Paul Simon makes the Newt think of J.J. Cale in Vancouver


photo by Mrs. Newt, who loves Paul Simon

Between the two of them, pop legends Paul Simon (72) and Sting (62) have recording careers that span over 90 years. And when you consider how hugely popular the two have been, both as solo artists and with the acts that first brought them fame—Simon & Garfunkel and the Police, respectively—that adds up to a shipload of songs to choose from for a coheadlining show like the one at Rogers Arena last night. The fact that the near-capacity crowd was willing to pay upward of $250 for prime seats to hear those dusty tunes is testament to how timeless they are.

Of course, pop songs don’t get much more enduring than “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, the 1970 Simon & Garfunkel hit that would be used to kick off the show’s four-song encore.

When Simon and Sting took the stage with a 13-piece backing band and opened with the bouncy “Brand New Day”, the title track of Sting’s 1999 solo album, the two stars looked genuinely happy and relaxed. The song ended with the plea to “Stand up!”, so a bunch of people did, many staying on their feet when it was followed by “The Boy in the Bubble”, one of four songs in the set taken from Simon’s much-loved ’86 album, Graceland.

After Sting’s pretty 1993 solo hit “Fields of Gold”, the frontmen addressed the crowd for the first time. “Congratulations, great victory,” Simon said, acknowledging our Canadian women’s hockey team’s nail-biting gold-medal win at the Olympics hours earlier. He was already the most popular guy in the house, but that didn’t hurt his standing much.

After some good-natured teasing from Sting, Simon left the stage and the Police-man did “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, which got the little old lady beside me—75 if a day—cheerfully bopping her head to that 1981 Police ditty. She seemed pretty fond of the next track, the ’87 Sting single “Englishman in New York”, as well.

“Being an Englishman, one of my fantasies was to write a country song,” explained Sting before performing the so-so “I Hung My Head”, a song off his 1996 Mercury Falling album that was also one of the last tunes Johnny Cash ever recorded. I haven’t heard Cash’s version, but I’m betting it’s a helluva lot more country than Sting’s.

Although there were very few low points in the two-and-half-hour Simon-Sting show, that might have been the lowest, just slightly above Sting’s performance of “Walking on the Moon”, one of the Police’s weaker hits from the late ’70s. Would it have killed him to kick out one or two jams and go back to the first album’s “Next to You” or “So Lonely”? Either one would have no doubt gotten the granny on my left feeling 50 years younger.

Things picked up a bit when Simon returned for his uplifting 1972 single “Mother and Child Reunion”, then Sting exited and Simon carried on with his biggest solo hit, 1975’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”. During that percolating pop gem the stellar musicianship of the players was particularly evident, though it never wavered once. All told, the lineup included three guitarists, two keyboardists, two drummers, a bassist, a percussionist, horn players, and a backing vocalist. Whatever instrument was required for a particular tune—be it fiddle, French horn, or washboard—was handled with supreme skill.

I’m pretty sure those were some of the finest musicians I’ve ever seen on-stage, and they all came together magically on the worldbeat-tinged “Graceland”, which was propelled by the throbbing bass of Bakithi Kumalo. The simmering vibe of that song always makes me think of J.J. Cale, and I like thinking of J.J. Cale.

After a couple of ’70s Simon gems (“Still Crazy After All These Years”, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”), Sting returned to redeem himself for “I Hung My Head” with the gorgeous “Fragile”, on which he picked some sweet Spanish guitar. “What a great honour it is to sing on that song,” raved Simon afterward. “It’s just such a great song.”

Then Simon left again and Sting did five songs on his own, including the Police standouts “Message in a Bottle” and “Roxanne”. I know the guy can be a bit much with his ego and his muscle shirts and his tales of seven-hour tantric sex sessions, but you’ve got to give him credit for keeping his voice—among other things—in shape. I mean, I was in this same building six months ago when Ozzy Osbourne was testing the outer limits of what metalheads can stomach in the way of singing.

After a few more numbers, including Simon’s throwaway hit “You Can Call Me Al” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” (with its plaintive “lie-la-lie” refrain), the show headed to a close with the encore of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Every Breath You Take”, and “Late in the Evening”. Then, for good measure—and in recognition of last month’s passing of Phil Everly—they ended things with the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved”.

Let’s see: Paul Simon would have been 18 when that song hit the charts in the summer of 1960. Yup, sounds like perfect timing to me.

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