Soul Cages
Mountain View, USShoreline Amphitheater

A magical night...

''You've been very kind,'' Sting told the capacity crowd at the end of his performance at Shoreline Amphitheater on Saturday.

He was referring to a stunning ovation, in spite of the fact that most of the show was marred by a hoarseness that nearly obliterated his vocals during the course of the night. But the crowd wasn't being kind; it was merely acknowledging an utterly sublime and entrancing show.

Sting and his three-piece group performed with a brilliance and musical integrity that were nothing short of miraculous. And in the process, they proved that pop is still a thing of expressive beauty and creative intellect.

From the start it was clear that Sting was having severe vocal problems. At the end of the first song, 'All This Time', he was forced to use a spray to ease the adverse affects of the chilly night air. But as the night wore on and his vocal range began to shrink, he used the hoarseness as a pretext for redoing his songs, changing melodies and harmonies and phrasings to adjust for his limitations. The songs took on new life, and the result wasn't the disaster it might have been but an astounding display of discipline and inventiveness.

Inventiveness was what this show was about anyway.The two-hour set included songs that span Sting's entire career. But instead of playing them as originally recorded, Sting and his group constantly reworked them, giving them new contexts, new settings and interspersing them with extended improvisations.

It was almost as if Sting were using this tour as an occasion to rethink his past. Signature songs such as 'Roxanne' and 'Walking On The Moon' were taken apart and reassembled, with Sting recasting the words and themes - the former as a blues belter and the latter as a strutting jazz romp.

'Driven To Tears' came with new harmonies, provided not by female vocalists, as in the past, but by the supple chordings of Dominic Miller's guitar set against Sting's vocal line.

Even the new songs from 'The Soul Cages' were performed with fresh and subtle revisions. 'All This Time' came with a quote from the soul classic 'In The Midnight Hour'. And 'Jeremiah Blues (Part 1)' was extended to include a lengthy solo from keyboardist David Sancious that had a jazz/rock complexity and virtuosity.

Several of the songs - notably 'Why Should I Cry For You?' and the cover of the Bill Withers' hit 'Ain't No Sunshine' - came with lengthy digressions and improvisations that amounted to suites of various Sting songs. And 'Message in a Bottle' was entirely revamped, with its trademark guitar chords broken and splintered as Sting created vocal sections that provided new insights and slants on one of the greatest pop songs ever.

The result of all this experimentation was a constant sense of surprise and exhilaration. One never knew what to expect. And the anticipation forced listeners not only to react but to think about the songs. It was a novel concert experience - thinking - and one that most pop shows could use more of.

Through it all, Sting performed with a brilliance that was staggering. Playing bass for the first time since his Police days, he displayed a technical grasp and a creative incisiveness that rivaled Paul McCartney's work with the Beatles. There wasn't a spare note or phrase, and those used were chosen with an almost compositional care. Sting's edgy interplays with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta were rhythmic treasures.

Given the fact that, all the while, he was struggling with his deteriorating voice, the performance was not merely astounding; it was heroic. By the time he got to 'Every Breath You Take', his voice was shot. But that didn't deter him; he sang on, drawing out the song's refrain, reducing the notes to a series of compelling staccato asides as the sound built in intensity. And for his final encore, he picked up an acoustic guitar and played the samba-infused 'Fragile', the song's delicate theme buoying his ravaged voice.

It was a breathtakingly subtle moment and the perfect close to the finest show of this dreary pop season.

(c) The San Jose Mercury News by Harry Sumrall