Whether a meeting of the musical masterminds or just a playful boys’ night out, the Rock Paper Scissors tour that brought British rock icons Sting and Peter Gabriel to the same stage made for a hell of an opening night for this year’s Festival d’été de Québec.
The much-anticipated collaborative concert kept the crowd clapping for close to three hours, as Sting and Gabriel traded stage time or teamed up on some unexpected – and not always successful – duets from their respective repertoires.
By the time the tour made its way to Québec City on Thursday, with a stop in Montréal just two days prior, the set list was one of the worst-kept secrets on the Internet. Still, those who managed to heed the spoiler alert in hopes of walking onto the Plains of Abraham with fresh ears and eyes could not have been disappointed.
Though inspired by a similar collaborative effort Sting undertook with Paul Simon in 2014-2015, this was a well-orchestrated tour de force that proved the charismatic former Police frontman can still command a capacity crowd – and Gabriel is no Garfunkle.
From the haunting, tribal rumble of Rhythm of the Heat when the lights went up, right through to the bombastic pop of Sledgehammer in the encore, Gabriel left no doubt that the theatricality and powerful and distinctive voice that have served him well in his decades-long post-Genesis career have hardly waned with his advancing years.
Not so his slender physique of yore, which he made the butt of a joke delivered to the crowd in French, read almost flawlessly from a script on a clipboard. It was the same joke heard earlier in the tour, in which Gabriel, who in recent years seems to have taken to dressing in loose-fitting, dark-hued Dr. Evil leisure suits, self-deprecatingly compares himself to the buff, yoga-enhanced Sting. The punchline: the crew now finds the two indistinguishable, calling them “the Tantric twins.”
Sting, too, delighted the locals by sticking largely to the language of Molière when addressing the crowd.
But this event was not about banter; it was about what can happen when two titans take to the stage together and riff on each other’s music as well as their own. Thus, after following up Gabriel’s Rhythm with his own Faith, Sting joined in on the third song of the night, the more obscure No Self Control, setting the tone for the back-and-forth format that was to be followed for the remainder of the evening.
At times, the result was close to phenomenal, as when Gabriel almost shocked the crowd with a slow, sultry, almost spoken-word rendition of If You Love Somebody Set Them Free, from Sting’s 1985 debut solo outing, The Dream of the Blue Turtles.
Sting failed to Shock the Monkey, however, as his take on one of Gabriel’s best-known early pop hits fizzled. He managed to light the spark again later on, giving his own groovy spin to Gabriel’s bouncy Kiss That Frog.
Sting was unquestionably at his best when belting out his own beloved hits, backed up by bandmates of long standing such as guitarist Dominic Miller, whose considerable chops were used to full effect on numbers like Driven to Tears. Even more impressive was the virtuosity of Sting’s young violin player, Peter Tickell, whose soaring solos would have set even Ashley MacIsaac and Nash the Slash packing up their bows and calling it a night.
Did we mention the nostalgia factor? Aside from one new Gabriel song, Rock Paper Scissors is a show that goes deep into the back of the vaults of both artists, which is just what the crowd likely came to hear.
For some, the songs may not have gone back quite far enough, as the only nod to Gabriel’s Genesis days was a snippet of Dancing with the Moonlit Knight, which Sting sang as a segue into his own Message in a Bottle.
Though the set design was minimalistic, limited mainly to big screens, lighting and fog machines, Gabriel’s theatricality was always bubbling just below the surface, though it too paid homage to the past. The choreography around songs like the crowd-favorite Solsbury Hill has not changed since 1994’s Secret World Live tour. Nor has much of Gabriel’s band, which is all for the better. After four decades by Gabriel’s side, bassist Tony Levin is almost as much of an icon as the man himself – and well loved by Québec fans who have also given him a warm welcome when he has visited as a member of King Crimson.
It was a treat to see Sting and Levin share a stage, both being accomplished bass players with vastly different styles. More fun was seeing one defer to the other, as was often the case with Levin taking a seat in the wings to clap along with the crowd whenever it was Sting’s turn to take the spotlight.
As much as the audience showed their appreciation throughout the show, saving perhaps their loudest and most sustained applause for a great Sting-Gabriel rendition of Englishman in New York, it was the players themselves who seemed to be having the most fun of all.
So though uneven at times, opening night of the 2016 Festival d’été de Québec has set the bar fairly high for the 10 days of shows to come. To these two Englishmen in Québec, we say, “Well played, gentlemen, well played indeed.”
(c) Life in Quebec by Michael Bourguignon
Check out more reviews from the Quebec show of the tour at http://www.sting.com/tour/quebec where you can also leave your thoughts about the show, post your photos etc. Also remember to check and use the hashtag #RockPaperScissors on Twitter!