Rock Paper Scissors

Milwaukee, WI, US
Marcus Amphitheater during Summerfest

Sting and Peter Gabriel delight with synergistic collaboration...


It's pretty amazing when you have one iconic rock and roll icon playing in your town on a Sunday evening. But, what happens when you have two legends playing on the very same stage?


Well, if you ask Peter Gabriel, it adds up to "Milwaukee's own live karaoke night," an apt phrase considering the setlist for the evening, which featured a solid, sophisticated and much beloved collection of tunes that played out to a crowd who knew, and sang, virtually every word.


Milwaukee was the 13th stop on the duo's 19-city Rock Paper Scissors tour, which wraps up at the end of July. The pair, who've been friends for years, previously toured together in the 80's in support of Amnesty International. And much like Sting's 2014 tour with Paul Simon, the hope was to create a unique experience that capitalized on the talents of both iconic personalities, along with the outstanding musicians with which they work. It likely goes without saying that the concept is working.


The evening began with blue light and a mist of fog which turned orange as Peter Gabriel took the stage to perform "The Rhythm of the Heat," a song which set the stage with its haunting introduction and explosive percussive climax.


And from there, they were off. Sting followed the opener and maintained the energy with his 1993 hit, "If I Ever Lose My Faith In You", before the two artists came together on stage for introductions and their first collaborative piece, "Digging in the Dirt," a performance during which it was difficult to believe that either musician was in his sixties.


"I grew up in the shadow of cows," remarked Gabriel, introducing his fellow musician with a reference to the 300-mile distance between his hometown of Surrey and Sting's birthplace in Newcastle upon Tyne. "Sting grew up in the shadow of ships… but we found a commonality, a little place in the middle."


The two bantered a bit, with Gabriel making jokes about doing yoga with Sting, and evoking peals of laughter with a comment about how no one backstage can tell them apart, so they call themselves the "tantric twins."


And, although the idea of Sting and Gabriel being twins is somewhat comical, the reference is strikingly apt. After all, throughout their nearly three-hour show, they blended their art into one cohesive whole, seamlessly strutting from one man's work to another without missing a beat.


Even the musicians - who were identified by color, with Sting's crew decked out with blue accents and Gabriel's with red - wove in and out of each piece without a hitch, sometimes playing with their respective bandmates and other times collaborating in a similar fashion to Gabriel and Sting.


From start to finish, the show was also immaculately produced, with an exceptional attention to detail. Video screens hung on and above the stage, offering creative imagery that changed with each song. Meanwhile, large side screens offered up a cinematic feast of views of the performers and their bands on stage, giving even the "nosebleed seats" a view to remember.


During Sting's performance of "Invisible Sun," for instance, images of children from all over the world flashed onto the screens across the stage, offering up metaphoric content on which the audience could ruminate.


And it wasn't simply two artists trading off playing their songs. Both men took songs from the other artist, retooling them to make them his own.


Sting came off almost rappy in his verse of "Games without Frontiers," and belted out Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey." And there were other moments when the back and forth between Sting and Gabriel gave the impression of a friendly dual.


Take for instance, Gabriel's performance of a sexy jazzed up version of "If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free," during which his breathy (and maybe borderline creepy) vocals aroused a fittingly dramatic reaction from the crowd.


In response, Sting came back with a jazzy electronic performance of Roxanne, which got even sexier as he transitioned into a breathtaking version of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" before returning to to give Roxanne a fittingly rockstar finish.


And just as the crowd would wind down from a round of hip-swaying sing-along nostalgia, the hits would keep on coming. Gabriel's "Red Rain" offered up one of the more powerful performances, as well as his radio hit "Big Time" and Sting's "Englishman in New York," during which there was a priceless trade-off of verses between Sting and Gabriel, as well as a call and response with the audience with the lyrics "Be yourself," and "No matter what they say."


Gabriel's solo debut "Solsbury Hill," was also a crowd-pleaser during which Gabriel skipped around the stage with his band in a sort of buoyant celebration.


Meanwhile, Sting offered up a nod to Gabriel's Genesis days with the opening lines of "Dancing With the Moonlit Knight" before launching into the Police classic "Message in a Bottle."


Although the two musicians, both of whom have humanitarian leanings, steered clear of overt political references for their Milwaukee show, Gabriel dedicated his moving performance of "Love Can Heal" to Jo Cox, a member of Parliament who was murdered in June for her advocacy for Britain remaining in the European Union.


The show ended with Sting's performance of "Desert Rose" and a new arrangement of "In Your Eyes," which saw the two Englishmen and their bands busting into dance moves on stage, along with a bit of vocal dueling between Sting and vocalist Jennie Abrahamson.


And, when the crowd thought it couldn't get any better, the duo delivered a blowout encore of the Police's "Every Breath You Take" and Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," the latter of which exploded into a bombastic free for all dance party complete with Gabriel's signature "aerobics-esque" arm movements.


Everyone - the audience included - was clearly having a blast. And it was a more-than-fitting end to an evening filled with old favorites that were transformed by the masters into something unmistakably and invigoratingly fresh.


(c) On Milwaukee by Lori Fredrich 


Sting, Peter Gabriel go great together on Summerfest's closing night...


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