Paul Simon & Sting at Xcel Energy Center, 2/23/14

Paul Simon & Sting at Xcel Energy Center, 2/23/14
Photo by Steve Cohen

Paul Simon & Sting
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Sunday, February 23, 2014

If you're Paul Simon, which means (as Sting put it last night) you've written songs forever attached to specific moments in people's memory, then how do you play a concert without becoming a nostalgia act? By becoming a musical comedy act, of course, with Sting as your perfect foil. And by bringing a large, hot band (sometimes combining with Sting's) to plumb connections between South African and southern American postwar electric guitar jive.

See Also: Slideshow: Paul Simon & Sting at Xcel Energy Center, 2/23/14

So the showoff moment of last night's Simon/Sting show at the Xcel wasn't Bakithi Kumalo doubling down on his famous two-bar bass solo for "You Can Call Me Al," at which point the concert achieved sublime liftoff, but the earlier shift from "Mystery Train" into Chet Atkins's "Wheels" to reveal drummer Jim Oblon somehow also on guitar, soloing a melody from "Mona Lisa."

The giddy tone was set by Simon, who stood nearly a full head shorter than Sting, welcoming the audience to "our musical experiment" to say he hoped the collaboration might change him, that he'd become more "Adonis-like" and "have sex for days." And "What about you?" he asked, turning to Sting. Would he change? "No, I think I'll just stay the same," Sting deadpanned.

Paul Simon & Sting at Xcel Energy Center, 2/23/14
Photo by Steve Cohen

As any longtime Saturday Night Live fan knows, Paul Simon is very funny, and very at ease in the moment of being human and vulnerable onstage. So while technical difficulties befell last night's show -- including long blasts of static interrupting Sting, seemingly shorting out his band's system and altering the set list -- it was all more fodder for easy interplay between the two. (And, really, did we ever need to hear "Every Breath You Take" played again by anyone except the Police?)

Sting smiled and shrugged as all but his stage PA seemed to go quiet, soldiered on for much of "Roxanne," then gamely left the stage to let sound people do their work. And in a very sweet moment, as house lights came up to announce a short break, the audience began to sing, "Sending out an SOS."

When Simon returned to the darkened stage with his band, saying, humorously, "Where's Sting? He went that way? He'll come back," Sting walked out with a hot cup of tea, making the most of his pause ("Wanna finish your tea?" Simon joked), and joined in on a working microphone to sing an aching duet of "When Will I Be Loved."

Sting makes lovely high harmony, and it seemed right last night to lean more toward Simon songs at the end. (Though I feel it should be mentioned that Sting's band, particularly his drummer, does a dynamite Police, and was able to recreate the studio lushness of "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" better than the live Police did.) Where Sting had the pop drive, Simon picked up the groove, and seemed to put him at ease.

So, cheesy as it sounds, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" began as somewhat cool, as Sting sang solo with piano and organ, then slowly grew real, then funky. And when Simon joked about Sting's set being cut short, saying, "And it's his birthday today, too. Sixty-seven years young," Sting laughed and reminded us it wasn't his birthday, and he'd still be younger than Simon.


Paul Simon & Sting at Xcel Energy Center, 2/23/14
Photo by Steve Cohen

Sting introduced another Simon & Garfunkel song, "The Boxer," by saying it's one he'd have written if he were twice as talented. And while this humility was somewhat endearing coming from Sting (or how we imagine Sting to be), it kind of missed the point.

All pop involves meeting moments halfway, regardless of authorship -- the audience singing "Sending out an SOS" -- and perfection is for the birds. So Sting brought surer pipes to Simon's quaver, while the large combined bands brought combined trumpet and slide guitar to "The Boxer." But the group and the song took over, and the audience provided backup.

Critic's bias: Before the concert, my wife and I gratefully came out to each other as Sting fans. Though to judge by the crowd, we weren't alone.

The crowd: More diverse than expected, less diverse than the bands onstage.
Overheard in the crowd: "We want you!" (to Paul Simon). To which Simon replied: "Who could blame you?"

Random notebook dump: In the hotel across the street before the show, Spanish guitar could be heard playing behind a door we passed, a fact we shared with my wife's parents next door, at which point her mom went out into the hall and stage-whispered, "Do you think it's Sting?" and the guitar came to an abrupt halt.

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