Blue Turtles

Worcester, MA, US
Worcester Centrum
Turtle soap...

Confusion hung over the crowd like a dark cloud on a stormy night ''When's he gonna cut the mellow shit,'' grumbled a belligerent punter, oblivious to the new musical course Sting is charting these days.

Call it what you like - jazz/rock/fusion - I call it fine music. Sting, for all his shortcomings as a musician, was smart enough at least to bring his studio pills on tour and to give them free rein to sculpture the sound. Drummer Omar Hakim and saxophonist Branford Marsalis are gifted musical craftsmen and they saved Sting's ass (does this sound familiar, Police fans?).

As for the off-duty copper... this concert, and the album its promoting ('The Dream Of The Blue Turtles') strip Sting down and expose his lowest common musical denominator.

His voice could pierce a brick shithouse but his six-string guitar-playing should be locked inside one.

This is not to minimize Sting's talent as a songwriter. I for one believe that the world of popular music still has a hallowed place reserved for music with a social message but then I still listen to The Clash and the Jam. 'We Work The Black Seam' and 'Children's Crusade' are more than just songs about coal mining and world wars; they are important counterpoints to Maggie and Ronnie's vision of 1985.

Sting isn't all politics of course, and he knows how to craft a decent pop song - a good thing, since it's unlikely his blue fusion will ever be mainstream. The latest two, 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' and 'Fortress Around Your Heart', feel like ten milligrams of morphine during a difficult amputation... alas, the patient died but the leg was saved. Roxanne turned her back and walked off into the night.

(c) Sounds by Charles Dodson

Sting as heartthrob, not headmaster...

Back home in England, some rock writers have started to call Sting ''The Headmaster'' for his stern, scholastic preachings about personal conduct and world affairs.

In interview after interview he's talked about the same concerns he's sung about on his recent solo album - nuclear war, heroin addiction, British coal miners, weeping children, soldiers killed at the peak of their youth, and last but of course not least, the pangs of modern love vs. individual freedom.

All of which looks very serious and cerebral on paper (no wonder Rolling Stone has called him the ''thinking fan's rock star''), but doesn't address his almost overwhelming role as a global heartthrob. This is the essential nature of his fame, whether he likes to admit it or not.

Certainly no one could argue last night about which role - headmaster or heartthrob - was most prominent. It was heartthrob all the way, as shrieking teens screamed at his every nod, his every step, his every smile, his every word, his every everything.

Sting performed quite admirably - with much more high-energy zeal than his mellow and jazzified album would suggest - but one's heart went out to him. He appeared to be, oddly enough, so straitjacketed by his fame and movie-idol good looks that the political content of his songs, about which he cares so much, was virtually buried amid the hail of primal, ear-splitting screams.

This at times felt more like a Rick Springfield or Leif Garrett concert; not the kind of event, to say the least, conducive to any soul-searching. Sting reacted to the hero worship pleasantly enough, but still could scarcely contain his frustrations. When a stuffed toy animal landed at his feet midway through, he couldn't help saying: ''When I go to sleep at night, I got little squirrels and little bumblebees in the bed. I can't sleep, man. Thank you anyway, but there's no room for me in my own bed.''

At another time, just before commencing the hushed 'Moon Over Bourbon Street', he said, ''All right, no indiscriminate clapping or macho noises. Let's have one last scream which will have to last you for the next four minutes.''

He was congenial about it, but the very fact he had to be so big brother-like was a distraction both to the show and to his art. The screaming reached Richter scale-shattering levels during his latest hits, 'Set Me Free' and 'Fortress Around Your Heart', each of which carried more bite than the vinyl versions, though these latter have still propelled his 'Dream of the Blue Turtles' solo album to the No. 2 spot on this week's Billboard charts.

The rafters shook again for the several songs he played from his core band, the Police, including a slithery 'Bring On the Night', a minimally arranged 'Roxanne' (with only the luminous saxman Branford Marsalis on backup), and a communally inspiring 'Every Breath You Take', which is so famous at this point that it sounded as if it had been dug out of the Smithsonian archives.

Sting, who has always been a musician's musician ever since learning jazz as a milkman's son in Newcastle, England, allotted generous chunks of solo space to his band.

Playing in a hunched-over crouch, with eyes averted from the near-sellout 12,000-plus fans, Marsalis displayed a glistening tone on soprano sax. Drummer Omar Hakim (from Weather Report), bassist Darryl Jones (from Miles Davis' group) and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland were elastic enough to follow Sting's most subtle improvisation. A tip of the hat, too, to backup singers Dollette McDonald and Janice Pendarvis, who have toured with the Police and can fire up the most world-weary lyric.

Changing textures, from reggae to Kraftwerk-like synthesiser journeys, spiced last night's show, but an unexpected high point was the mournful 'I Burn For You', from the underrated (and hard to find) soundtrack for 'Brimstone & Treacle', a low-budget Jekyll-and-Hyde film Sting made four years ago.

Again, however, Sting was victimised by mindless teenyboppers. ''It's the film in which I play the devil for some reason,'' he said to wild screams. Even when he very honestly confessed, ''Very few people saw it,'' he was drowned out by the hysteria. It's often hard to feel sorry for a superstar, but last night was a perfect case in point.

(c) The Boston Globe by Steve Morse