Paul Simon & Sting: Shining Like a National Guitar, Amid the Glitches

The Sting-Paul Simon co-headlining show was never going to be much of a pugilistic faceoff, not with the obvious friendly goodwill between this odd couple (one lanky and statuesque, the other decidedly not lanky and statuesque), and their willingness to share the stage and trade lines on favorites such as the Police-man’s “Brand New Day” and Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble.”

But after technical glitches ruined two of Sting’s songs more than halfway into the evening, and forced him off the stage in an understandable and visible state of pique, the decision by technicality indeed went to the more elder of these two statesmen of rock.

Not that there was terribly much at stake. Simon appealed to the audience’s sympathy by informing us that it was Sting’s birthday (it wasn’t; Sting still helpfully pointed out that he remains younger than Simon), and generally trying to relax the clenched Brit with measures including an acoustic duet of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” that seemed authentically spontaneous and appealingly ramshackle.

We’ll feel sorry for Sting, then, and his justifiably frazzled nerves, but only to a point. He’s an absurdly robust and well-preserved 62 and, more importantly, boasts a singing voice that has always been one of the most distinctive in rock and may well be improving with age—his solo take on Simon’s “America” was haunting and gorgeous, a knowing read on a bittersweet and endlessly evocative classic.

In the songwriting sweepstakes, there’s no debate that Simon prevails: He’s able to uncork one rich and nuanced classic after another, delivered with a clear if limited vocal palate—a body of work unparalleled in its particular blend of poetry, world-weariness, and bleached-out optimism. His backing band gamely tackled the range of Simon’s styles from over the past four-decades-plus, landing more often than not on the side of spirit over technical reproduction.

Sting has the benefit of having composed, let’s say, six or eight of the catchiest songs in the pop canon—tunes that have aged just fine, thank you, and will surely endure the depredations of one night’s buggy sound system. “Message in a Bottle” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” burst out live with a musicality and visceral appeal that shouldered aside the mid-tempo groove that Sting lapses into with frequency, a pretty and tasteful mode that has rarely made anyone forget his hall-of-fame facility with the four-minute ditty.

So this was a night in which each performer came across with great appeal, with a genuine sense of engagement only mildly diminished by the unexpectedly poignant sight of Sting trying to shout out “Roxanne” with a dead microphone, as his technical system crashed around him. The enduring impression is how thoroughly we buy into the concept: Two of the greats aging well, finding their commonality in a transparent love of music and performance, and probably establishing the foundation of an uptight/groovy comedy duo should their fortunes ever take them in that particular direction.