Review: Paul Simon and Sting at the United Center

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Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones sits with writer/composer Sting and lead actor Jimmy Nail to talk Sting's latest project, "The Last Ship."

Here’s something you don’t see everyday: Sting deferring, complementing, and hanging back. It happened Tuesday at the United Center, with the former Police bassist handling his new role as sidekick to Paul Simon with what appeared to be genuine enthusiasm.

Also just in: Sting can apparently take a joke. Simon – looking for all his frumpiness like he had just emerged from a long, lazy afternoon in his man cave – glanced over at the lean, black-clad Englishman and predicted that merely by basking in the younger singer’s aura, he would emerge much more “Adonis-like” at the end of their tour with unrivaled sexual energy. Sting smirked, only to later praise the New Yorker as “one of my teachers and mentors” whose songwriting talents are “humbling and inspiring.”

The interaction between two artists with apparently little in common other than their lengthy pedigrees as hitmakers over several decades was among the most anticipated and fascinating attractions of the concert. Not only did Simon and Sting share small talk, they also performed a number of songs together. The night’s central revelation was just how good Sting sounded as a harmony vocalist, his reedy voice blending beautifully with Simon’s more delicate, workmanlike phrasing on Sting’s “Fragile” and Simon’s eternal “The Boxer.”

As they performed mini sets of their own material and shared the stage with their bands – as many as 14 musicians backed the two singers at various points – their mutual affinity for exotic rhythms unified the sprawling 2 1/2-hour show. Whenever Sting indulged in lethargic ballads (“The Hounds of Winter”) and Simon became wrapped up in wordy introspection (“Hearts and Bones”), those Third World grooves righted the course.

Simon’s band brought rubbery bass lines, washboard and spoons, percolating hand percussion and sinewy guitar chatter via Africa, Jamaica and Louisiana. Though initially associated with the folk movement in New York, Simon’s phrasing is drawn from doo-wop, early rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. He and his musicians turned Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” into a low-key but hypnotic chug, and then fused it with Chet Atkins’ twangy “Wheels.” On “You Can Call Me Al,” Bakithi Kumalo’s addictive bass solo took center stage. Simon played air washboard on the accordion-flavored zydeco romp “That Was Your Mother.”

Though Sting could barely utter the Police’s name – he merely referred to his old bandmates as “the band” – he drew heavily on the trio’s love of reggae. “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle” are decent little pop songs that still connect because of their Jamaican flair. A matrix of percolating Algerian rhythms underlined the ululating vocals of “Desert Rose,” even as it illustrated the shortcomings of some of Sting’s fussier jazz-fusion solo material.

For many, the keeper moments arrived when Sting stepped away from his own material and took on a couple of Simon songs. Even on his delicate acoustic reading of “America” and his duet with the songwriter on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Sting didn’t showboat. Instead, he focused his voice on what mattered and bowed to the songs.

Paul Simon and Sting set list at the United Center

Simon and Sting:

1 Brand New Day

2 Boy in the Bubble

3 Fields of Gold


4 Every Little Thing She Does is Magic

5 Englishman in New York

6 I Hung My Head

7 Driven To Tears

8 Walking on the Moon

Simon and Sting:

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