If politics makes for strange bedfellows, consider two aging Rock and Roll Hall of Famers trying to figure out what to do next. On paper the idea of Sting and Paul Simon on tour together might seem strange, a random pairing driven by some unknowable desire to prove something to themselves or each other. But the two friends belong to slightly different generations - Sting is 62, Simon 72 - and somewhat different wings of rock and roll's manor house, and have never especially been considered either comrades in arms or rivals. Maybe their wives just told them to get out of the house for a few weeks.
Even Simon himself called this 22-city tour, which kicked off Saturday night to a full house at Toyota Center, an "experiment." It didn't feel that way. When the house lights finally came up some two and a half hours after the show had started, following the brief encore of the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved," it felt like an idea that sympathetic artists of a similar caliber should try more often.
The evening began with both Simon and Sting (and their bands) onstage together, with a few tunes designed to get the toes tapping and the memories flowing: "Brand New Day," "The Boy In the Bubble," "Fields of Gold." Then Simon shuffled off while Sting played a few songs, and eventually came back out while Sting's crew took a breather, and so forth and so on. Dividing the show into these inning-like structures recalled Simon's beloved baseball - although Joltin' Joe and "Mrs Robinson" didn't make the set list - but the give-and-take between the two when they were onstage together was more like a match of English football. Sting especially seemed to enjoy the intertwining grooves of his own bass (which he played most of the evening) and Simon's longtime sideman Bakithi Kumalo.
Everything flowed about as smoothly as it could possibly have, leaving a distinct impression of just how much consideration had been given to each transition, and precious little indication that it was the first night of the tour; a flubbed lyric or two was about it. There were even some moments where the two switched sides, as it were. The tropical breezes of "Love Is the Seventh Wave" kept begging for Simon to come out, until finally he did. He also took the lead vocal on "Fragile," a melancholy tune from Sting's ...Nothing Like the Sun album, accompanied by its author on Spanish-style acoustic guitar.
Sting, for his part, brought the arena to a standstill during a solo acoustic reading of Simon's "America," after explaining how deeply being an Englishman on tour in the States in the late '70s - playing to practically empty rooms like Houston's Opry House - helped him gain a deeper understanding of Simon's 1968 travelogue so full of both promise and uncertainty. You get the feeling there aren't a lot of awkward pauses in these two's conversations, and their chemistry during climactic duets "Late In the Evening" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was so unforced it really was like they had been doing it for years. "The Boxer," another full-on duet, had most of the women around us looking close to tears; probably a few of the men too.
Another easily discernible common thread was how much inspiriation both musicians have drawn from music of climates warmer than Simon's New York City and Sting's even colder Newcastle, which is about as far north as you can go in England before you're in Scotland. Simon wound up doing about half of Graceland, including the wonderful zydeco spotlight "That Was Your Mother," to go with the Caribbean breezes of "Mother and Child Reunion" and "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard." Sting of course is an honorary Jamaican from way back, and represented with the Police's "Driven to Tears" and "Roxanne" besides the reggae-jazz stroll of "Englishman In New York."
They're also big fans of American roots music. Sting offered up his version of a country song, "I Hung My Head," which came out as more of a nugget of Stax-y Memphis soul than anything honky-tonk, but wound up getting recorded by Johnny Cash nonetheless. Simon included the Southern gospel tune "Gone at Last" from 1975's 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, and even the soul-searching, unforgiving title track from 1983's Hearts and Bones, which wound its way down a rockabilly-beat track to Elvis' "Mystery Train" and Chet Atkins' "Wheels."
Both men left plenty of hits on the table in favor of some pretty deep cuts - Sting's "The Hounds of Winter" and "They Dance Alone," Simon reaching all the way back to 2011's So Beautiful or So What for the lovely "Dazzling Blue," but also "The Obvious Child" from Graceland's sort-of South American sequel, The Rhythm of the Saints.
This went on from approximately 8:20 to 10:55 p.m. Saturday night. If not every single one, surely you know most of these songs. Look at the set list below and imagine each one being caressed by the musicians almost like a lover, thoroughly savored by both the players and the audience. It was a special evening.
Personal Bias: I must have born about 15-25 years too late, because I was was way into both Simon & Garfunkel and the Police in high school. Clear Brook High School, class of '93; saw Sting's "Ten Summoner's Tales" tour at The Woodlands my senior year.
The Crowd: Seasoned. A little on the pale side. Couples galore.
Overheard In the Crowd: "It's obviously something God created."
Random Notebook Dump: This thing where people run into the aisles near the stage to take selfies...I don't know, man.
(c) Houston Press by Chris Gray