Wednesday, February 26, 2014

United (Center) in Song: Paul Simon and Sting Prove a Terrifically Tuneful Tandem -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Paul Simon and Sting
United Center, Chicago
February 25, 2014

When I first heard that Paul Simon and Sting were touring together, I didn't instantly seek to buy a ticket despite never having seen either in a solo incarnation.

This isn't to suggest I don't have great regard for their respective musical legacies.

Although I have found Sting's persona insufferable to the point of largely ignoring his music for years, I think his work with The Police is predominantly brilliant--though the 2007 reunion show I saw at Wrigley was marred by Sting's affected vocal gyrations that appended several of their classic songs--and much of his solo stuff solid and even stellar.

Despite having seen him live just once, on a 2003 Simon & Garfunkel outing, I believe Paul Simon stands securely as one of rock's greatest songwriters ever. But while much of his solo oeuvre is terrific and also groundbreaking, given his explorations of world music, he nonetheless is a prime example of my "Paul Principle," which states that rock 'n roll Pauls--also including Mssrs. McCartney, Weller and Westerberg--are better in groups or duos than as subsequent solo artists. While I realize some may consider Simon's work without Garfunkel more estimable in its scope, just in terms of many more songs I truly love I far prefer the S&G canon to Paul's on his own.

But with my appreciation for Simon counteracting a latter-day aversion to Sting, who supposedly was rather good at Ravinia last summer, when my friend Paolo and I noticed just last week that decent seats at the cheapest price point were still readily available for Tuesday's United Center show, especially after noting impressive setlists at earlier tour stops I agreed that we should buy a pair.

And I'm really glad we did.

Despite being a somewhat unusual pairing, the "Englishman in New York" (played) and "Only Living Boy in New York" (not played) were really quite wonderful On Stage Together--the tour name--in Chicago.

The 8:00pm show started promptly at 8:15pm with no opening act as Paul and Gordon--Sting's given name--took the stage with the latter's "Brand New Day." In tandem, and with both their bands, they then tackled Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" and Sting's "Fields of Gold" before proceeding to trade off performing individual sets--two each of about 5-6 songs per--with only occasional intersection prior to the encores. (see the full Paul Simon & Sting Chicago setlist on

Primarily, to my preference, performing the songs the way he wrote them, Sting initially ran through "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," "Englishman in New York," "I Hung My Head," "Driven to Tears," and "Walking on the Moon."

Later, after covering Simon & Garfunkel's "America" with Paul offstage, he would play "Message in a Bottle," "Desert Rose" and "Roxanne" among others.

Simon also played several wonderful songs, including "Mother and Child Reunion," "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," "Graceland," "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," "The Obvious Child" and a cover of "Mystery Train," made famous by Elvis, which Paul called his favorite song.

If, at this point, you're saying to yourself, "That's a lot of good songs," you get the general idea. For the entire 160 minutes Paul Simon and/or Sting were onstage, the music was enjoyable, often delightful and at times transcendent.

Of the 32 songs played, there wasn't a bad one in the bunch, although many of most special were those where the two stars sang together.

These included the opening three and even more so Sting's "Fragile," Simon's "Late in the Evening," Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water"--truly sublime as the first song of the encore, followed by The Police's "Every Breath You Take" and the show-closing homage to the Everly Brothers, "When Will I Be Loved," written by the recently passed Phil Everly.

While the show in full was outstanding--and Paolo seemed to like it even a bit more than I did--it was so simply through the power of great songs, and at times a bit short in the realm of overt excitement (i.e. in the 3rd deck, we never stood, which was fine with me but also a bit telling).

And as the tour is billed as "Paul Simon and Sting On Stage Together," I think it could have benefited from even more collaboration and musical exchange.

For instance, while Sting covered Paul (& Art) with a nice take on "America"--after conveying how much the song meant to him while on The Police's first tour of the States--I thought the vice-versa might also have been nice.

Odd as it may sound--though seemingly apt given the uniqueness of the co-headlining coupling--I think Paul doing a solo acoustic cover of "De Do Do Do De Da Da Da," acknowledging what a genius creator of intimate popcraft Sting also has been, could have been marvelous.

It certainly wouldn't be hard to name several great songs from each man's past that went unplayed--and with Art Garfunkel's voice supposedly on the mend after years of difficulty, the specter of a Simon & Garfunkel tour may have limited the desire to include too many S&G classics--but I think "Cecilia" could have been a natural tandem choice given the reggae roots that run through it and much of the Police's early output.

And even though Simon's "You Can Call Me Al," which closed the main set, was a delight, it seemed strange that Sting stayed off-stage, as not only would his singing alongside Paul have recalled the old music video with Chevy Chase, but few songs seem better suited for a phenomenal bass player.

Having begun just a couple weeks ago, the Paul Simon and Sting tour continues for another three weeks or so, with about a dozen more shows currently scheduled. If you can catch one in a city near you, particularly at a bargain price like we did, do so as there aren't many concerts you will see with a higher percentage of great music over nearly 3 hours.

For me, it was the perfect way to see Sting "solo"--I sense this was more pleasing than his Ravinia shows would have been--as well as Simon sans Garfunkel, and the the show truly enhanced my regard for each artist on his own.

But my favorite parts were when they were On Stage Together, and as Simon had remarked they are changing things up a bit as they go, perhaps another city will benefit from an increasingly venturesome partnership.

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