Three glorious nights in Melbourne...
Sting performed at the Palais in Melbourne for three nights, from Wednesday, 15 November to Friday, 17 November. It was a relief when the shows were announced, as, despite reassurances from Outlandos and Stingchronicity, I had been fearing for almost a year that Sting might bypass Australia. I was determined to attend all three shows because I wanted to make absolutely sure I saw the best one! Despite heart-stopping prices - almost $AU150 for the better seats, $AU100 for the cheaper - tickets for the first show sold out immediately, and for the second almost as fast; tickets for the third were still available on the night, but by show time there appeared to be no empty seats. By activating my credit card very fast (and in one case pleading for tickets before they were officially released), I was lucky enough to get good tickets for every night. The best was eighth row from the front, dead centre.
In the lead-up to the shows, my appetite was whetted by Sting's various television and radio appearances. Piloting a yacht past the Opera House, he recalled being in the midst of fishy panic when caught in a thunderstorm while diving in Sydney Harbour; he commented on the relative merits of music and ditch digging, of 'Twister' and 'Hungry Hippos', and accepted a Melbourne comic's challenge to a chess match (outcome unknown); he recalled his first meeting with Miles Davis, and the surreal experience of collaborating with Trudie, by trans-Atlantic phone connection, on a French translation of the Miranda Rights for a Davis track. But he didn't sing - that was still to come.
The first night arrived. At 8 pm, the advertised starting time, my husband and I were stuck hopelessly in traffic. I did consider getting out of the car and running the last few kilometres. However, not wanting to arrive red and sweaty - and not a very good runner anyway, especially in kitten heels - I decided instead to pray for an opening act. My prayers were answered. We finally arrived at the Palais to find crowds milling around the outside and foyer - a certain sign that Sting had not yet taken the stage. Great! Time to buy a program and check out the souvenir T-shirts for something that would stop short of my ankles.
I'm not sure of the capacity of the Palais, but I think the figure is around 2,000. It's quite a small venue (the same one used during the 'Mercury Falling' tour), but uniquely appropriate. Located only a few hundred metres from the St Kilda foreshore, and thus the beneficiary of glorious pre-show sunsets, it's across the street from a National Heritage amusement park, close to a trendy club-and-café strip, and within a stone's throw of the closest thing Melbourne has to a red-light district. The auditorium seats may be vinyl-covered pull-downs, but the floor inclines steeply, assuring excellent sight lines. The theatre ornamentation - dark woods, worn leather, gilt masks - is rich and faintly decadent, conjuring up the castle in the video for 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You'; the smell, too, is the fusty and slightly intoxicating scent of decaying splendour, sort of 'Eau de Dorian Gray'.
The opening act for the three shows was Mick Hart, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter from Sydney. His sound reminded me immediately of Jeff Buckley. I have since read that he is represented in the US by Buckley's former manager, and he included at least one Buckley cover in his 30-minute solo set. I say 'at least', because I confess that I didn't hear much of the performance - I had my fingers firmly in my ears! I could still hear enough to tell that he has a lot of talent, but the decibel level and shriek factor were way beyond my pain tolerance. I don't think I was alone, because few people ventured into the auditorium while he was performing. Normally he plays with a band (drums, bass, violin), so perhaps the effect is quite different. He also seemed very nervous - probably in awe of Sting, whom he described as one of his idols.
The half-hour wait while the stage was prepared was filled pleasantly by recorded Beatles' tunes. The audience hummed along cheerily to 'Octopus's Garden' and 'Something in the Way She Moves', craned their necks to peer at the ornate ceiling, or furtively checked out the faces and figures in the crowd. As for me, I rearranged the light-catching jewellery I had worn (a large bejewelled cross one night, a thick gold necklet another) in the childish hope of being noticed when spots shone on the crowd. The shows began promptly at 9 pm (with the exception of the Friday show, which was an inexcusable five minutes late!).
Darkness. Silence, fluttered by a communal intake of breath. The sonorous opening rumble of 'A Thousand Years'... and the concert lifted off. It was apparent instantly that Sting, looking relaxed in his standard black muscle top and cargo pants, was in sensational voice and form. In fact, the closer the vantage point, the better he looked. (At the moment, he seems to be aging backwards - and for those few evenings of the show, I felt as though I was too!) His stage presence was so compelling, there was an audible gasp when the spotlight first caught him. I clearly heard the woman next to me groan, 'My gawd, he still has it!' She spoke for many.
'A Thousand Years' is one of my all-time favourite songs, and I had been aching to hear it live. On the first night in the lounge, I was disappointed. The sound seemed muddy, and the evocative lyrics were unintelligible. That was not the case on the following nights, so it was probably a function of where I was sitting. Down in the stalls, the lyrics to this gorgeous ballad - indeed, the lyrics to all the songs - came through with crystal clarity, the balance was spot-on, and the bass vibrations running up my legs from the concrete floor were delightfully visceral. Much as my eyes gravitated to the stage, there were whole minutes when I just closed them and let that boundless, mystical sound wash over me like a cool interplanetary ocean.
After the solemn opening, with the Asia-Pacific leg of the tour almost at an end, the Melbourne concerts took on something of the giddy feel of the last week of school. Sting seemed exceptionally at ease, playful and happy - no patter, but a lot of movement and audience contact, and a fair bit of interchange with other band members (often by way of funny faces). The whole band, in fact, seemed to be having a good time. Chris Botti fostered particularly good rapport with the audience during his brilliant solos; and Kipper kept animated in the background, waving to the audience, leading the clap-alongs and generally contributing to the high energy levels. All to the good!
The set list contained few surprises for fans who have followed the 'Brand New Day' tour. I was sorry that 'Tomorrow We'll See' has fallen off the program: I like to cha-cha to it (and I would have expected it to be an enormous hit in Sydney, home of the famous Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras!). Still, 'All This Time' and 'Shape of My Heart' - the song that first 'hooked' me on Sting - were pretty good consolation prizes!
Staging, too, was much as I've seen it described in reviews from other countries, although I don't think Melbourne got any moons. We did get flashing space-ship lights above the stage, which looked pretty cool while Sting was cowering in the front corner of the stage at the end of 'A Thousand Years'. The lighting transitions were simple but effective, with the dappled-sunny-grove effect on 'Fields of Gold' particularly pleasing.
Now as everyone knows, the quality of a live performance is almost as much a function of the audience as of the performer. The quality of certain Australian audiences, I have heard, left a lot to be desired. So before continuing with a description of the music, let me first defend the honour of Melbourne fans.
My experiences on the three nights were quite different with respect not only to sound quality, but also level of audience involvement - not to mention the age of the audience, which seemed to get younger every night. I had expected the most enthusiastic audience to be the first-nighters, as I assumed that most would be hard-core fans who had been waiting like famished wolves to snap up tickets the instant they went on sale. The response on Wednesday night was noisily enthusiastic - but by comparison, the Thursday-nighters were hysterical! Hordes of people danced in the aisles all night, while killjoy ushers tried fruitlessly to get them back to their seats. Fans in the front rows touched hands with Sting, young girls gyrating near Dominic's side of the stage flicked him what appeared to be business cards. For much of the concert, virtually the whole audience was up and rockin'. Fantastic!!
While strong on dancing, the crowd on Thursday was a little reluctant to sing. The Friday night fans, by contrast, seemed determined to make up for this: the responses in songs like 'Roxanne' and 'Englishman in New York' came virtually without prompting. Friday-nighters wanted to dance, too, but when a few of us left our seats to groove in the aisles, we were shooed back by a particularly officious blond usher. We remonstrated mildly, arguing that we were in the side aisles close to the walls, we were blocking no one's view, the band didn't mind, et cetera. Fortunately, one of Sting's people (I think) came to the rescue, basically telling the usher to lighten up. Things took off nicely from there!
Rather than go through the program song by song, I might just flag a few moments that had me enraptured. I thought the 'Preservation Hall' reading of 'Moon Over Bourbon Street' was brilliant - definitely one of my favourites on the first night, and I looked forward to it keenly on each subsequent night. 'Perfect Love...Gone Wrong' and 'Fill Her Up' were also show-stoppers live, although my brain kept wanting to supply the James Taylor part, and the segue into 'Fields of Gold' was dramatic and powerful. Dominic's guitar work on 'Fields' was shimmering and effective as usual, weaving gossamer arpeggios through the final two stanzas. 'All This Time' was pretty much the album version - burnished perfection, irresistibly catchy, and an utter joy.
I believe that on some parts of the tour, Russ Irwin took the Cheb Mami part in 'Desert Rose'. Russ was the only backup singer for the Melbourne shows, but Sting himself sang the Mami introduction. It was a creditable performance, but, like many fans, I missed the sensuous interplay of languages and voices. For me, the song also ended a bit abruptly and lacked some of the emotional drama of the album version. Nevertheless, it was good to see that both 'Desert Rose' and several other songs from the new album - notably 'Brand New Day' and 'Perfect Love...Gone Wrong' - were received with almost as much delight as the classics.
Speaking of classics, 'Roxanne' was mind-blowing. It surely must have inflamed the soul of the most partisan Police fan! Sting and the band made no special effort to get a call-and-response going. (In fact, only 'Englishman in New York' featured any notable audience sing-along, except on the third night.) Instead, after the first full run-through they launched into a driving, repetitive, orgasmic build-up over a two-bar bass riff (two beats of repeated 16th notes, if memory serves, followed by two beats of rising/falling 8th notes). As Sting powered away on the bass, he seemed to lose himself in a sweaty trance until release came with the final repetitions of 'Roxanne' in an anguished, spent whisper. By the time the band erupted into the finale, the crowd was in a frenzy - and, if my experience is representative, badly in need of a cold shower!
'Bring on the Night'/'When the World' was another triumph - Sting in unbelievable voice, Jason Rebello burning up the keys like a musical petrol-head, and Manu Katché detonating explosions of drumstick shards. This bravura performance climaxed a show paced to perfection, careering along like a gleaming VFT until we emerged, breathless and exhilarated, at the end of the journey. There was just enough energy left for the thunderous applause, which the band acknowledged with waves, bows, and applause in return. On the last night, as the band resumed the stage for the first encore, two female voices bellowed in exemplary Eliza-at-Ascot style, 'YER GORGEOUS, STING! WE LURVE YA', STING!' Sting lowered his head with a smile that could have been either pleased or embarrassed, and I do believe he blushed.
After the mighty effort of 'Bring on the Night', the opening song of the first encore - 'Shape of My Heart' - got off to a slightly shaky start on Wednesday. No such problem at the other two shows. On Thursday, though, that magnificent song was partly spoiled by whoops and whistles from the audience. When Sting sang the lines beginning, 'And if I told you that I loved you...' , it provoked a fluff of girly shrieking and giggling. Sting shook his head slightly, and his mouth drew into a Mona Lisa arch whose meaning became clear when he launched into the next stanza with particular emphasis: 'AND THOSE WHO SPEAK KNOW NOTHING!' The crowd understood the rebuke and cheered, Sting smiled again, and the song ended in the stillness that it deserved.
The song everyone is always assumed to be waiting for, 'Every Breath You Take', got a huge response. By the last bars on the final night, not a person was left sitting - and the cheering, hand-clapping, whistling and foot-stamping was deafening. Some have objected to the fast tempo with which Sting takes the song on this tour, and it does shake out the subtlety and depth. But I liked it just fine. We all know the song is ambiguous and dark, we all know that Sting hasn't forgotten how to do 'menace'. It's just that on this occasion, he has chosen to use it as the grand finale for a show that is fundamentally energetic, sexy, fun - and what a finale it was!
I have to say, in fact, these 'Brand New Day' shows were far more fun than the 'Mercury Falling' concerts I attended in 1996. No doubt that was to be expected, given the respective tones of the albums. Even though the stage-play was closely choreographed, the band still made it seem fresh and spontaneous every night. That is an amazing feat - I don't know how anyone can pull it off after more than a year on the road. I guess that's what it means to be a real pro. No matter what show the audience attended, no one drew the short straw!
The intimate songs of the second finale were really a necessity by that point. We needed to be let down lightly, and the delicacy of Sting's acoustic work and soberness of his lyrics certainly achieved that. 'Message in a Bottle' suffered a two-second misstep on Wednesday, when Sting momentarily lost the plot and the chord, muttering 'Come on!' as he struggled to retrieve it, but it detracted little from the intimacy of the reading. The ever-moving 'Fragile' had particular local poignancy on Wednesday: the day's main news story had been the cold-blooded shooting and dumpster disposal of a taxi driver, father of two small children, for a negligible amount of cash. How fragile we are indeed!
At last the inevitable moment arrived, and the band members made their final exit to ear-splitting acclaim. Sting and his colleagues waved repeatedly and, again, warmly applauded the audience. Possibly this is just standard practice at the end of the shows, but it looked sincere. And it was appreciated.
Out into the pleasant evening air, my hands still red from the workout. On Thursday and Friday, my two nights without my husband, I decided to join the queue at the stage door in hope of a sighting or an autograph; I also had a gift, just in case. (By the way, I was interested to find that a number of the other waiting women had also ditched their husbands after the first show. Is that the usual pattern?) The crowd waiting on Thursday was large, perhaps 200 people or more. Despite repeated warnings that Sting would not stop if people moved past a certain point, the crowd continued to press closer to the doors. And, sure enough, when Sting and the band emerged about half-an-hour after the show, they quickly walked straight to the waiting vehicles without acknowledging the crowd in any way. I saw Dominic, Chris and Manu at close range, as they made a bit of a side-detour that took them past me. All I saw of Sting was the top of his very blond hair, but even that seemed to have a regal aura.
Friday night looked a lot more hopeful, as only a handful of people stayed behind and I was the first in the queue. The night was balmy; the fans were in good spirits; and the door staff were chatty, while warning us that the band had to catch an early flight in the morning. A few people commented on the mountain of equipment already assembled to be loaded into waiting trucks for transport to Brisbane. That was nothing, the roadies chortled - Sting traveled light. Why, one diva's make-up case was equivalent to two trunks of Sting's lighting equipment!
And so the time passed in this way, in idly watching the well-rehearsed roadies, and in ducking heavy wooden things passing over our heads until the moment came when first Jason, then Dominic, Manu and Chris emerged from the stage door. They were close enough to touch, but, curiously, no one said or did anything more than call out their names. We were all tensed for The Big Moment, for the arrival of Sting himself. Instead, out came one of the theatre staff to pass on the sad tidings that 'The King' (his words) had slipped out a back exit.
The announcement proved to be true, and the crowd reluctantly, dejectedly started to disperse. There were some dark mutterings, shared anecdotes of other stars who had stayed to sign autographs for hours after their shows - and wasn't that the least they could do for people who had forked out obscene amounts of hard-earned to see them? By far the worst news for me, though, was the discovery from others in the crowd that Sting had signed autographs and chatted with fans on Wednesday night. Damn my husband! It was all his fault that I had missed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! I slouched away to the taxi rank feeling quite deflated.
But despite the sorrows of the evening, I awoke on Saturday feeling energised, blissful and divinely forgiving. After all, the price of a ticket covers only entry to a show, right?, not a personal audience with the performers. (And with the Aussie dollar trying its hardest to become the peso of the Pacific, $150 isn't really very much anyway - maybe twenty-five cents American!) Taking account of ticket costs, program, souvenir T-shirts and taxi fares, my concert orgy did not come cheap. And you know what? I had such an absolutely, mind-blowingly fantastic time, I would do it again tomorrow. Fortunately, my dear, dear husband just shrugs his shoulders resignedly and says, 'It's your money.' Yup, and it does buy happiness!
(c) Diane Villani for Sting.com