Returning to Form After Some Fancy...
Sting was alone onstage, cradling an acoustic guitar, during the final moments of his supremely self-possessed show at the Roseland Ballroom on Tuesday night. It was the third encore, and as has been customary during his "Back to Bass" tour, he was playing a stripped-down version of 'Message in a Bottle', one of the springier No. 1 singles from his tenure with the Police. The lyrical gist of the song - in brutal shorthand, crushing isolation softened by a bleak epiphany - came across more clearly than usual, even as the crowd giddily sang along. "Love can mend your life, but love can break your heart," Sting admonished, his singing nearly drowned out by cheers.
As its title suggests, the "Back to Bass" tour is a realignment, a return to form after some fanciful digressions. If you've seen Sting in performance within the last five years, chances are you've experienced something more momentous or precious: a reunion tour with the Police or something involving a symphony orchestra or an earnest recital of wintry folk songs. Last month he presided over his own 60th-birthday concert at the Beacon Theater, a benefit with the appropriate star wattage and sense of occasion.
By comparison Tuesday's show - the first of two at Roseland, and Sting's 40th in New York, by his own tally - was a routine jog around the track. Which is not to undersell the focus or exertion involved. Until that last encore Sting played electric bass, firmly and efficiently anchoring each song. His singing voice, as usual, was reedy and resilient, satiny along the edges but flinty at its core.
He brought the right blush of fervor to some more pugnacious Police tracks - 'Next to You', 'Driven to Tears', 'Demolition Man' - and duly simmered on later set pieces like 'I Hung My Head'. At every turn he was impressively supported by his band, featuring two longtime collaborators: Dominic Miller, his whippetlike but unflashy guitarist, and Vinnie Colaiuta, the most exactingly dynamic drummer in pop. Joining them were Rufus Miller, Dominic's son, on rhythm guitar; Peter Tickell, a charismatic fiddler from Newcastle, England, Sting's mythic fount of origin; and Jo Lawry, a backup singer doubling on fiddle and percussion.
But for all the sure-footed exertion onstage Sting kept drawing the focus back to the issue of song craft. Which might seem risky for a lyricist routinely accused of pretentious blather, and a troubadour often given to telling more than he shows.
The strong points in his set pointed toward a capacity for sly humor and meticulous candor. This didn't necessarily coincide with the hits: 'Fields of Gold' and 'Every Breath You Take' both felt rushed, obligatory. What worked better, unexpectedly, were songs like 'Ghost Story', an austere reverie involving the memory of his father, and 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying', a country pastiche with a chord progression that quietly shifts along with the mood of the lyrics.
Then there was 'Inside', which elicited Sting's most emphatic singing, in a rant about the hazards of opening up to love. That wary vulnerability was of a piece with his body of work - see 'Fortress Around Your Heart' or even 'Message in a Bottle' - but Sting gave it a wilder, more unstable foundation here. "Love is annihilation," he sang, spitting out the words, but seeming to find some traction in them.
(c) The New York Times by Nate Chinen