Sting & Paul Simon team up at the X

NEAL JUSTIN | Updated 2/19/2014

Pop-star pals will trade songs, bands Sunday at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center.

Sting performing last year in Italy
Antonio Calanni - Associated Press

The lute is in the closet. Over the past decade, Sting has alienated many of his fans with obscure classical music and a Police reunion that felt more like an obligation than a celebration.

But the Grammy-winning star is in the midst of a creative comeback of sorts, with a new album of original, hummable tunes and a well-received tour with Paul Simon that stops Sunday at Xcel Energy Center.

Sting makes no apologies for his long absence from the pop charts.

“It was probably eight years where I didn’t feel the urge to write a song,” he said last month, a day before going into rehearsals with Simon. “Whether I’d lost my passion, I don’t know. I just didn’t feel I had anything useful to say.”

He has plenty to share on “The Last Ship,” a collection of songs based on his rough-and-tumble childhood near the historic shipyards in Wallsend, England. None is likely to get much radio play, but they may be hits on Broadway, where a musical with the same name is expected to open in late October after a tryout run in Chicago. TV viewers can see a rough draft of the production in a PBS special that airs 1 p.m. Sunday on TPT Life.

Sting has strengthened his chances for success by surrounding himself with theater veterans, including Tony Award-winning playwright John Logan (“Red”), Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”) and acclaimed director Joe Mantello (“Wicked”).

Still, Broadway has destroyed the aspirations of many music stars attempting to tap their inner Sondheim. Just ask Simon, whose ambitious 1998 project “The Capeman” opened to bad reviews and closed after 68 performances.

“Neither of us are under any illusions about how difficult it is to write a successful musical,” Sting said. “If you make your living making three-minute, four-minute narratives, you want to make at least one attempt at a longer narrative, so it’s no surprise that people in my business want to try it. But the landscape is littered with bleached corpses of failed attempts."

What may be hardest for an artist of Sting’s caliber is having to give up a certain amount of independence.

“There are so many moving parts: actors, singers, dancers, book writers, director, choreographers,” he said. “You only have a certain amount of control over the end product, but nonetheless, as a collaboration, it’s an incredible new and exciting thing to try.”

Collaboration is also the theme for the current tour, which features both musicians on stage together for a surprising amount of time, swapping lyrics on several classics including “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Every Breath You Take.” The friends, who have lived in the same New York City complex for 25 years, are getting the chance to jam on some of their favorite songs from each other’s canon.

“Paul asked me if I would sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ which is one of my favorites, and I’ve always been very fond of ‘America,’ which Paul doesn’t normally do,” Sting said. “Paul is very keen on songs like ‘Fields of Gold,’ which he loves, songs like ‘Fragile.’ I think the gentler side of my repertoire interests him.”

The duo is well aware that audiences want to hear the hits, which means you probably won’t hear numbers from Simon’s upcoming album and Sting will restrain himself from showcasing songs from “The Last Ship.”

Even the usually unflappable Sting seems dazzled by the idea of being on stage with one of rock’s most respected talents.

“He’s the master. If I ever wanted to emulate a literary and literate songwriter, then Paul Simon would be the person I would go to,” he said. “So to work with him is a huge honor. At the age of 15, when I first heard Simon & Garfunkel, the idea that I would be performing with him would be crazy. But we’re still crazy after all these years.”