Sting's relaxed fit: Singer has loosened up in concert, giving an inviting and poetic performance...
As Sting noted in the concert program on sale Sunday at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, the celebrated Englishman likes to keep his audience off guard, injecting his music with the mystery and challenge of a puzzle.
It's a point he demonstrated quickly on stage in 'The Hounds of Winter', the first of four songs from his new 'Mercury Falling' album that he used to open the stylish, 90-minute program on a tour that moves tonight to the Greek Theatre.
In the song, Sting tells of a man so devastated by a woman's absence that he's ''dark as December, cold as the man in the moon,'' but he leaves it up to listeners to supply the details - and thus adapt it to their own lives.
Is he talking about a wife who has died? Or one who has simply left him? Or maybe he's writing once again about the death of his mother?
But the real puzzle with Sting is how he can make music that is at once so sophisticated, and yet so blessed with an everyman touch, that he has been able to sell millions of records both within the context of the Police rock group in the early '80s and on his own ever since.
If the late Cole Porter were able to update his witty and wonderful 'You're the Top', he'd likely throw out such dated references as 'You're a Waldorf salad' and 'You're a Berlin ballad' in favor of something like 'You're a Lauren Polo' and 'You're a Sting solo'.
In Sting's songs, he not only reaches outside the pop mainstream for inviting jazz and world-music touches, but he also applies them to thoughtful themes and memorable images. He sings with the grace and surprising tone shifts of a poet.
His excellent musicians, too, navigate a variety of moods and styles with the economy and flair of a championship athletic team. Back again are Kenny Kirkland on keyboards, Dominic Miller on guitar and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, along with horn players Clark Gayton and Butch Thomas. Rather than stand apart, Sting, as the bassist, is an active - and equal - participant in the music.
Though he once seemed somewhat stiff and aristocratic in concert, Sting has loosened up in recent years. Things were so relaxed Sunday that he invited an audience member on stage to sing along on the chorus of the country-spiked 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying', and later brought someone else up to dance on another number.
Given this light and inviting air, the defining moments at the County Bowl (where the quirky, uneven trio Geggy Tah opened) came when Sting offered a message so uplifting that it might have struck him as too obvious and even corny.
'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot', a song from the new album that he sang early in the set, is a reminder to follow your own heart. It's about as close to a pure ''feel-good'' song as Sting has ever written.
To make sure no one missed the point, he turned near the close of the show to 'Englishman in New York', a song from 1987's '...Nothing Like the Sun' album that conveys a similar message. This time, he repeated several times the line, ''Be yourself no matter what they say.''
From his decision to leave the Police to his ability to make even more daring and original music on his own, Sting has followed that code himself - and it's nice that he now feels comfortable enough in his life and music to set aside some of the mystery and just reach out on such a personal and disarming level to his fans.
(c) Los Angeles Times by Robert Hilburn