In a lot of ways, there were some unfair expectations on Sting and Peter Gabriel's joint "Rocks, Paper, Scissors" tour, which came Saturday night to the DCU Center in Worcester. The sold-out show promised two music icons with deep, familiar catalogs. The risk was the show becoming sort of a jukebox musical, all spectacle but soulless from decades of dull repetition. That the show met expectations was a testament to the two legendary musicians and the excellent musicians backing them. That they surpassed expectations is nothing short of remarkable.
Not wasting any time, the merged band - comprising members of both Sting and Gabreil's backup bands - took to the stage for a nearly overwhelming rendition of Gabriel's “The Rhythm of the Heat,” with Gabriel's vocals high and intense against the backdrop of a 12-person backing band that included three drummers: Vinnie Colaiuta, Ged Lynch and Rhani Krija. The percussion was so heavy that it reverberated in the listener's chest. Immediately after, Sting joined the ensemble for a raucous, upbeat rendition of his “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You.” This pair of songs would set the tone for the rest of the three-hour show, with Gabriel leaning toward ornate intensity and Sting bringing a grounded rock sensibility to even his jazz-influenced numbers.
The pair played musical ping pong for a bit, jamming and trading vocals through Gabriel's “No Self Control,” “Invisible Sun” by Sting's original band, The Police, Gabriel's “Games Without Frontiers” and finally, a rendition of Gabriel's “Shock the Monkey” that saw Sting taking most of the lead vocal duties, a match that seemed unnervingly natural, as though it had always been his song. The song's iconic keyboard progression was heightened by the work of Boston-born bassist Tony Levin, cellist Linnea Olsson and violinist Peter Tickell, giving the song a sort of energy that surpassed already-unreasonable expectations: Rather than wholesale transformation of the well-known songs, the ensemble frequently opted for detail work, bringing exceptional skill to small passages and corners of the songs, and making them pop. It was enormously effective, especially on Sting's tighter-written songs. Gabriel's work, such as the haunting “Secret World,” is more orchestrally composed, and lends itself more to broadly reinterpreted arrangements.
But things were best kept tighter with Sting, whose spare, stripped-down rendition of his song “Fragile,” dedicated to the victims of the Orlando shooting, marked the evening's first truly emotional moment, Sting's rough baritone cracking as he sang, “Perhaps this final act was meant/to clench a lifetime's argument/that nothing comes from violence/and nothing ever could.” In complement, Olsson's cello cut across the song like heartbreak.
That was hardly the night's only political moment, as the recent British vote to leave the European Union was clearly weighing on both Englishman's minds, leading to Sting playing a rendition of Gabriel's old Genesis song, “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight,” and its plaintive “Can you tell me where my country lies?” The moment of outrage - Sting said they were both perplexed that their country had “lost its mind” - was balanced by a high-energy sequence that included The Police's “Message in a Bottle” and Gabriel's “Kiss That Frog,” before a truly devastating rendition of Gabriel's “Don't Give Up,” with backup singer Jennie Abrahamson taking the part originally sung by Kate Bush on the original recording, and meeting that impossibly high standard.
But while the moments of emotional intensity were stellar, the show really came to life when the pair were having fun. Gabriel and Sting camped through the performance of one of Gabriel's most well-known songs, “Big Time,” to great effect, and when they traded verses on Sting's “Englishman in New York,” an ode to the great British writer Quentin Crisp, Gabriel's voice sparked with life on the lines, “If manners maketh man as someone said/then he's the hero of the day.” Likewise, Sting accentuated the vocals on the lyric, “Takes more than combat gear to make a man/takes more than a license for a gun,” winking as he sang.
As the show went on, the pair's confidence as seasoned musical veterans showed, allowing them to rekindle the youthful fire in which the songs were mostly forged. Gabriel's “Solsbury Hill” and the Police's “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” felt ripped from time, as fresh as they were in the artists' '80s heyday, but surprises were still in store: Gabriel provided a Leonard Cohen-meets-lounge singer rendition of Sting's “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” that was truly hilarious, and Sting extended the Police classic “Roxanne” into a captivating jazz jam, cut with a segue into a tribute to the late Bill Withers and a piece of his best-known song, “Ain't No Sunshine.”
But the night's most stunning and heartbreaking moment came as Gabriel told the tale of his friendship with the late British member of parliament Jo Cox, who was recently, as he put it, “assassinated by a crazy racist.” Gabriel dedicated a tear-worthy rendition of his “Love Can Heal” that was almost painful to listen to. Even Sting's subsequent performance of his Middle Eastern-flavored “Desert Rose,” featuring truly stunning backup vocals by Jo Lawry, couldn't assuage the sadness, but all of that emotion flowed into the set's closing number, a cathartic, blockbuster rendition of Gabriel's “In Your Eyes,” with Sting and Abrahamson dueting on the song's closing vocal sequence.
The night ended with a rousing encore of the Police's “Every Breath You Take” and Gabriel's “Sledgehammer,” two songs that capped an emotional, whirlwind performance on a high note, a fitting end to a concert that demonstrated that these two iconic musicians remain consummate showmen.
(c) Worcester Telegram by Victor D. Infante
Check out more reviews from the Worcester show of the tour at http://www.sting.com/tour/worcester 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!