Sting’s collaboration with Shaggy came to light at this year’s Grammy Awards show. At the time, it felt as novel as it did unexpected. But in retrospect, it should have come as no surprise.
The Police, the rock trio that made Sting a superstar, dabbled in and flirted with various strains of Caribbean music, including reggae and ska and all points in between. So it makes complete sense for a rock star in the gloaming of his career to form an alliance with a dancehall/reggae pop star approaching 50 looking to resuscitate a flagging career.
In April, the duo released 44/876, an unflinchingly pleasant full-length reggae-light album whose title refers to the country calling code for Sting’s native United Kingdom and Shaggy’s Jamaica.
In May, they announced a North American tour. On Thursday, it stopped at the Arvest Bank Theater at the Midland.
Sting and Shaggy were supported by a four-piece band that included ace drummer Josh Freese plus two backup singers, both of whom issued impressive solo vocal performances. Behind them all, a large constellation of small spotlights flashed and beamed throughout the two-hour set, altering the mood subtly but affectively.
The performance setup was apparent from the start of the show: This was Sting’s operation. Shaggy got plenty of spotlight, but it was clear that he was primarily Sting’s sidekick—the wingman who spent much time employing physical gestures to stoke the vibe.
They would perform nine of the 12 tracks on 44/876. Most of the remaining 17 songs on the set list were either songs from Sting’s solo albums or the Police catalog.
Stage banter was held to a minimum, and there was no overt preaching but it was easy to infer a socio-political message or two. They opened with Englishman In New York, a Sting song that includes the line “I’m an alien / I’m a legal alien.” By song’s end, Shaggy would alter the lyric to “Jamaican in New York.”
Dreaming in the U.S.A. was dedicated to “all the DREAMers.” The song from 44/876 is an ode people who “get up every morning working two jobs to make it here in America.” The song also references Shaggy’s military service. (He enlisted in the U.S. Marines and served in the first Gulf War.)
Later, Strength of a Woman, a libidinous Shaggy tune, would take on extra gravity: “Never underestimate the strength of a woman,” Shaggy reminded the crowd.
The songs on 44/876 are as catchy and likeable as they are superficial: no sharp corners, no rough surfaces, just gusts of tuneful warmth and cheer. Thus, the Sting/Police songs were welcomed, with gusto.
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic was the first Police number and it prompted the crowd of 1,200 or so to erupt in sing-alongs and dance. They followed that with Oh Carolina, Shaggy’s first single (now 25 years old), which they mashed-up with Sting’s We’ll Be Together. It was a winning move.
The rest of the set would continue down that road: Sting songs, Police songs and a Shaggy tune here and there, with a mash-up tossed in, like So Lonely with Strength of a Woman and Roxanne with Bombastic - a Police classic with Shaggy’s biggest hit, which closed the first set. During Shaggy’s Angel, they spliced in a few measures of the Merrilee Rush hit from 1969, Angel of the Morning.
Other highlights: the one-two punch of Waiting for the Break of Day and Gotta Get Back My Baby, which showcased the vocal prowess of each of the background singers; and Message in a Bottle, a classic rock song that has aged as gracefully and impressively as the man who wrote it. Sting’s voice was strong and agile all night, as inimitable now as it has ever been.
After the Roxanne/Boombastic mashup, they left the stage for the briefest of moments and returned for what would be a two-part encore. The first part included Every Breath You Take, a song with a menacing stalker vibe that has lost some of its appropriateness these days. The crowd loved it though, giving it one of the loudest sing-alongs all night.
The second part of the encore started with a few verses of the Lord Creator classic, Kingston Town (made famous by a band in the news recently, UB40). Then Sting showed off his guitar skills, accompanying himself on one of his best solo songs ever, Fragile, a wistful, radiant hymn that reminds us not only of our fragility but of our impermanence.
On a night filled with so many good vibes and so much cheer, it was a useful reminder.
(c) In Kansas City by Tim Finn