Peter Gabriel and Sting may be longtime friends. But co-headlining Summerfest's closing night Sunday at the Marcus Amphitheater, Gabriel kiddingly implied they were enemies.
"We have in fact the red team and the blue team," Gabriel said, joking that the audience had color-coded score cards they could hold up to award each headliner points.
Keeping score myself, I honestly have to call a draw... and declare the audience the real winner. If either Sting or Gabriel had performed at the Marcus alone, based on their individual portions of Sunday's concert, it would have been a Summerfest highlight this year.
But for what's been dubbed the "Rock Paper Scissors" tour, they merged their sets - Gabriel would take one, then Sting, they'd do one together, and on and on. Sunday's show spanned 28 songs across two hours and 45 minutes. That combined with the headliners' skill and passion - and their dynamic and versatile 12-piece band - made this one of the best concerts of the year.
Gabriel at times can seem self-serious, but he must have been in an especially playful mood Sunday. He joked that to get in shape like the muscular Sting, he took up power yoga, and after just three lessons, "nobody backstage can tell us apart."
But perhaps he really was serious about the yoga, because Gabriel proved to be an animated performer Sunday. For "Secret World" he trekked across the stage, spun around tambourine in hand, and dramatically arched his while digging deep into a keyboard solo. Even for quieter songs, there were effective theatrics. During "Don't Give Up," Gabriel paced, distraught, symbolizing the isolation addressed in the song. Jennie Abrahamson supplied stirring vocals, but they intentionally never acknowledged each other - until embracing for the song's uplifting climax, and then joyfully dancing together.
Gabriel at one point could be seen off to the side, doing some synchronized air piano runs with other resting musicians while Sting played the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic." And really, who could blame Gabriel for nabbing one of the best seats in the house for one of Sting's most effervescent crowd pleasers?
Sting's artistic itch, however, did get the better of him during another favorite, the Police's "Roxanne." Throwing the crowd by skipping over the first chorus, "Roxanne" then unraveled, becoming a jazz-lite rendition, and briefly transformed into Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine." The chorus did eventually come, but without the proper build-up, the audience didn't rally behind it.
But "The Hounds of Winter" was a dramatic improvement, with quiet, ethereal rock dramatically and suddenly juxtaposed with melodramatic organ and Jo Lawry's ghostly wail. And the Police's "Driven to Tears" went into hyperdrive with Peter Tickell's fiery violin solo; the GoPro on his shoulder captured the heart-racing moment, broadcasting his vantage point on the stage's big screens.
Gabriel also offered his own enhancement - of a Sting song, via a sexier, slinkier rearrangement of "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free." And while Gabriel didn't cover any Genesis Sunday, Sting actually did, performing a snippet of Celtic-inspired ballad "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight" before Sting and the band suddenly jumped into the reggae-pop grooves of the Police's "Message in a Bottle."
Among the 13 songs performed together, Sting whistled and marched behind Gabriel during "Games Without Frontiers;" Gabriel let Sting handle frontman duties for "Kiss That Frog;" and Sting and Lawry offered ethereal vocal flourishes at the end of "In Your Eyes."
And for the night's closer "Sledgehammer," Sting and Gabriel did some choreographed dancing with the band, and boisterously sang side by side, arms wrapped around each other. Perhaps they realized, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
(c) Journal Sentinel by Piet Levy
Check out more reviews from the Milwaukee show of the tour at http://www.sting.com/tour/summerfest 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!