Introducing the final song of his set with Paul Simon on February 23 at the Xcel Energy Center, Sting said, “This is a song I would’ve written if I were twice as talented.” Actually, even with all the talent in the world, it’s unlikely that Sting would have ever written a quietly urgent story-song like “The Boxer.” For all the good-natured camaraderie between the two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, their distinctive styles don’t easily mesh. Their joint show was unlikely to rise above the level of odd curiosity, and a serious technical problem further cramped the duo’s style.
Born out of a friendship between Simon and Sting, who are NYC neighbors, the arena tour that stopped in St. Paul on Sunday has the two sharing a stage, duetting on some numbers and (literally) tagging one another in and out for mini-sets performed solo. Solo, that is, with the support of a gargantuan band featuring seasoned players from both men’s touring ensembles. Though there should have been opportunities for electricity between Sting’s jazzy crew and Simon’s globally-oriented ensemble, the dozen-plus musicians tended towards a soupy blandness.
As though to head off any fears among the audience of their generational peers (Sting is 62, Simon is 72) that they might rock too hard, the duo opened with Sting’s rice-cake 1999 song “Brand New Day” (“definitely my favorite Sting song,” I overheard a fan in wingtips rave after the show). Things took a potentially promising turn at the second number, “Boy in the Bubble” from Simon’s 1986 masterpiece Graceland. The buoyant song gave both musicians room to roam and indicated an intersection where memorable jams might have happened.
Next, though, came a by-the-numbers Sting mini-set that failed to ignite the crowd despite dipping into Police classics like “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” “Driven to Tears,” and “Walking on the Moon.” Simon—a grizzled Yoda to Sting’s lanky Luke—was welcomed back with a roar for “Mother and Child Reunion,” the opening number from his 1972 solo debut. Simon had the crowd in the palm of his hand for a mini-set that didn’t even touch the Simon and Garfunkel catalog; instead, over the course of the evening Simon played nearly half of Graceland, an album whose soaring status has it nearly tied with the Simon and Garfunkel swan song Bridge Over Troubled Water on the meta-review site BestEverAlbums.com.
Sting came back onstage to play guitar behind Simon’s vocals on “Fragile,” the 1987 Sting song that’s become an environmental anthem. It was the peak of the evening’s musical alchemy, Simon’s speak-singing convincingly making an unexpected case for the number as a lost “Bookends” track. Sting then took a turn with Simon’s “America,” to somewhat less captivating effect. Two songs later, maybe Sting was courting disaster by playing a song called “Hounds of Winter” as Minnesota groaned under a thick blanket of frozen precipitation, but the speakers exploded in a torrent of static that forced Sting and his band offstage while roadies ran to make repairs. Sting came back for a “Roxanne” that became a singalong perforce as the amplification difficulties continued, and finally Simon walked out carrying an acoustic guitar for a one-mic duet with Sting on “When Will I Be Loved”—a tribute to its songwriter, the recently deceased Phil Everly.
“What a drag, man,” said Simon as Sting loped offstage. “What, did the whole system go out?” It’s unclear what the right words at that moment might have been, but I’m going to go ahead and say that they weren’t the words that Simon chose: “Well, that’s the Twin Cities for you!” Ouch. “Aw, just kidding,” said Simon to the booing crowd. “Come on, get up and dance!”
And with that, it was all Simon for the rest of the show, which—to all appearances—was perfectly fine with the crowd, who got down to Graceland numbers “That Was Your Mother,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and a set-closing “You Can Call Me Al.” Every performance connected with Simon’s fans, though the songs might have benefited from more inventive arrangements such as the Memphis shuffle “Graceland” itself got, rather than diluted versions of the sparkling album arrangements. The failure of Simon’s live band to recapture the studio alchemy was most noticeable on “The Obvious Child,” the remarkable opening song from Graceland follow-up Rhythm of the Saints (1990); the mid-track drum break that generates such excitement on the studio recording featuring Grupo Cultural Olodum became soporific in its live incarnation.
The three-song encore was also all Simon songs—the loss of Sting’s audio system meant, Simon explained, “you’re missing ‘Every Breath'”—but Sting took the opportunity to sound his pipes in the Art Garfunkel role on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and to contribute vocals to “Late in the Evening” and “The Boxer,” after which it had been 150 minutes and the pair called it a night.
Though it wasn’t a great live show—and wouldn’t have been, I suspect, even if there hadn’t been any audio glitches—the pairing of Sting and Simon was undeniably fascinating as an illustration of what separates a great songwriter from One of the Greats. Sting earned his place in music history with five incredible Police records, and went on to a solo career that’s been successful both artistically (particularly in his first three solo albums) and commercially; still, even his best songs sound like Mother Goose compared to Simon’s complex, melodic creations. Sometimes, it seems, there is a difference between “koo koo kachoo” and “de do do do.”
Brand New Day (Sting, 1999)
Boy in the Bubble (Paul Simon, 1986)
Fields of Gold (Sting, 1993)
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic (The Police, 1981)
Englishman in New York (Sting, 1987)
I Hung My Head (Sting, 1996)
Driven to Tears (The Police, 1980)
Walking on the Moon (The Police, 1979)
Mother and Child Reunion (Paul Simon, 1972)
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (Paul Simon, 1975)
Dazzling Blue (Paul Simon, 2011)
Graceland (Paul Simon, 1986)
Still Crazy After All These Years (Paul Simon, 1975)
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard (Paul Simon, 1972)
Fragile (Sting, 1987)
America (Simon and Garfunkel, 1968)
Message in a Bottle (The Police, 1979)
Hounds of Winter (Sting, 1996)
Roxanne (The Police, 1978)
When Will I Be Loved (The Everly Brothers, 1960)
That Was Your Mother (Paul Simon, 1986)
Hearts and Bones (Paul Simon, 1983)
Mystery Train (Junior Parker, 1953) [performed by Simon]
Wheels (String-a-Longs, 1960) [performed by Simon]
The Obvious Child (Paul Simon, 1990)
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes (Paul Simon, 1986)
You Can Call Me Al (Paul Simon, 1986)
Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon and Garfunkel, 1970)
Late in the Evening (Paul Simon, 1980)
The Boxer (Simon and Garfunkel, 1968)