Wintry Sting chills Fourth of July concert...
It was the Fourth of July Weekend, but Sting didn't seem to be in a summery mood as he began his Friday night concert in Camden. ''I'm as dark as December, I'm as cold as the man in the moon,'' he sang in the show's first song, 'The Hounds of Winter'.
A few songs later, he reminded the crowd that in his home country, England, people don't set off fireworks on the Fourth of July. ''They stay home and grumble,'' he said.
The former Police frontman, who shared a double bill with Natalie Merchant at the Blockbuster-Sony Music Entertainment Centre, didn't spend the whole night in a downbeat mood: The show included rousing versions of songs like 'Synchronicity II', 'When the World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around' and 'Demolition Man', and solid performances of Police classics like 'Every Breath You Take' and 'Roxanne'. But it was hardly a feel-good extravaganza either. A surprisingly magic-less 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' epitomized its worst tendencies. The Police's version of this song was instrumentally complex, but still exuberant. Sting's current band drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, guitarist Dominic Miller, keyboardist Kenny Kirkland and horn players Butch Thomas and Clark Gayton drained the life out of it, ambitiously adding polyrhythms and skittering fills, but ignoring the sunny groove that made it a delight in the first place.
Throughout the show, Colaiuta showed disdain for simple, accessible grooves of any kind, playing busy patterns with harsh, clinical precision. This brand of playing may go down well in drum clinics, but Sting needs warmer playing to balance his cerebral instincts.
The show was also weighted down by songs from Sting's ponderous new album, 'Mercury Falling'. All the tricky 9/8 time of 'I Hung My Head' did was make the song sound stilted. 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot' and 'I Was Brought To My Senses' suffered from plodding rhythms and formulaic lyrics (e.g., ''I was blind, now I can see'').
Two songs from 'Mercury Falling', 'You Still Touch Me', a classically styled soul ballad, and the refreshingly breezy 'Lithium Sunset' fared better. And 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying', Sting's daring foray into country, became one of the show's most entertaining numbers when Sting invited an audience member to sing it with him. Delighted by his guest's guts and surprising vocal ability he had warned Sting he couldn't sing Sting played the warm, gracious host, letting his ''important artist'' guard down for a moment.
Sting also shined on 'Seven Days', reciting the storytelling lyrics with a touch of wry amusement, and ended the show with a graceful unplugged version of his ballad, 'Fragile'.
He gave generous soloing time to his adept sidemen, and especially Thomas and Gayton, who specialized in soprano sax and trombone, respectively, but also played a variety of other horn instruments. Both took plenty of solos, frequently walking to the front of the stage to stand beside Sting, and added to the onstage energy with their synchronized, high-stepping dancing.
Sting was unwise, though, to let Thomas rap in the middle of 'Englishman in New York'. The segment was out of place in this melancholy song, and came off as a desperate attempt to be hip.
Opening act Natalie Merchant, who will headline her own amphitheater shows later this summer, has found success as a recording artist after leaving the band 10,000 Maniacs, but presented a show that didn't approach the power of the Maniacs at their best.
Her newly assembled band is adventurous, turning 'These Are Days', for instance, into the kind of breezy tropical celebration one might expect to hear at a Jimmy Buffett concert, and adding flamboyant blues-rock licks to 'Carnival'. But other jams were clumsy, and the band played several songs, including 'San Andreas Fault' and 'Eat For Two', at frustratingly slow tempos.
Merchant is still a charismatic performer, with her rich, deep voice, relaxed, slyly knowing vocal style and eccentric dancing: She sways and twirls as if she's in an intoxicating world of her own. But she has put together a band that doesn't always do her justice.
This was the last joint Sting/Merchant show of the summer, but both will be back in New Jersey soon. Sting will be at the Garden State Arts Center (which may be officially known as the PNC Bank Arts Center by showtime) tomorrow night, with the Cowboy Junkies opening; the show is sold out. Merchant will be at the Arts Center July 25; tickets, priced at $42 and $20 (lawn) are available through Ticketmaster and Ticketmaster Phone Charge, 201-507-8900.
(c) The Star-Ledger by Jay Lustig