The pleasant yet intense lute music of 17th century England shapes the body of the most delicate experiment in Sting's musical life. In the songs of John Dowland, he has found an Elizabethan precedent for his own dark and sorrowful balladry that he can capably command with his (untrained) tenor. 'Songs From the Labyrinth', the title of his recent Deutsche Grammophon album, worked better live in the recital format than as a recording. It's a guess, but judging from his vocals alone, Sting entered Disney Hall with a humbler spirit than he did when he ventured into the studio.
Sting, long an assimilator of musical styles with varied lineages, plays the Dowland material (published between 1597 and 1603) with relative straightforwardness. It's different from any other context in which the singer has been heard before; backed by a single instrument and, on occasion, an eight-member male chorus, the works require a compact interpretation and Sting heeds that command well, particularly maintaining the melancholy the music calls for. There are songs, 'Come Again' being the prime example, that have a structure and lyric that remarkably fit his wheelhouse and he can't resist adding an extra heaping of Sting-ness to the interpretation.
On equal footing with Sting is his accompanist, Edin Karamazov. Playing lutes of varying sizes, Karamazov's string work was spry and bright, a bit more contrasting between instrument and voice than is on the written page. When Sting joined in as second lutenist on 'Fantasy' and 'La Rossignol', the instrument's gorgeous timbre received a sterling showcase.
Short program (75 minutes) had the added benefit of a history lesson as Sting read passages from letters and then provided a peek at how other music might sound when filtered through the lute. The duo shed some of the blues yet retained the darkness on Robert Johnson's 'Hellhound on My Trail'; a slowed version of the Police's 'Message in a Bottle' was a divine rendition.
Concert was a one-nighter for the U.S. Sting and Karamazov will deliver the same program in 15 cities in Europe between Feb. 18 and March 12.
© Variety by Phil Gallo
Sting takes the Walt Disney Concert Hall on a Renaissance ride - The crowd buys in as a master of reinvention moves forward by going five centuries back.
Is Sting our most shameless pop star? Maybe so, and what's wrong with that? Many disparage the former Police frontman's pretentious ways, but really he's an old-fashioned rock-and-roll rule breaker, with a glass of claret in his hand instead of a whiskey bottle. His forays into jazz and world music (along with his mansion-hopping, yoga-practicing lifestyle) have made him the butt of many a joke, but he couldn't care less. Now he's recorded an album of songs by John Dowland, the Elizabethan lutenist and composer, which he brought to the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night.
'Songs From the Labyrinth', a collaboration with Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov, is a hit on the classical charts, but Sting acknowledges that it's more of a detour than a career shift. Looking like Terence Stamp in tasteful black, the star presented himself humbly, almost like a student acing a big recital. Quietly working through the 75-minute set after asking members of the audience to hold their applause after each song "to let it ring," he aimed for and mostly achieved the intense control that early music demands, elongating his vowels into diphthongs and aiming for a stable, soft tone.
He added a few pop flourishes, getting saucy on 'Come Again' (the 'Let's Get It On' of the 16th century) and punching up the rhythm in 'Can She Excuse My Wrongs', whose lyrics were written by the Virgin Queen's would-be amour, Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex. "He was the first to lose his head over the queen - literally," Sting joked about the noble, who was beheaded in 1601.
That aside typified Sting's casually educational manner - a good choice, since the hall was filled with his acolytes, not Dowland's. As on 'Labyrinth', he juxtaposed the songs with excerpts from a letter Dowland wrote in 1595, when he was in voluntary exile, possibly gathering intelligence to offer his queen. It was a mistake to paint Dowland as a sexy double agent; his spare, evocative songs sell themselves. In concert, the framing device was kept to a merciful minimum.
The 41-year-old Karamazov was a dazzler; his mid-concert solo turn elicited the night's first rock 'n' roll whoop from the seats. Switching off between the archlute (his specialty) and a smaller Renaissance-style instrument, he used the microphones expertly to vary his dynamics and swayed like a rock guitarist, but his flash never impeded his meticulousness. Sting occasionally picked up his own archlute, but as he said, he stuck to the easy parts.
The all-male early music group the Concorde Ensemble joined the pair for several songs. These highly trained voices could have cast a cruel light on Sting's less-even timbre, but the rocker restrained himself in their presence. The ensemble sang spiritedly, probably tickled to be making new fans with a repertoire that generally attracts only the discerning few.
The night ended with something the itinerant Dowland might have appreciated: a set of crowd-pleasers. First, Sting milked an obvious joke by getting woolly on his lute with a version of bluesman Robert Johnson's 'Hellhound on My Trail' -- earlier he'd played a rather less-raw selection by the Elizabethan composer of the same name. Next came Sting's signature ballad, 'Fields of Gold', a bring-down after the blues romp.
He concluded with the Police classic 'Message in a Bottle'. (Gossipy aside: He dedicated it to "two people who are very special to me," and since ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland was present, it seems likely that the trio's hotly rumored reunion may just happen.)
That bouncy tune may have seemed a strange choice for the lute, but it drew a neat circle around the night. Sting began his career by absorbing a highly stylized musical subgenre that pushed him toward a new place as a vocalist. It wasn't Elizabethan music, it was reggae. Only someone as audacious as Sting could reveal that connection.
© The Los Angeles Times by Ann Powers