A Stripped-Down Sting, Tapping His Early Essence...
No keyboards, no horns, no backup singers, no video screens showing rain-forest fantasies. Sting came to Jones Beach Theater here on Friday night with just a four-piece band for the last public show of his Broken Music tour. It was a rejuvenating return to the kind of lean, limber band that Sting hasn't led since the Police, a trio, broke up in 1986.
Elsewhere on the tour, Sting had been performing at midsize halls on college campuses, which was more sensible than prematurely opening an outdoor amphitheater with a chilly ocean breeze. Sting suggested that audience members hug one other to keep warm, and his last encore was 'Lithium Sunset,' with its refrain of 'see mercury falling.' Yet cold fingers didn't slow down the band.
Sting promised to play songs he hadn't performed in "many, many years" (not counting previous tour stops). That meant going back to his songs for the Police and the way they turned rock inside out. With Sting on bass as the band's main songwriter, and with ears tuned as much to reggae and jazz as to punk rock, the Police often used the guitar for translucent washes of harmony and texture while bass and drums moved into the foreground.
At Jones Beach, Sting revived Police songs like 'Demolition Man' and 'Spirits in the Material World' in which bass lines are the true hooks. His band unabashedly reclaimed the Police sound, from the crisp snare-drum snickers and cymbal flurries of Josh Freese (from A Perfect Circle) on drums to the watery effects of Dominic Miller and Shane Fontayne on guitars.
They batted around syncopations and floated guitar tones in midair. They also fell into place as a backup band for songs from Sting's own albums that hinted at stately British ballads, like 'Fields of Gold,' 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,' and 'Why Should I Cry for You?', and explored vamps in 'No Rain', 'I Hung My Head' and 'End of the Game'. To pay tribute to the Beatles, Sting chose one of their most elaborately orchestrated songs, 'A Day in the Life,' and proved he could do it justice with just two guitars, bass and drums.
Sting didn't choose his most cheerful songs. Even as the Police were revitalizing rock rhythm, Sting had somber thoughts, despairing about the human condition and his own sanity in songs like 'Invisible Sun' and 'King of Pain'. But the music always refused to weigh them down further. A song like 'Driven to Tears' - about famine, atrocities and powerlessness - was also about the exhilaration of shifting rhythms, a sly reggae undercurrent and Sting wailing, 'Whoa!' Two decades later, the messages still came through the songs, but so did the musicianly joy.
Through his solo career, determined to keep trying new things, Sting has piled on instruments and exotica, literary flourishes and sometimes strained concepts. Peeling them away for this tour is partly a retreat, an admission that some of his best music was made two decades ago in a fractious band, before he was fully in charge. But it could also be a turning point: a rediscovery of the old artistic axiom that less can be more.
© The New York Times by Jon Pareles