by MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
Here is a moment pop music mixologists didn’t see coming: Sting taking lead vocals of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” while the song’s songwriter, Paul Simon, steps in to sing the part of his former partner, Art What’s-His-Name. They harmonized so well, they should take it on the road.
In fact, they did. The slicing and dicing of musical eras, styles, and expectations took place at the United Center Tuesday in a double bill that went beyond dual greatest-hits sets for a cohesive, two-hour, 30-minute show that reflected their similarities, not differences. Which is a good thing because, with regards to the latter, there are quite a few.
The staging suggested a battle of the bands: The touring band for each musician situated side-by-side, resulting in a spread of 14 musicians total. But the double-stacked band interacted as a single unit as the evening wore on: Sting guitarist Dominic Miller frequently strolled next to Simon for the pair to exchange instrumental verses on “Fields of Gold,” among other songs, while Simon guitarists Vincent Nguini and Mark Stewart provided rhythmic heft for Sting, and provided counterweight when Sting doubled up on bass for “Boy in the Bubble.”
The headliners made more deliberate choices in combining their respective songbooks, and finding unexpected ways to link their dual histories. Immediately obvious was their shared love of reggae and Afro-pop, which they confirmed in blending “Walking on the Moon” and “Mother and Child Reunion.”
There were duets, harmony singing, and covers. With Simon offstage, Sting introduced “America,” the Simon and Garfunkel chestnut, by saying it summoned personal memories of the Police’s first North American tour: “It’s not only about hope and adventure … but about anxiety and foreboding for the future,” he said. He sang the song’s lyric with that sense of darkness, until a jackknife turn that led to “Message in a Bottle.” Sting also serenaded Simon with classical guitar while the latter took lead vocals with “Fragile.”
Comedy wasn’t far. The visual oddity Sting, 62, and Simon, 72, presented while onstage together did not go unnoticed. Simon said by the end of the tour, the influence of his stage partner means he may “have more Adonis-like looks and have sex for days on end.” When Simon asked Sting how he might change from the experience, the former Police frontman deadpanned, “the same, actually.”
During their individual sets, Simon stretched further. He added two covers — the Chet Atkins instrumental “Wheels,” and “Mystery Train,” the Junior Parker song made famous by Elvis Presley, set to a gentle shuffle. He also introduced more recent fare to his set, particularly “Dazzling Blue” which required the entire slate of musicians to contribute to the thicket of sounds. Simon’s fluttering arms accented syllables, mimed lyrical images, and directed attention to the band. The jubilance of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and other signature “Graceland”-era songs remain impervious to harm, even in the abbreviated setting.
As for Sting, this tour coincides with the promotion of a new musical he will premiere in Chicago in June before it shifts to Broadway. He avoided all of that material and instead stuck to requisite hits. A few, particularly “The Dance Alone,” sounded so dated, it creaked — Wasn’t the soprano saxophone retired last century? Also revived was “I Hung My Head,” a song Sting announced as an endorsement of his country music chops — Johnny Cash recorded it before death, after all — but the blaring horns and guitars contradicted that claim.
The duo ended the show together, sharing songs like “Every Breath You Take” that never required two singers, but didn’t particularly suffer from both, either. Like the prolonged awkwardness of a blind date, the match-up took time to justify, but ended with inevitable promise.