Nothing Like The Sun

St. Paul, MN, US
Harriet Island
Sting sharper than ever...

Throughout his brief solo career, Sting has been charged with pedantry, pretension and basic all-around snootiness for having the gall to try to introduce jazz elements to pop-rock audiences.

But witnessing the rich tapestries of Sting's music Monday at RiverFest, as well as the enthusiastic response to even quiet songs, it was readily apparent how stupid and irrelevant those criticisms are.

In a wide-ranging show that logged in at just under two hours, Sting and his crack eight-member band delved into material from his three solo albums and a few tunes left over from the Police blotter.

It was a performance as intellectually stimulating as it was fun to hear. Sting gave his audience lyrics and music to think about, whether it was a jazz-influenced, scorching rock version of Jimi Hendrix's 'Little Wing', an overtly simple love song like 'We'll Be Together', or his haunting, bluesy tribute to the women who stand vigil for Chile's ''disappeared'' in 'They Dance Alone'.

Each song became a full-fledged composition complete with frequent shifts in tempo, improvisational passages and the kind of ebb and flow more frequently found in jazz than rock or pop. Far from amounting to stodgy school figures, however, the songs evolved throughout their progression, unfolding multiple layers of expression while revealing the band's literacy in international music: Latin, reggae, African, blues, rock, funk and soul.

The relatively simple tune 'Englishman in New York', for example, began with a kind of cabaret-reggae treatment, gave way to a bristling soprano sax workout by Branford Marsalis, who then combined with pianist Kenny Kirkland for a swing interlude, which suddenly turned into driving funk and finally headed back to Sting's rather languid saloon singing. While all that was going on, Sting induced the fans to participate in a sing-along.

Sting's band boasts players who can pull all this off without a sweat, led by the inestimable Marsalis on soprano and tenor sax and Kirkland on keyboards. Both scattered shimmering jazz passages throughout the music with brief solos and inspired ensemble work. Kirkland also displayed tingling Latin licks that matched the hot percussion of Mino Cinelu and drummer J.T. Lewis.

Marsalis also roamed far afield stylistically, dropping be-bop-inspired passages throughout, but also adding Staxlike honks to tunes like 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free'. He dedicated the latter - an emotional and music highlight - to Nelson Mandella and the children in South African jails.

Sting himself was just enough of a showman to make things interesting onstage without resorting to gimmicks. He high-pranced around the stage and engaged in some playful cavorting with band members but generally let the music speak for itself. Vocally, his already-gritty whisper seemed a bit hoarse near the end but otherwise added textural distinction.

Among the quieter highlights was an incandescent version of 'Be Still My Beating Heart' that segued into 'Fragile', an anti-violence tribute to human resiliency that Sting marked with delicate acoustic guitar work.

The encores were a surprisingly smirkless 'Home on the Range', which turned into a massive sing-along, and two Police tunes, 'Don't Stand So Close to Me', and 'Every Breath You Take'.

Former English Beat and General Public vocalist Ranking Roger and a four-piece band opened with a less-than-30-minute set featuring material from his new solo career. Tunes like 'So Excited' and the anti-drug 'One Minute Closer to Death' were ska-influenced dance tracks that employed repetitious lyrics and were slicker than such old Beat stuff as 'Mirror in the Bathroom', which closed the set.

(c) The St Paul Pioneer Press by Rick Mason