Paul Simon & Sting

By James Doy

Artist:  Paul Simon & Sting

Date / Venue:  Friday January 30th, Vector Arena, Auckland

The Sting/Paul Simon tour arrived in Auckland last night - a wonderful experiment that forged, in Simon's memorable phrase, "two disparate bands together in one cacophonous unit".

Vector Arena had the privilege of being the first stop on the international tour, 10 months after they tested the concept across the USA. The pair have been friends since the late 80s, when they were both living in the same apartment building in New York, but the seeds of this tour were planted at the annual Robin Hood Foundation benefit last year. They teamed up on acoustic versions of 'The Boxer' and 'Fields of Gold', and soon realised they'd hit upon something special. At the core of both of their repertoire is a focus on lyricism, and while it may be easy to label Simon a folk singer and Sting a rocker, they really both defy categorisation, easily moving from genre to genre throughout the evening.

The full 15 piece band opened the show with Sting's 'Brand New Day', moving into Simon's 'Boy in the Bubble', then back to Sting's 'Field's of Gold', with Sting and Simon sharing vocals throughout. Paul Simon has a very distinctive way of backphrasing, pushing further and further behind the beat in a way that brings new focus to lyrics you've heard time and time again, and Sting brings power and range to the equation, as well as the higher harmonies - I don't think anyone was missing Garfunkel.

Both Simon and Sting are genuine musicians - able to hold their own even against the ridiculous amount of virtuosity on display from the 15 piece band, worth the price of admission on their own. Paul Simon's drummer Jim Oblon is actually better known as a country blues guitar player - so he switched between the two song by song, making a fair fist of Steve Gadd's iconic beat from '50 Ways To Leave Your Lover' on the way. For much of the evening both drummers were playing at once, and despite his ability Oblon was certainly deferential to his band mate - you'd have to be, Vinnie Colaiuta is renowned as one of the greatest drummers of all time, and for good reason. Mark Stewart stole the spotlight several times, not just for his fantastic mutton chops, but by seemingly playing a different instrument on every tune, moving ably between guitar, cello, baritone sax, and even penny whistle. I also have to mention backing singer Jo Lawry - now famous for not being famous thanks to the documentary "12 Feet From Stardom" - who blew the doors off with 'Desert Rose' and 'Hounds of Winter'.

Sting closed his Broadway show "The Last Ship" on Saturday - he was both composer and male lead - and this can't have given them much time to prepare for the show. This led to a few charming moments - Simon heckled Sting for not coming back on, before Sting reminded him he was supposed to have left first. Simon took it on the chin, admitting he had been wrong once before in the 80s... Sting also had a few moments of lyric amnesia in their encore of 'When Will I Be Loved' by the Everly Brothers, but they handled it with such good humour it didn't matter.

I was a little concerned by the sound at the start of the show - from where we were, in the left hand tiered seating, the band were overwhelming the vocals at times. Things improved progressively throughout the performance, and by the end the sound was full and well balanced - it just took them a few numbers to find that sweet point. The video work was not so good, and showed a definite lack of rehearsal - missing one of the climactic moments of the night, Bakithi Kumalo's forward/backward slap bass solo from 'You Can Call Me Al' in favour of showing some slightly bored looking audience members in the front row!

Those minor quibbles aside, it was a spectacular show. Both artists have been criticised for being pretentious over the years, but it certainly wasn't on display tonight - their obvious respect for each other showed throughout, and they gave genuine, down to earth performances. At a notch over three hours, it was really two concerts worth of music, touching on all of their most memorable hits - and it didn't drag for a second.

They're performing tonight in New Plymouth at the Bowl of Brooklands - and I have to say, I'm tempted to drive down and watch it again.