04.16.05 Madison Gig Review...

Sting is king of cool again

The Onion had a great mock editorial a few years ago, supposedly written by Sting, headlined "You Know, I Actually Used to Be Kind of Cool Once."

The premise was that Sting was surprised to learn that, prior to making millions as a smooth adult contemporary solo artist, he had fronted a spiky, funky rock band called the Police.

Even if Sting hadn't actually written the article, you have to wonder if he shared its sentiments a little. Which is why, for his current "Broken Music" tour, which arrived at the Kohl Center on Friday night, Sting may be trying to reconnect with his cool younger self.

Instead of conjuring up a lush, world-music vibe as he has on previous tours, Sting stripped his songs down to their essentials Friday. He played on a largely unadorned black stage with a basic three-piece rock band behind him.

More tellingly, he only played one song off his current 'Sacred Love' album, instead diving deep into the Police's back catalog to dust off rough gems like the reggae-splashed 'The Bed's Too Big Without You' or the punky 'What Can I Do'. This was not a show for the Sting fan who thought his duet with P. Diddy was the high-water mark of his career. This was a show for the diehard Police fans who still argue over whether 'Reggatta de Blanc' or 'Zenyatta Mondatta' was the better Police album.

"Tonight, I'm going to be singing lots of songs that I haven't sung in many years," Sting told the audience, who cheered loudly.

It made for a very alive and alert 100 minutes of music, as Sting and his band pounded out song after song with enthusiasm and urgency, deftly mixing favorites like 'Message in a Bottle' with lesser-known tunes. Guitarists Dominic Miller and Shane Fontayne built up churning energy on rockers like 'Demolition Man' and 'Driven to Tears', while drummer Josh Freese, of the art-metal band A Perfect Circle, added punch to tracks like 'Invisible Sun'.

Even 'Roxanne', which Sting has played to death over the years, often in a slow acoustic version, got new life with a rock arrangement that more resembled the original.

Not only did most of the songs still sound fresh, but many of them sounded uncannily appropriate for modern times. The line "You could say I lost my belief in the politicians" got a rousing cheer from the audience, and the anthem 'When the World Is Running Down, You Make The Best of What's Still Around' sounds like it was written yesterday instead of in the late 1970s. Pretty cool, indeed.

Los Angeles pop-rockers Phantom Planet, featuring 1996 Madison West graduate Jeff Conrad on drums, set the table nicely for Sting with a winsome opening set. During their biggest hit, 'California', the band had the audience hold up their cell phones, and the hundreds of pale blue screens in the darkness formed an eerily beautiful sight. It was sort of like the old rock concert tradition of holding up your cigarette lighter, but easier on the lungs.

© The Capital Time by Rob Thomas