Discrete Excess: The Police strikingly self-assured - Improvisational skills still amazing...
There Andy Summers was, bent at the knees, burrowing into the tune like it was made of clay, excavating all the slippery, salivating leads from the number the way a dentist mines a cavity.
The song was 'So Lonely', and The Police guitarist pushed hard against the bounds of the temperamental rocker, soloing feverishly, slapping his whammy bar around and banging on his instrument like some closed door he was trying to kick down.
The crowd waited for Summers to come up for air, and they waited a long time.
But then he snapped back in line with his bandmates - drummer Stewart Copeland and singer/bassist Sting, who were locked in with one another like a couple of schoolyard bullies engaged in a staring contest - joining them in meting out a tight, simple groove.
Discrete excess. Does such a thing exist?
It does when The Police are in town.
Performing in Las Vegas for the first time, the band's tunes were a mix of economy and extravagance, at once Spartan and sophisticated, defined largely by their symmetry. Their songs are laden with trapdoors that plunge a straightforward pop tune into a sweaty exercise in controlled chaos.
Playing to a sold-out MGM Grand Garden, the band was at its best when plumbing the crevices of their hit-filled catalog to uncover new shapes and forms hidden in the shadows.
They grafted 'Voices In My Head' and 'When The World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around' into a high-impact medley with rolling thunder drums and Summers breathing fire with some crazy-eyed soloing.
Sparks also flew when the band teased even more serrated funk out of 'Truth Hits Everyone' and put the hammer down on 'Driven To Tears', whacking at it like a pi?±ata with odd metered rhythms.
In this context, standards like the show-opening 'Message In A Bottle' and 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' occasionally felt stiff-limbed by comparison, even though they were executed with an emphasis on surgical precision and proficiency.
It's just that this band sounds best when goading each other on in new directions, indulging in each other's sizable improvisational skills like kids gorging on birthday cake.
It all begins with Copeland, who swings hard, playing with his hands over his head at times, lashing at his snare like he's cracking a whip. Sting counters with malleable, sharp elbowed basslines, his rocket-launcher voice soaring high above the band's tunes.
The end result can be lilting and meditative - Spirits in the Material World', 'This Bed's Too Big Without You' - or raucous and raw as a skinned knee - 'Synchronicity II', the show-ending 'Next To You'.
Either way, it's never bashful, and neither are these dudes. Sting was taking bows after the fourth song, and Copeland opened the show by banging on a gong the size of Wyoming.
It's this self-assuredness that has both defined The Police and caused the band to fissure when egos became as outsized as the group's record sales. But at the MGM Grand, all this pomp and verve was put to good use.
"The meek shall inherit the Earth," Sting bawled on 'Walking In Your Footsteps'.
Um, yeah, not on this night.
© Las Vegas Review-Journal by Jason Bracelin