Sting at the Wiltern...
Sting has long been a card-carrying member of rock's aristocracy, so even turning up uber-casual in a humble gray T-shirt and blue jeans, as he did Monday for the first of three sold-out nights at the Wiltern theater, he's never going to come off as an Average Gordon.
The tacit - and witty - message underlying Sting's new Back to Bass tour is that he's returning to the fundamentals of his music, signaling fans that he won't be inundating them with flights into jazz-rock, touring with a symphony orchestra or breaking out an archlute to experiment with medieval troubadour balladry, as he's been wont to do.
To a significant extent, that's what the packed house got in a set that ran nearly two hours and included a generous dose of the hits that originally endeared him to audiences as the intensely charismatic frontman for the Police, and then as a boundary-bending solo artist.
Few rock stars could pull off a song introduction like the one he delivered leading into 'Fields of Gold', that exquisitely romantic 1993 hit whose lyrics could well have come from the pen of a 15th century troubadour waxing poetic about the British countryside's natural beauty.
He said the song had been inspired after he and his family moved to a new house. ''More of a castle really,'' he confessed, a shred of apology slipping through the wry delight he displayed as he said it.
Sting is an aristocrat musically, temperamentally and officially, ever since the queen made him a Commander of the British Empire in 2003. No dressing down fashion-wise is going to mask that. Especially not when he casually trots out songs such as 'Seven Days', with its intricately complex rhythmic structure and art-song narrative form.
His freedom to take off on such journeys was aided by the fearless instrumental support of his five-piece band; on 'Seven Days' in particular by drummer par excellence Vinnie Colaiuta. Father-son guitarist Domenic and Rufus Miller added a family band vibe to the night, multi-instrumentalist Peter Tickell supplied pyrotechnics in particular on a couple of extended fiddle solos, and singer-fiddler-percussionist Jo Lawry brought chemistry to her spotlighted exchanges with the boss.
Yet Sting kept things from careening too far into the musical stratosphere by weaving them seamlessly in among equally inventive, but consistently catchy, pop-minded numbers. A couple of the numbers tapped the Police catalog ('Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', 'Demolition Man'), but most of the others were from his 25-year-old solo career. That included 'Fields of Gold', the eerily atmospheric 'Ghost Story', the funky expression of love and lust that is 'Sacred Love', and the show-closing encore performance of 'Message in a Bottle'. On the latter, he stowed the bass and accompanied himself on acoustic guitar for the one fully solo performance of the night.
This tour returns Sting to more intimate surroundings following the juggernaut of the Police reunion tour that inhabited arenas and stadiums, yet ironically, there were times Monday where he struggled to make a connection with the crowd. A few times he resorted to hand gestures to coax fans into singing along with refrains, or to engage with him in call and response.
As Mark Twain so adroitly showed us in ''The Prince and the Pauper,'' it can be hard for the aristocracy to take the pulse of the common folk without going fully undercover. But as Sting left the stage after three curtain calls and a roaring concluding ovation, what sprang to mind were the words of another socially astute humorist, Mel Brooks: ''It's good to be the king.''
(c) The Los Angeles Times
Sting at the Wiltern...
Following a highly successful but half-hearted Police reunion tour and forays into symphonic and Renaissance music, Sting has gone back to the basics on his aptly named Back to Bass tour. Playing the first of three sold-out shows at the Wiltern Theatre, Sting adeptly wielded his electric bass guitar all night, the instrument he picked up as a schoolboy in northern England that eventually catapulted him to stardom with the Police.
It seems a fitting time for the star to return to his roots, having just celebrated his 60th birthday and released a retrospective box set marking his 25th anniversary as a solo artist. Looking lithe and lean as a man half his age, Sting seemed completely at ease leading his able five-piece band through re-imagined versions of several familiar tunes. Kicking off with the crowd-pleaser 'All This Time' and segueing into the Police favorite 'Every Little Thing She Does is Magic', it looked as though it might be a greatest hits evening, but Sting soon delved deeper into his catalog, pulling out 'Demolition Man' and 'I Hung My Head' as well as several tunes that never made it onto commercial radio.
Standing center stage with dramatic white lights illuminating him from above and below, Sting frequently lapsed into storytelling mode, explaining to the audience his inspiration for several tunes, such as a fox that stole chickens from his farm ('End of the Game') and a psychic car thief who could intuit the details of his victims' lives ('Stolen Car'). It wouldn't be a Sting show without addressing the perils and exaltations of love, so in the midst of 'Fortress Around Your Heart' and the country-tinged 'Love Is Stronger Than Justice', the singer dispensed relationship advice culled from decades of marriage, encouraging the crowd to risk it all for love.
Despite his stories, Sting still maintained a regal distance from his fans throughout most of the evening. Although the vital elements for an incredible show were in place - a charismatic singer with a plethora of hits whose voice hasn't diminished with age, a stellar backing band, and a room filled with adoring fans - the performance lacked a certain magical quality. Perhaps it was too easy an outing for a man who can command arenas and seamlessly transition from rock to jazz to country and back again. Sting could take a page from his own book, infusing his entire performance with the intimacy he brought to his third encore, which saw him standing alone with his defenses down playing only an acoustic guitar as his voice rung out with the beloved, heartbreaking lyrics to 'Message In A Bottle'.
(c) Variety by Laura Ferreiro
Sting's Back to Bass at the Wiltern...
Beggars can't be choosers, even the well-connected and filthy rich ones who have been able to score and/or afford tickets to any of Sting's three rapidly sold-out performances this week at the Wiltern Theatre. Still, it's hard not to quibble a bit over what the icon is dishing out these days.
It's been a long wait to see the sometime Police chief back in the jazz-rock-and-more mode that made him a solo superstar back in the '80s and '90s. Setting aside the 2007-08 reunion of the trio that got him into Hall of Fame, it's been eight years since he's toured in any conventional form, when 'Sacred Love' brought him to the Pantages. In the interim, he explored the time-transporting appeal of the lute and the poetry of John Dowland (for 2006's 'Songs from the Labyrinth', which led to a fascinating appearance at Walt Disney Concert Hall), and last year he extended that detour into the classical realm via the classy bloat of his Symphoniticites production.
Every rocker of the first order eventually earns the indulgence of an orchestral outing; Sting's venture was better than most and, as with virtually everything he attempts, brimming with integrity and first-rate musicianship. But that last tour also suggested his fire might be getting tamped down as 60 sets in (he hit that milestone in October). He's incapable of looking staid, even in the almost traditional tuxedos he wore as that trek wended its way from San Diego to Hollywood - yet so much about those symphonic shows said otherwise.
So the considerably more modest approach of his limited-run Back to Bass tour is not only admirably smart, it's gratifying and above all encouraging. Never mind 'Sacred Love' and 2003: I'd argue he hasn't been this lean and strong (musically, I mean, though he's still an exemplar of healthy living) since 'Mercury Falling' more than 15 years ago. The pop-steeped albums that followed, including 'Brand New Day' (1999), delivered ever more worldly sophistication to his style, and the concerts that ensued came drenched in elegance and high-art ambition, like pro forma Bryan Ferry with a Persian infusion.
Again, discounting the Police, he hasn't permitted his music to sound so brawny since before he let Puffy pay tribute to Biggie Smalls with 'Every Breath You Take'.
Which is why the longtime fan in me would rather stuff mild gripes in the trash. Sting's work here - more to the point, the robust craftsmanship of his backing quintet coupled with the scarcely diminished power of his voice and supple bass playing - took me back to those heyday tours of the early '90s, including his last Wiltern appearances, during an impassioned stretch of shows shortly after 'The Soul Cages', his most deeply personal record, was released in January '91.
Guitarist Dominic Miller began his longstanding reign as Sting's right-hand man with that album and outing, and he's never been absent since then, apart from the Labyrinth stuff, even adding delicate shades to the bombast of 'Symphonicities'. He's here again, in tastefully gleaming form, as is superb drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, Sting's anchor from the era that also produced 'Ten Summoner's Tales' and 'Mercury Falling'.
Few drummers are skilled enough to measure up to Stewart Copeland, a virtuoso of amalgamated syncopation with a feel as tough as it is fleet. But Colaiuta, a drummer's drummer, is absolutely his equal on Police material - capable of providing both muscle and fresh twists on renderings of 'Driven to Tears' and 'Demolition Man' - while also outshining him in terms of dynamic control on trickier tunes like 'I Hung My Head' and 'Seven Days', odd-metered pieces that Copeland might have turned clunky.
Seeing just those three (Sting, Miller and Colaiuta) jam away with stoic concentration was a treat in itself. Better still, their leader has added three flavors: a second guitarist, Dominic's son Rufus Miller, primarily on acoustic strum and riffage for extra sheen ; the mighty pipes and occasional fiddle assists of Jo Lawry, brilliantly spotlighted at the end of 'The Hounds of Winter', her overcome wailing evoking both a high-pitched guitar solo and the orgasmic cries of Pink Floyd's 'The Great Gig in the Sky'; and the often electrifying violin playing of Peter Tickell, which masterfully churned the rousing finish of 'Love Is Stronger Than Justice'.
Combined, this lineup deftly walks a line between reminding of the past and carrying this relatively stripped-down sound forward - no mean feat, considering how little wiggle room there can be with this material before it stops resembling anything familiar. What the 'Soul Cages'/'Ten Summoner's' quartet (including veteran keyboardist David Sancious) packed in forceful complexity and stop-on-a-dime tightness, this new troupe invests instead in rich sonority. Lawry, Tickell and the junior Miller add warmth to a stark show, nudging Sting's material toward something distinctly Mellencampy, were Mr. ''Pink Houses'' to vamp like choice Steely Dan.
Once that feel washed over the room with the opening 'All This Time', you could sense it would carry through the evening. But it does so in ways both obvious and unexpected. Naturally, it led Sting back to some of his finer country detours, notably the poignant 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying' and the psychic drama of 'Stolen Car (Take Me Dancing)' - although the former's vivid portrait of a divorced dad allows him to coax out nuanced emotions like he'll never get from the latter's awkward shifts in style. What surprised, however, was how those Americana flourishes enhanced moodier pieces, like 'Fortress Around Your Heart' and 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'; even a chugging-not-blitzing 'Next to You' seemed pleasantly infected by its feel.
So what's bugging me? Why doesn't this feel like the fully inspired return-to-form it ought to be?
It's hard to pinpoint the problem out of a general feeling that something's lacking, though I'll start by insisting this never should have been a seated show. Regardless of the relatively older crowd he draws, going general-admission would have increased the number of people who could see these Wiltern gigs, and having them all on their feet instead of idly watching from their chairs would have generated a great deal more excitement. By main-set's end, it sounded like some people had grown bored with clapping.
Then there's a matter of cohesion; as with 'Symphonicities', the Back to Bass concept lacks a certain raison d'etre. Ostensibly launched to help give a push to a new box set ('Sting: 25 Years', supplemented by an anemic single-disc distillation), it serves only to remind us that Mr. Sumner can still rock when he wants to, although these days he does so much less animatedly. (He jumped once, prowled the stage a few times. But mostly he stood at the microphone with his feet pressed together, as in yoga pose.)
Back in '91, when he sanded off the jazz detailing that came with 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles' (1985) and '...Nothing Like the Sun' (1987) - personal landmarks that contribute exactly one track to this tour's rarely altered setlist - Sting seemed drawn toward sparse strength by the need to reconcile the loss of his father. That was the motivating factor behind 'The Soul Cages' (which also adds only one tune to these sets), and the shows that promoted it bristled with exorcised energy, even at their most lugubrious.
By contrast, Monday night's gig played out like an artist reconnecting to his tools, a professional displaying his wares under the aegis of retrospective.
Only, it's not an especially well-chosen overview - or, rather, it's a great start that could do with another half-hour (at least) of deepening material. True, he served up 22 songs in two hours, a perfectly fair amount. Yet why would it be expecting too much of him to go longer, as so many of his contemporaries still can? (Springsteen's typically just getting started after two hours; so's Robert Smith, for that matter.)
Color me crazy, but I'd have left out the Police cuts and swapped in more solo gems. It isn't as though we didn't have ample opportunity recently to hear the real thing play its classics. Plus, this tour is commemorating Sting's post-Police career, not the entirety of his songbook.
Lopping off six pre-Blue Turtles selections (including the acoustic version of 'Message in a Bottle' that closes out every show) would have made room for a more thorough survey of his past quarter-century, a program better befitting the quasi-Storytellers setup he's chosen for this tour. (He was loaded with brief asides about how many of these songs came to be, though none of his tales were as illuminating as they were charming.)
Better yet: don't eliminate the Police tunes, just up your song tally to 30 like any seasoned rock legend. Toss in some head-scratching absentees - hits like 'We'll Be Together', 'Be Still My Beating Heart', 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' and 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You', or summarizers like 'Fragile'. Dust off a couple of heavies - hell, dare to traverse the second half of 'The Soul Cages' - and aim for full-circle completeness. Maybe even cap it off by gleefully grooving through the end of 'Ten Summoner's Tales', insisting to faithful fans that ''you still know nothin' 'bout me.''
I'm thrilled he's found his way back to hard-to-define roots that I gather he never abandoned in the first place, and the rush of it all is definitely tantalizing when he and his group hit their stride. I suspect there may be bold new radio-ready music ahead for him, finally.
Yet, for all his various forays, he's become predictable - I bet he doesn't change but one selection by the time his third Wiltern show is done. Can't help but wonder: Have we learned all there is to know about Sting?
(c) The Orange County Register by Ben Wener