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Paul Simon and Sting find harmonic convergence on stage together
HOUSTON – Nearing the end of sound check at the Toyota Center, Sting nods at Paul Simon and says, “OK, we’re as good as we’re gonna be.”
But Simon isn’t convinced.
It’s a few hours before the duo’s On Stage Together tour opens its 21-date run. Kinks are still being worked out and refinements are being made to the song arrangements they’ll be playing together with the 14 musicians of their combined bands. They’ve run through the three encore songs, with Sting taking on Art Garfunkel’s iconic parts in “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” before the ensemble breaks for dinner, but now Simon wants a go at the three that will open the show.
Those go well, however, and Simon and Sting share a quick hug as the musicians put down their instruments.
“It’s pretty much what I thought it would be,” Simon, 72, says backstage. “I thought it would be a challenge and I thought that we would enjoy the challenge, and the only thing that I didn’t know was whether the band members would feel the same kind of excitement, and they do.” Sting, sitting alongside, adds that, “It’s fascinating to watch. They’re all great musicians and enjoy sparking off each other. It’s evolving. We’re going to learn a lot tonight and tomorrow will be a little more. It’s an adventure.”
“It’s definitely a work in progress,” Simon agrees.
It’s also something that took many years to put together. Simon and Sting, 62 (born Gordon Sumner in England), became friendly when they lived in the same New York City apartment building. They didn’t talk about doing anything together, but Simon notes that “We played music for each other.” Sting – an unabashed fan of Simon and Simon & Garfunkel -- notes that the two “share a lot of musical curiosity about a spectrum of music that’s pretty wide, and as a vehicle for songwriting, so we have a lot in common,” and Simon shakes his head as he talks about how Sting “used to play Bach pieces when I’d come over; he’d say, ‘Listen to what I’m working on, this Bach piece,’ which would make me hang my head in shame and go back to my apartment. You know, just the idea that you would try to pick up a lute and play it…
“Madness!” Sting exclaims with a laugh.
The idea of playing together didn’t hatch until they were invited, separately, to perform at the Robin Hood Foundation’s annual benefit concert last May. They decided to duet on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” and the latter remembers that “there was an audible gasp in the room when we walked on together, and when we started singing we obeyed the basic rules of harmony, and it was great. We thought there might be something there.”
The next question, of course, was how to do it -- together, certainly, and together as much as possible, to the tune of a full third of the show, trading off on each other’s songs and, recently, following the climactic “Bridge…” with a cover of the Everly Brothers’ buoyant “When Will I Be Loved.”
:”We said from the beginning that we really had to do at least eight songs together, a significant amount of songs together,” Simon explains. “It keeps sort of changing in 25- to 30-minute intervals with duets in-between and the band members melding with each other during the set.
“And I think that will continue to happen throughout the whole tour. By the time we end up it will be a much more integrated unit than we are now – and we’re pretty integrated now.”
Each artist had his own choices for the repertoire; Sting – who’s playing Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” on his own – wanted to be part of Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble,” while Simon was pleased Sting was willing to share the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” as a duet. “The rhythm tunes presented more of a problem,” Simon explains, “mostly because you don’t usually hear two voices in rhythm tunes; they’re about grooves and stuff and idiosyncratic phrasing, and it’s easier to get a blend when it’s a ballad and it’s simple and empty. The rhythm tunes…just weren’t written for two voices, so you’ve got to find a way.”
Sting and Simon don’t rule out doing the joint tour again, but it won’t be any time soon. Simon plans to work on a new album – the follow-up to 2011’s “So Beautiful or So What” – while Sting is preparing for the launch of his new musical “The Last Ship, which opens June 10 in Chicago and September 30 on Broadway. And he’s certainly taking some tips from Simon, who made a failed attempt at his own musical, “The Capeman,” in 1998.
But the live shows may lead to another kind of collaboration between the two.
“We have mooted the idea of writing something” together, Sting says, while Simon seconds that. “Yeah, that would be fun if we had the chance to do that. The collaborative process, if it’s going to work it really takes a lot of thinking – for me, anyway – a lot of thinking and effort to find the commonality that you’re going to inhabit, and then you find out what your collaboration producers. It’s two different DNAs coming together.
“So if we have the time…We’ll see by the end of this (tour), really.”
Paul Simon and Sting’s On Stage Together Tour plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26, at The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $43-$253. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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