Nearly thirty years after it happened, the Police are still talking about playing the Rat in November 1978. That four-night stand is mentioned in publicity materials for their reunion tour; and Saturday at Fenway Park Sting mentioned "the Rathskellar on Kenmore Square" (he may not have realized how close to that site he was standing). The Police nowadays may look older and play slower but are still chasing the magic, just like a lot of people who played the Rat that year.
To the band's credit, the Police's current tour isn't about sounding just like they did 25 years ago, or sounding just like the records. Rather, it's about recapturing their mojo as an improvisational rock trio who can rearrange songs on the fly. They're playing strictly as a trio, without the added players and backup singers from their later 80's tours (no evident tapes either, except maybe some harmonies). The 'Synchronicity'-era songs automatically sounded different without the keyboards, but nearly everything was reworked or stretched-out (and often moved to lower keys) to let Sting, drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers find their way around each other instrumentally.
That sense of real-time exploration made the two-hour show's peaks grand and its lags excusable. And yes, the lags were there; especially during the first half; where 'Walking on the Moon' floated a little too lightly. And there's no sense playing a punk song like 'Truth Hits Everybody' if you can't rev up to punk speed. The three band members seemed to be keeping their egos in check: Sting made relatively few rock-star moves, spoke conversationally between songs and kept the "eee-yoh" singalongs to a minimum; Copeland didn't get a lead vocal, Summers kept his head down when not soloing. They seemed determined to peak as a unit or not at all.
It took Summers' ripping, cheap-thrill solo on 'Driven to Tears' to bust things open; and from there the peaks kept coming - most notably on 'Walking in Your Footsteps', which featured shifts and surprises that the recorded version barely suggest (Summers seemed to be coaxing the band into a ZZ Top-style boogie riff toward the end). 'Roxanne' started fast and sprightly, the way it probably did at the Rat (complete with Sting going for the high notes that he's avoided in recent years); but the long middle jam was more rewarding, taking the oft-played song to a place it hadn't been before.
The shows will likely get more consistent as the tour goes on; but they could also use some new material, at least a song or two that could represent where the band stands today. Sure, plenty of bands have done quick-grab reunion tours without writing anything new; but even with its dead spots, the first Fenway show proved that the Police are still too good to take the easy way out.
© Boston Phoenix by Brett Milano