06.20.07 THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Charge the Police's reunion tour, steaming through SoCal for three shows, with failing to live up to expectations.
Boy, the air really flew out of the Police bubble fast, didn't it?
Granted, it was a big bubble. Once the bombshell dropped that the formerly fractious trio - Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland - were back together, its fallout almost instantly expanded to epic proportions. Dates at arenas and stadiums nationwide sold out faster than you can say sold out. Before the tour even began it was well on its way to becoming the highest grossing outing of 2007.
For months anticipation has risen to a fever pitch, with particular emphasis placed on the band's SoCal run - Wednesday's Staples Center opener, Thursday's Honda Center engagement (the first Police sighting in O.C.) and Saturday's date with Foo Fighters at Dodger Stadium.
Important questions took shape: 1) How would they sound? 2) What would they play? 3) These guys are all past 50 now - Summers is 64. Would they be able to recapture yesteryear's energy? 4) Would Sting, the linchpin upon which this and any further Police business hinges, attempt to remodel the sound, bring it nearer to his solo approach?
My answers after the Staples set: 1) Pretty strong, but sometimes patchy. 2) Most everything you'd want to hear, though not enough for this fan. 3) Not very much, no. 4) Yes, with decidedly mixed results.
I'll get back to that, after the bubble bursts in this story, for it seemed to virtually overnight. Word out of Vancouver after opening night? Resoundingly favorable. But then came the second show - and Copeland's blog post about a botched start to 'Message in a Bottle' and how disastrous the gig grew. Suddenly the headline was no longer "Back and Better Than Ever," it was "We Stink!"
(Funny how so many media outlets seemed to stop reading at that point in Copeland's play-by-play of that rocky second show. If you got to the end, you'd have discovered the three old mates came off stage that night collapsing into each other's arms laughing. Ah, but such fraternizing doesn't sell the sensationalized idea of these guys at each other's throats again.)
Less-than-impressed reviews started rolling in from other cities, and disappointment soon spread. I found myself the night before the Staples show, stepping out of L.A.'s Silent Movie Theatre, listening to a guy tell his date about the Police in Phoenix or Vegas (I couldn't tell which): "They were tight and all, but it so wasn't worth $275."
I must say I agree, though I doubt most people who paid that much or more would say the same. Most were thrilled to sing along, awed to see before them what once was unthinkable until Sting led this curious about-face. I'd like to say I share their enthusiasm; like many, I waited almost a quarter-century to see this, too.
Yet I've come away underwhelmed.
I somewhat set myself up: I conveniently overlooked the fact, based on available live materials, that though their five albums evolved into studio marvels, the Police were never the sharpest live band. When they caught fire, they could be unstoppable, ragged friction triggering explosiveness most peers couldn't match. But that apparently wasn't the Police on most nights.
Nor is it this older, smoother Police now.
Age puts the group at a disadvantage: Whereas the Stones could turn 100 and still strut across a basic blues-rock figure, the Police remain much more about stylistic morphing and chops-smart precision - and any loss of edge or power can become glaringly evident. The less there is, the more likely any wow factor will be greatly diminished.
Not that the Police '07 entirely lack power. Half of this Staples set was strong, particularly during stretched-out takes on 'When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around' and 'Driven to Tears', two of Sting's most trenchant social statements engulfed by steam-gathering grooves. (Two other cautionary tunes, 'Invisible Sun' and 'Walking in Your Footsteps' were equally stirring, the starkness of the first deftly bleeding into the percussion flurry and Hendrix funk applied to the latter.)
Almost as captivating were the evening's moodier pieces: 'The Bed's Too Big Without You', its jazzy skank undercut by bittersweetness; 'King of Pain', Sting luxuriating in its lines; 'Walking on the Moon', bolstered by bass-pedal bottom. Several hits were wisely delivered as-is, but that also shed light on shortcomings: 'Synchronicity II', like most songs from the Police's final two albums, just doesn't work in a three-piece arrangement. Like 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', its gusto muted by a corny calypso feel here, it requires expanded instrumentation to sound right.
Unless you scale back deliberately - which is why 'Wrapped Around Your Finger' succeeded. Toying with 'Truth Hits Everybody', however - slowing it down to grandpa speed - was a blatant misstep. As with 'Next to You' and 'So Lonely' and 'Can't Stand Losing You', three other early power cuts that didn't retain as much zest as they used to, the strength of 'Truth' comes from its sprinting pace. But these guys are too musicianly now to be so reckless.
And Sting is too much a master craftsman to leave well enough alone. He can't resist restructuring chord changes or dressing up arrangements. That's fine at his solo shows, where we expect him to re-imagine his past. But this return begs for a larger dose of familiarity than it provides.
Worse, the show itself lacks pizzazz. Sting did promise it would just be three guys playing their hearts out. Yet, though such simplicity can be riveting from Clapton or Dylan or Springsteen, here it strangely wasn't enough to sustain interest, the band's backdrop, mimicking U2's recent setups minus the glittering lights, offering little distraction. I fear for how dull this might be at Dodger Stadium, where audiences have grown accustomed to the pyrotechnic sprawls of the Stones.
At least at Dodger Stadium we might get a fuller set: 'Spirits in the Material World' and 'Murder by Numbers', played almost everywhere else so far, were left off this night. And the list of gems sacrificed to make room for hits is longer than you'd think. Where, for instance, are 'Bring on the Night' or 'Demolition Man', or a murky bit like 'Shadows in the Rain', or more resonant-than-ever commentaries like 'Too Much Information' and 'One World (Not Three)'?
What's the purpose of this tour, anyway? It's not money; they've got enough. Nor is it merely nostalgia. Sting told Rolling Stone this month that it's to "retrace those steps and make the band better. I have played these songs for years. I know things about the music I didn't know then or couldn't express. I'm a better bandleader now than I was then."
Maybe so, and as with Summers and Copeland he's certainly a better musician now. But that doesn't necessarily mean this is a better band. At times it's a rather leaden one, an "ego-cracy" (as Summers calls it) that pulls in three different directions: Sting aims toward adult-pop, Summers veers toward experimentalism, and Copeland thunders away trying to bridge the gap.
If it carries on past this tour, perhaps then the return of the Police will have some deeper value, beyond giving fans who missed out the first time a rare second chance. For now, I'm having a hard time believing this is anything other than a calculated means to resuscitate both Sting's career and Sting himself, his contentious but trusty pals only too eager to bask in past glory.
© The Orange County Register by Ben Wener