Paul Simon and Sting: On Stage Together

St. Paul, MN, US
Xcel Energy Center
Every little thing wasn't magic, but it was still very good...

With top tickets running $252 each and a pair of widely acclaimed classic rockers sharing the stage, Sunday night's Sting and Paul Simon concert at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center promised an evening of polite, polished nostalgia.

The crowd of more than 7,000 got just that, plus an entirely unexpected mid-show detour, with malfunctioning equipment threatening to derail the evening Simon introduced as their own "musical experiment."

Things started out smoothly, with Sting and Simon offering joint performances of Sting's "Brand New Day" and "Fields of Gold" and Simon's "Boy in the Bubble." The idea was that they'd share the stage for a few songs, then split off and take turns doing brief solo sets, rejoin for some more songs, and so on.

Sting, 62, used his first set to dip into the Police's storied back catalog ("Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," "Driven to Tears") and his earlier, pre-lute solo days ("Englishman in New York," "I Hung My Head"). And unlike the last time we saw him during his orchestral tour that hit the X in June 2010, Sting didn't screw up any of the arrangements too much.

Simon, 72, cracked a tantric sex joke at Sting's expense (a scripted bit he's done at other tour stops) and wrapped his still-supple vocals around classics like "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," "Me and Julio Down by the School Yard" and "Still Crazy After All These Years." The pleasant surprise, though, was "Dazzling Blue," a celestial, twinkling track from Simon's most recent album, "So Beautiful or So What." It was the night's only selection from the 21st century and Simon's subtle, gorgeous vocal performance held the crowd in a hushed awe.

Apparently, Sting and Simon have been buddies for years and are neighbors in New York. (Does Sting's wife Trudie sign for his packages when Simon is on vacation?) While there wasn't any immediately obvious chemistry between them, they both seemed relaxed and amiable, especially since both of their backing bands shared the stage for the evening.

All of those musicians on the same stage, however, may have had something to do with a technological meltdown that hit Sting near the top of his second solo set. Out of nowhere, Sting's microphone started squealing like it was caught in a wind tunnel, and the sheer noise brought the show to a halt. After some nervous fumbling by scared-looking roadies, Sting tried again but couldn't get through "Roxanne" without more sound problems. For a few minutes there, it looked like the show might be over for good, until someone figured out the issues were limited to Sting's side of the stage.

From there, the set list went out the window and Simon took over with a spirited run through "The Obvious Child" (after he flubbed the intro, he restarted it with a laugh) "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and "You Can Call Me Al." For the encore, Sting returned to play Art Garfunkel for breathtaking runs through "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "The Boxer." If they ever tour together again, they should tackle even more Simon and Garfunkel material, as those two tracks made it easy to forgive the earlier troubles.

(c) St. Paul Pioneer Press by Ross Raihala

Sound problems sting Sting & Simon...

The veteran performers did what they do best: collaborate and soldier on through equipment issues with the help of an ever-resourceful crowd.

Sting was flummoxed.

Part way through his performance of "The Hounds of Winter" on Sunday night at Xcel Energy Center, his microphone and the entire sound system went all statick-y. Loud, cover-your-ears statick-y. He had to abort the song and leave the stage 90 minutes into his joint concert with Paul Simon.

Two minutes later, Sting and his band returned and essayed "Roxanne," his breakthrough hit with the Police. But his vocal microphone was dead and the crowd of 7,000 took over the vocal duties for the entire song. Karaoke with Sting's band - for $252 for the top ticket. Embarrassed, he walked off the stage.

Wait, isn't this the Xcel Energy Center? Was this the revenge of Simon's once-and-future-partner Art Garfunkel (whose in-laws live in the Twin Cities)? Was it time to sing "Sounds of Silence" or "Bridge Over Troubled Water"?

The ever-resourceful crowd broke into a spontaneous "sending out an SOS," echoing the words Sting had sung moments earlier in the Police's "Message in a Bottle."

Meanwhile, Sting decided to grab a cup of tea - a Brit's first move when trying to resolve a crisis - while the sound engineers tried to fixed things. But to the rescue came Simon. A guy who knows how to perform with just a voice and guitar, he arrived onstage, summoned Sting (tea cup and all) and the two of them stood at Simon's microphone (which was working just fine) and harmonized on the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved."

They certainly looked like an odd couple: Simon and Sting, separated by 10 years of age, 9 inches of height and two or three levels in the pantheon of popular music. And yet, besides being longtime residents of the same New York City building and inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the two pop stars have other things in common. Whether in a group or solo, their music has been characterized by ambition, erudition and sophistication. And they both work better with collaborators.

With the Police retired and Simon & Garfunkel in moth balls, it was neither expected nor surprising that these two veterans teamed up for the 19-city On Stage Together Tour. Despite the sound problems, their two-hour, 35-minute show Sunday was as nourishing as it was nostalgic. This pairing was certainly more successful than tours Simon has done with Bob Dylan (1999) and Brian Wilson (2001), even though, on paper, the Simon-Sting hookup didn't make much sense beyond their shared love of reggae and world-music rhythms.

With Simon and Sting working in an alone-and-together format Sunday, the show recalled the many tours that Elton John and Billy Joel have done together in recent years.

Backed by their merged bands, Simon, 72, and Sting, 62, started as a duo, swapping verses on Sting's "Brand New Day," then Sting singing counterpoint on Simon's "Boy in the Bubble" and Sting using his mid-range while Simon took the high part on Sting's "Fields of Gold." It certainly wasn't the gorgeous, rooted-in-childhood vocal marriage of Simon & Garfunkel, but these neighbors found a way to make the blend work.

At times, they creatively flipped things around, with Simon taking most of the lead vocals on Sting's "Fragile" and Sting doing a solo acoustic version of Simon's "America."

The solo sets demonstrated their ambitiousness coupled with the kind of restlessness that prompts them to reimagine their old favorites. Simon took the fans to "Graceland" with a chugga-chugga train-evoking guitar undercurrent. Sting seasoned "Englishman in New York" with both reggae and jazz.

Since Sting's second solo segment was curtailed, Simon's solo efforts, in the end, seemed more rewarding. "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" was jaunty and jazzy, the lesser known "Dazzling Blue" was pretty in its minimalism, "Still Crazy After All These Years" found Simon at his most passionate vocally, and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" started with stunning a cappella harmonies before turning into a big party.

Sting regained his composure and prominence in the closing duets: "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Late in the Evening" and, on "The Boxer," with just the two singers, Simon's acoustic guitar and no backup musicians. Simon apologized that his songs were dominating but he explained that there were sound problems with Sting's equipment.

By the end of the evening, all seemed good. Then, as they took a bow, Simon's guitar started feeding back. Sting took a step back. Then came the sound of silence - and roaring applause.

(c) Star Tribune by Jon Bream

Paul Simon & Sting at Xcel Energy Center...

If you're Paul Simon, which means (as Sting put it last night) you've written songs forever attached to specific moments in people's memory, then how do you play a concert without becoming a nostalgia act? By becoming a musical comedy act, of course, with Sting as your perfect foil. And by bringing a large, hot band (sometimes combining with Sting's) to plumb connections between South African and southern American postwar electric guitar jive.

So the showoff moment of last night's Simon/Sting show at the Xcel wasn't Bakithi Kumalo doubling down on his famous two-bar bass solo for "You Can Call Me Al," at which point the concert achieved sublime liftoff, but the earlier shift from "Mystery Train" into Chet Atkins's "Wheels" to reveal drummer Jim Oblon somehow also on guitar, soloing a melody from "Mona Lisa."

The giddy tone was set by Simon, who stood nearly a full head shorter than Sting, welcoming the audience to "our musical experiment" to say he hoped the collaboration might change him, that he'd become more "Adonis-like" and "have sex for days." And "What about you?" he asked, turning to Sting. Would he change? "No, I think I'll just stay the same," Sting deadpanned.

As any longtime Saturday Night Live fan knows, Paul Simon is very funny, and very at ease in the moment of being human and vulnerable onstage. So while technical difficulties befell last night's show -- including long blasts of static interrupting Sting, seemingly shorting out his band's system and altering the set list -- it was all more fodder for easy interplay between the two. (And, really, did we ever need to hear "Every Breath You Take" played again by anyone except the Police?)

Sting smiled and shrugged as all but his stage PA seemed to go quiet, soldiered on for much of "Roxanne," then gamely left the stage to let sound people do their work. And in a very sweet moment, as house lights came up to announce a short break, the audience began to sing, "Sending out an SOS."

When Simon returned to the darkened stage with his band, saying, humorously, "Where's Sting? He went that way? He'll come back," Sting walked out with a hot cup of tea, making the most of his pause ("Wanna finish your tea?" Simon joked), and joined in on a working microphone to sing an aching duet of "When Will I Be Loved."

Sting makes lovely high harmony, and it seemed right last night to lean more toward Simon songs at the end. (Though I feel it should be mentioned that Sting's band, particularly his drummer, does a dynamite Police, and was able to recreate the studio lushness of "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" better than the live Police did.) Where Sting had the pop drive, Simon picked up the groove, and seemed to put him at ease.

So, cheesy as it sounds, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" began as somewhat cool, as Sting sang solo with piano and organ, then slowly grew real, then funky. And when Simon joked about Sting's set being cut short, saying, "And it's his birthday today, too. Sixty-seven years young," Sting laughed and reminded us it wasn't his birthday, and he'd still be younger than Simon.

Sting introduced another Simon & Garfunkel song, "The Boxer," by saying it's one he'd have written if he were twice as talented. And while this humility was somewhat endearing coming from Sting (or how we imagine Sting to be), it kind of missed the point.

All pop involves meeting moments halfway, regardless of authorship -- the audience singing "Sending out an SOS" -- and perfection is for the birds. So Sting brought surer pipes to Simon's quaver, while the large combined bands brought combined trumpet and slide guitar to "The Boxer." But the group and the song took over, and the audience provided backup.

Critic's bias: Before the concert, my wife and I gratefully came out to each other as Sting fans. Though to judge by the crowd, we weren't alone.

The crowd: More diverse than expected, less diverse than the bands onstage.

Overheard in the crowd: "We want you!" (to Paul Simon). To which Simon replied: "Who could blame you?"

Random notebook dump: In the hotel across the street before the show, Spanish guitar could be heard playing behind a door we passed, a fact we shared with my wife's parents next door, at which point her mom went out into the hall and stage-whispered, "Do you think it's Sting?" and the guitar came to an abrupt halt.

(c) Minneapolis City Pages by Peter Scholtes