A colleague at work came in this past Wednesday afternoon – he took the morning off as he was out late the night before at the Paul Simon/Sting concert at Madison Square Garden. I overheard him raving about it in the hall and immediately joined the conversation to get the details. I had learned about the concert a while back from an old friend but honestly wasn’t very motivated. We had never seen Sting perform live and while I enjoy his music and admire his explorations into new genres I have not followed his career that closely. I guess you’d say he was not in my inner circle.
Paul Simon on the other hand, has always been a favorite – still constant after all these years (fifty, but who’s counting?). The love of his music has been rekindled for me with each of the incredible number of times he has reinvented his musical self, bringing new influences, merging styles and genres, promoting world music and proving himself a truly world-class musician. But even though we’ve seen him many times throughout his career and have never been disappointed, this was not a promotional tour for a recently released album and I was concerned it would be an uninspired run through of his hit parade (anybody been to a Dylan concert in the last 20 years?) Encouraged by my colleague’s account of the performance however, we decided at the last moment to go to the Thursday night show. Fortunately we were able to score decent tickets that were affordable (slightly behind the stage on the lower right hand section).
The experience proved my concerns unfounded – 180 degrees from uninspired. It was, in short quite remarkable…after a slight delay exacerbated by the extra time it takes to personally wand thousands of people coming in through security, they followed their 15 piece band on stage and began the show singing together. They then did some of each other’s tunes, traded off doing two solo sets each, and recombined for more duets at the end. The encore was an acoustic two guitar, one microphone rendition of “When Will I be Loved”, a loving tribute to the legendary Phil Everly who died earlier this year.
They didn’t premiere any new stuff but all the retro material was fresh and crisp, done with genuine energy and in some cases with subtle, nuanced interpretations. Simon described the project as an experiment where they “bring two bands together, change the arrangements around, start to think about adding parts and becoming one big band. Then we bring people from all different neighborhoods, different states, different age groups… and we like to call them the audience… and they interact with each other…” They really did successfully morph into a single 2.5 hr non-stop act with one of the most talented collection of musicians I’ve ever seen. For example, guitarist Mark Stewart (called Simon’s Swiss Army Knife of a multi-instrumentalist by LA blog critic Paul Zollo) also played cello, baritone sax and penny whistle. Simon’s drummer Jim Oblon was featured on guitar in a cover of Chet Atkins’ Wheels and then immediately switched back to lead percussionist in the rhythm-heavy, Obvious Child. Simon’s long-time talented bassist, Bakithi Kumalo was amazing as usual. In “Driven to Tears” Sting was supported by vocalist Jo Lawry who provided a haunting, free-floating upper register lament and violinist Peter Tickell’s electric violin solo brought the house down. Top notch keyboardists and horn section rounded out the very talented support team (could not find a list of all of the musicians in the band).
Simon and Sting share much in common: both were the main songwriters in incredibly successful groups that suffered bitter public breakups, both went on to immensely successful and long-lived solo careers, both have experimented with varied musical influences and both were neighbors in a Central Park West apartment building where they were friends for many years. But the idea of bringing their music together was not an entirely obvious one. The fact that they did and made it work so seamlessly is yet another tribute to their vision and creative spirit.
Paul Simon and Sting in a duet on “Mother and Child Reunion”
(Audio and video quality from my iPhone are a bit sketchy but capture the spirit of the performance)
Late City Edition Update:
We recently saw a Sting concert on PBS Great Performances in which he sang the tunes from his first musical “The Last Ship” (read more)