Music Matters: Sting Dazzles The Strathmore

by Columnist

Rock legends Sting and Paul Simon raised $1.2 million for the Duke Ellington School for the Arts.

By John Arundel

Sting performED at The Strathmore for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts "Performance Series of the Arts." (courtesy photo)

Sting performed at The Strathmore for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts “Performance Series of the Arts.” (Courtesy photo)

A late day downpour, the partial collapse of a tent, and a last minute no-show by Stevie Wonder did little to dampen spirits at Thursday’s “Performance Series of Legends”  benefit concert for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where this year’s legends Sting and Paul Simon sprung into over-compensation mode, rocking the acoustically-precise Strathmore Music Hall in Bethesda.

In what Duke Ellington co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz called its most successful fundraiser since 1994, $1.2 million was raised in one night for educational programming for DC’s premier arts and academic high school, which in 1974 opened in Georgetown, training young artists for musical and entertainment careers. Chief benefactor Betty Eugene Casey donated $17 million to he school two years ago, and raised a significant amount for this year’s event, as Ellington celebrates “40 Years of Being the Difference.”

“Duke Ellington continues to successfully educate young people for the 21st century–in and through the arts,” Cafritz said.

Now in its seventh year, it is the school’s signature annual fundraiser, previously featuring the likes of Patti LaBelle, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Denyce Graves and Dave Chapelle.
This year’s headliner did not disappoint. The 62-year-old British rock star and 11-time Grammy winner was joined on stage by “special guest” Simon, 72 —  in addition to about 80 of the school’s talented young artists — for extended sets of mega-classics which at times fused Simon’s folksy 70’s rock riffs into Sting’s edgier 80’s pop.”I saw Paul in the hotel lobby today, and asked him, ‘Would you mind coming tonight?'” said Sting, whose 22-city tour with Simon dropped into a sold-out show at Washington’s Verizon Center Friday. “He’s my teacher and my mentor. What an honor to be working with a man whose work is so inspiring. It’s all about the first time you fell in love or fell out of love…It’s really timeless.”Stevie Wonder was also scheduled to perform alongside the touring duo, but a death in the family forced him to fly back to Detroit. No worries, because Sting and Simon filled in whatever disappointment the news caused with an 80-minute musical party which transcended two generations of pop rock. “This tour has allowed us to take ownership of each other’s songs,” Sting told the crowd, before adding the self-effacing touch: “I think I got a better deal.”

Attired in blazer, slim black leggings and light grey cardigan sweater, with a red pocket square to complete an MTV-ready effect, Sting stepped onto stage to roaring applause, launching into some of his best-known hits, including the classics “Englishman in New York.” “Everything She Does is Magic,” “Seven Days,” and “Driven to Tears,” with each of the songs sung to the soaring background vocals of the 60-student strong Duke Ellington Chorus.

Imploring the crowd to “Stand Up!” for the arrival of his musical mentor, Simon sauntered onstage sporting a black fedora and the duo broke into a spirited rendition of “The Boxer” before Sting leaned into a reprise of Simon & Garfunckel’s 1968 classic “America.”

“When we came to America for the first time, me and the band landed in New York, we loaded up our gear into a van, then drove across America, staying in awful little motels and playing to mostly half-empty clubs,” Sting reminisced. “That was a song we heard a lot on the radio back then.”

Simon sang to perfect pitch Sting’s “Fragile,” while Sting returned the favor with a spirited rendition of “Bridge over Troubled Waters” before leaving the stage to Sting and that bug-eyed Duke Ellington Chorus, which joined him for the encore, studio-perfect performances of “Desert Rose” and “Every Breathe You Take.”

Sting was suitably impressed by the efforts of the Ellington students. “What are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked with a chuckle.

The students were  too awed to answer.

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