With simple band, Sting jams just like the good ol' days of the Police...
After more than 20 years of avoiding anything that so much as smacked of the Police, Sting couldn't have embraced the stripped down, high-performance drive of the band that launched his career any more than he did Friday at the Event Center at San Jose State.
Appearing on a giant, uncluttered stage in the small basketball arena, accompanied solely by three other musicians, the blond-haired rock star dove straight into hyperdrive with an old Police number, 'Message in a Bottle', played so hard, it practically threatened to detonate right on the spot.
Lean, mean, lithe and light on its feet, Sting's 'Broken Music' show came as a considerable contrast to the bloated, leaden shows he has presented on recent outings, such as the 2004 'Sacred Love' tour, where he sank beneath a clumsy melange of world music and jazzy MOR pop. The new tour also comes as a break from his typical commercial routine. There is no new album to promote, no summer tour at larger venues he is previewing at the smaller hall, no new television commercial featuring his music.
"I haven't played a college campus in 25 years," he said. In fact, his first Bay Area performance with the Police took place at Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley 26 years ago.
At San Jose State, he appeared refreshed and invigorated, looking slender and elegant in a too-well-tailored suit. He slammed out 80 minutes of powerful music, ranging all over his songbook, happily mixing old Police tunes with pieces from his solo recordings, all fitted to the new, no-frills band, and raced around the track at full speed. An album of new songs by this razor- sharp band could be a revelation from an artist who long ago stopped coming up with surprises.
Guitarist Dominic Miller, a 15-year veteran of Sting bands, joined Shane Fontayne, the Lone Justice guitarist who played with Bruce Springsteen on the 'Tunnel of Love' tour, and the freight train of a drummer, Josh Freese, who also currently belongs to A Perfect Circle and Devo. Sting returned to his original instrument: Fender electric bass.
The brilliant sound production featured Sting's vocals, and the harmony blends well above the band's charging drive, with the bass pushed to the fore of the mix like a reggae band and the orchestrations left to drummer Freese, who supplied an entire orchestra's worth of dynamics by himself.
The month-old band, in fact, flexed its considerable skills with a perfectly realized rendition of that most orchestrated of all classic rock songs, 'Day in the Life', bringing the piece to a close with a scaled down but perfect replica of the symphonic crescendo from the Beatles original.
He blasted his way into the show with 'Message in a Bottle', 'Spirits in the Material World' ("this is a song I wrote and Madonna ripped off," he noted) and 'Demolition Man'. Police songs all fared splendidly in the new band's hands; his solo material worked less certainly. 'Heavy Cloud, No Rain' thundered, but 'I Hung My Head' stumbled. The high-powered band didn't handle slow pieces all that well, although 'Fields of Gold', an obvious crowd favorite, came off without a hitch.
The program, however, largely stayed with material from his days with the Police, 1984's most popular rock band, a lot of which he has been deliberately and conspicuously ignoring all the years since. He brought the concert to a close with the band's first runaway hit, 'Roxanne', and returned for an encore with 'Next to You', the opening track from the trio's 1979 debut, and 'Every Breath You Take', the massive hit off the band's benedictory 'Synchronicity'.
He planted himself behind a peculiar knee-high tea table at the bottom of his microphone, where he kept drinks, and toed the front edge of the large stage while mobile lighting rigs shifted configurations behind him, raising and lowering, blinking on and off. The lighting, in fact, was one of the evening's few false steps. A band playing music this honest and unvarnished needed no extra production touches. A few judicious white lights would have done the trick.
Of course, Sting has never been known for subtlety. But to see him this focused, this on target, this free from mumbo-jumbo jive and high-handed self- importance, was astonishing enough by itself.
© The San Francisco Chronicle by Joel Selvin