Friday, March 13, 2015

Twice the Sting

Hi everyone,

Did you know that Sting has the flu with a high fever? Under doctors' orders, he's canceled two shows in New York this week. It's a good thing I waited a year to talk about these concerts to hold you over until he's feeling better.

You all know how devoted I am. Last year, he planned two different local shows two days in a row, so it was my best week ever. First up was a charity performance he shared with "very special guest Paul Simon" at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, which benefited the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. The next night, Sting and Paul Simon performed at Verizon Center in D.C. in support of their On Stage Together tour. I was torn about going to both shows: Must I? Will they be the same? Will it be worth it? Of course!

The first show was on Wednesday, March 12, and I came down with a cold two days before the event. I gave myself a deadline to be rid of it before the first concert. Wednesday morning, though, I was unsure whether I could get out of bed, never mind to Bethesda! But I did get out of bed, put in a full day of work at home, and miraculously felt pretty healthy by afternoon. That's it: Sting has magical powers!

The Performance Series of Legends for the Duke Ellington School  of the Arts: Sting and Very Special Guest Paul Simon, Strathmore, Bethesda, Maryland, March 12, 2014

When I arrived, through hurricane-level rain, I was greeted with a program. The cover read, "Sting and very special guest Paul Simon and [previously unannounced] legendary musician Stevie Wonder." I nearly fainted. It was short-lived delirium, though: at the start, they announced that Stevie Wonder had to cancel his appearance in order to attend a funeral. That's an understandable excuse. Then the music started and I forgot that I was disappointed.

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts serves 9th to 12th graders who are immersed in a full academic course and an arts major, which could be dance, literary media and communications, museum studies, instrumental or vocal music, theatre, technical design and production, or visual arts. While this annual event is a wonderful and worthy cause, the organizers really drilled it into our heads that they wanted more money from us than the cost of our ticket. They reminded us before, during, and immediately after the show, which killed a bit of my concert-induced euphoria. I started to feel like I was watching PBS during pledge week or attending an amateur high school fundraiser. But they have to do what they have to do: the arts are essential, so support this amazing school!

Strathmore provides a beautiful blonde-wood-filled concert hall with fantastic acoustics. Despite its three levels of seats, the space is intimate with great views from any spot. My seat was in the second row of the top level, and I still felt relatively close to the stage. Let's get to the main event!

To start things off, the students of the Duke Ellington School for the Arts performed in an orchestra, sang in a small choir, and danced on stage through two of my favorite Police songs. "Demolition Man" included a spectacular guitar solo and four dancers. "Synchronicity" had 20 dancers performing on stage, at first, in pitch black to show off their glowing, blinking shoes. These kids were so bright and joyful, they lit up the room, lifted our spirits, and let us know what made this evening so special.

Next, they accompanied Sting as he sang three of his songs ("Englishman in New York," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," and "Driven to Tears"). Impressed, he suggested that they help him out tomorrow night too, but they left the stage, and Sting played with his own band. Paul Simon shared the stage with him sporadically. They sang some songs as duets, like Sting's "Brand New Day" and Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer." They also traded songs; for example, Paul Simon sang Sting's "Fragile," and Sting sang Paul Simon's "America."

That was one of my favorite parts: Before singing "America," Sting reminisced about coming to this country, aiming for stardom with The Police. He felt driven but uncertain, anxious, and excited about the future. "America," which was playing on the radio during that time, captures all those feelings for him. He sang a quiet, acoustic version of it, which was beautiful and moving, and then he transitioned into a fully electric version of "Message in a Bottle." The Police have arrived!

All that emotion was released during the next song, "Desert Rose," which Sting infused with Bollywood sounds. I loved this new arrangement, but the best part of this song on that night was watching a lone fan – a big black guy who was built like a football player  dancing up a storm in one of the front balconies.

After that, the choir kids returned and sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with both Sting and Paul Simon. During this song and "The Boxer," their harmonies blended beautifully. The woman next to me, who was clearly a big Paul Simon fan, got very excited when this song started, and her friends all knew that this was her moment. When the kids began singing its chorus, the song transformed into gospel, and she burst into tears and cried through the rest of it. She even got Kleenex out of her purse.

Sting and Paul Simon ended the show with another duet, "Every Breath You Take." Always a crowd-pleaser, this song capped off an inspiring night! As we gathered our coats, I wanted to ask the woman who cried if she was all right, but instead I asked if she enjoyed the concert. "So much!" she said. "Just seeing them with the kids, it's like....The kids are amazing!" Agreed! That's what it was all about.

Here's a short synopsis about this charity event, which gives you a glimpse of how it went:

Courtesy of Branden Kownacki, You Tube video:

Paul Simon and Sting: On Stage Together, Verizon Center, Washington, D.C., March 13, 2014 

The next night, I felt even healthier. The Verizon Center is a huge stadium, where the Washington Wizards and other sports teams play. These stadiums are pretty impersonal but I go when necessary.

Singing together at Beacon Theatre, New York, 2011
I was immediately struck by how different this performance was compared to the night before. It was bigger and better to fit the enormous space and satisfy the massive crowd. Sting and Paul Simon have been New York neighbors for years, and the idea for touring together came to them after they performed together at Sting's 60th birthday concert at Beacon Theatre in New York, a charity event which benefited the Robin Hood Foundation. (I was there!) Sting described their On Stage Together tour as a musical experiment that merged their bands and musical styles together. Both of their bands shared the stage. This combined group of excellent supporting musicians excelled in the energetic atmosphere, creating music that was full, all-encompassing, and infectious.

As they did the night before, Sting and Paul Simon sang duets and traded songs. While last night's show was more Sting-centric, Paul Simon sang many more of his songs during this concert, balancing out the number of compositions between the two of them. The distinction between Paul Simon fans and Sting fans was much more prevalent too: Groups of us danced and cheered during Sting songs while others sat stone-faced, quietly waiting for a Paul Simon song, and vice versa. Some of Paul Simon's songs were new to me, but I knew most of them, so I sang and danced through it all. This concert was like a joint greatest hits celebration.

On the Sting side, new from the previous night were: "Fields of Gold," "Hounds of Winter," "They Dance Alone," and "Roxanne." I was so excited about "They Dance Alone," a slow song about political prisoners that Sting includes on his 1987 ...Nothing Like the Sun album. I know what you're thinking, but it's an amazing, uplifting song that changes tempo toward the end to signify hope and resilience. Amid my sea of oblivious Paul Simon fans, I longed to be with a group of girls I saw in the middle of the stadium who were dancing in the aisles – as you should by the end of that song.

My favorite thing about Paul Simon is his sense of humor. I think I remember him more from his stints on Saturday Night Live than from his music. This concert reminded me of all of his great classics and introduced me to some new one. Among the hits he performed that night were "The Boy in a Bubble," "Mother and Child," "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," "Graceland," "Still Crazy After All These Years," "Me and Julio Down By the School Yard," "Diamonds on the Soles of Their Shoes," and "Call Me Al."

Sting and Paul Simon shared the same duets as the night before, like "The Boxer" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water," but Strathmore's intimacy trumped Verizon's arena setting. Here, they also threw in some songs written by other people, like Paul Simon singing "Wheels" by Chet Atkins.

They performed the second of two encores without their bands. Paul Simon said, "The idea for this tour started with two voices and two guitars, so we felt the show should end that way." In honor of Phil Everly, who passed away in January, they sang an acoustic version of the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved." After such a vibrant, energetic show, this quiet song reminded us of why we were all there. Blended together, these voices and combined musicianship guarantee an unforgettable musical experience.

Sting and Paul Simon's On Stage Together tour is in Europe right now. If they are coming to a town near you, get your ticket!

Feel better soon, Sting!

Credits: Duke Ellington School of the Arts benefit  poster: courtesy of Strathmore; video courtesy of Branden Kownacki; Image from Strathmore performance: Kyle Gufstafson/; Beacon Theatre image: Andy Kropa, Invision/Associated Press; Image from On Stage Together tour show in Houston, Texas, February 2014: Kevin Mazur/WireImages; On Stage Together tour poster: LiveNation

No comments: