Ten years age, a large ocean and about 12 inches of height separated Paul Simon and Sting when the two took the stage at the Toyota Center for the first date of a curious joint tour. If their size seems a petty observation, their respective appearances did reflect their performances in a way. Sting's clingy shirt left him a mask and insignia away from looking like a superhero. Fittingly his band served up dramatic solos meant to highlight individual virtuosity. Simon's drab, unbuttoned button-down gave him the appearance of a man trying to beat the crowd at the oil change place. Simon's group relied more on interactive and understated groove, with players frequently swapping instruments: the drummer on guitar, the guitarist on sax, the bassist on percussion. Yet players from each band - including the two singers - mingled throughout the two-and-a-half hour show, often to intriguing effect.
The question going in was, "Why this pairing?" But frankly, other such tours have been built on stretchier connective tissue. Elton John and Billy Joel: They were connected mostly by an instrument and an era. For Simon and Sting, there's an interesting and ongoing relationship to folk and world music. Simon found his start there before pushing the edges of the form so far as to create a domain of his own. Sting started a sneering British new wave type, the kind that might sneer at the guy who cranked his hurdy gurdy at the Oscars years later. Both dig reggae. Both have incorporated the sounds of Africa into their music. And there was a detectable sense of admiration. When they comingled on stage it made for some fine moments. More often than not they proved that such an odd pairing doesn't necessarily have to work on paper. It need only work in practice.
The show's sluggish opening included the two swapping vocals on two slower Sting songs ("Brand New Day" and "Fields of Gold") with one peppier Simon tune ("Boy in the Bubble"), Sting played a short, fine set, before Simon returned during a nice reggae-tinged transition from Sting's "Love Is the Seventh Wave" into Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion."
The show's best stretch displayed the range of both performers, with energetic bookends for some quieter moments. It started with Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the School Yard" and the zydeco-fueled "That Was Your Mother," both spirited. Then they swapped songbooks. Simon sang a lovely version of Sting's "Fragile." And Sting's simple acoustic take on Simon's "America" - prefaced with his recounting the Police's first tour of the U.S., including a date in front of three fans at Houston's Opry House - was a revelation. His raspy voice, clearly foreign, still found its way into the song's darker corners; he spoke admiringly of the song's "foreboding" quality. An Englishman in New Jersey, counting cars: There the purpose of the tour became more evident. The best of the songs each man has written - and I'd argue Simon, with his 10 year head start, has quite a few more - are meant to be passed down this way.
With the drone of feedback the song gave way to "Message in a Bottle," an altogether different song but one also with a foreboding sense. The transition was seamless.
Simon's "Hearts and Bones" was another gentle highlight, followed soon after by some uptempo songs like "Kodachrome," "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" (with a great backing vocal from Sting) and "You Can Call Me Al" to bring the set to a close with some zeal.
They returned for a compulsory "Every Breath You Take" encore, followed by a rousing "Late in the Evening." "The Sound of Silence" seemed like a good vocal opportunity for the two, but instead they went for broke with "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Sting is no Garfunkel (who is?), but he didn't try to be, and his voice lent the song an earthy soulful quality.
"You caught us at the point where we don't have another song," Simon said when they emerged after the encore.
Both strumming acoustic guitars they sang "When Will I Be Loved," a tribute to Simon's friend and hero Phil Everly, who died earlier this year. The song brought home the idea of a song being bigger than its author. Two musicians, separated by 10 years and a large ocean - one an Englishman, the other a Jewish guy from New York - singing an ageless 55 year old song made famous by a couple of kids from Kentucky.
(c) Houston Chronicle by Andrew Dansby