I have to sing.” He particularly likes the arrangement for “America,” which “starts so gentle and quiet and builds.” And “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” he said, “blows us off the stage.”
Swearingen has another Simon and Garfunkel act that he performs with his wife, Jayne Kelli, and the two have a CD of original songs coming out in July. Beedle also has a video production company and said, “I don’t like being a soloist. I’d rather play with other people.”