Brand New Day
Mesa, USMesa Amphitheatre

Plenty of highlights...

Six years ago, Sting - a bona fide rock legend with a reputation for egomania - made a surprising but shrewd move, giving up headliner status to play warm-up sets for the Grateful Dead on a tour of packed stadiums.

Over the weekend, the Valley played host to a near reunion of that historic double bill with concerts by Sting and Ratdog - former Dead guitarist Bob Weir's outfit. Now as then, the result was a striking contrast in styles.

Looking relaxed and confident in front of a sellout audience Sunday at the Mesa Amphitheatre, Sting rolled through nearly two hours of crowd-pleasing music with his top-notch touring band. Performing almost every song from his latest album, 'Brand New Day', he still had time for a thorough review of his solo hits, along with a few old favorites from his days with the Police.

There were plenty of highlights on this Halloween night, including a good-humoured rendition of the vampire ballad 'Moon Over Bourbon Street': Sting donned a silly hat with floppy dog ears and did his best vocal impression of Louis Armstrong (or was it Tom Waits?).

The set aimed to please. While the fans took a while to get warmed up, they went wild (well, almost) for tunes such as 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' and 'Englishman in New York'. When Sting opened his second encore with a bittersweet acoustic version of 'Message in a Bottle', they couldn't resist singing along.

The only thing missing was the element of surprise. For instance, 1996's 'Mercury Falling' - an artistic success but a commercial disappointment - was the only solo album not represented. Just the hits, man.

Just the hits.

Sting's talented band displayed practiced professionalism but precious little spontaneity - an energetic rendition of 'When the World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around' sounded remarkably similar to the version on the 1986 live album 'Bring on the Night'.

From Sting's charming storytelling to the climactic first ''encore'' of 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You' and 'Every Breath You Take', every moment seemed premeditated.

Amusingly, the backup singers - three sexy young women, natch - were honors graduates of backup singer finishing school, running through standardized girl group moves that haven't changed since the '50s.

On the other hand, Ratdog's concert Friday night was every bit as polished without being slick. Performing for a much smaller (but far more frenzied) crowd at Phoenix's Celebrity Theatre, Bob Weir's six-piece band offered no light show, no choreography, no practiced patter - just great music.

Mixing new tunes in with the Grateful Dead numbers, Ratdog showed a personality all its own. Many of the players come from the jazz world, and their dynamic improvisations and uncanny chemistry worked magic.

The adrenalized fans who sang along with every Dead song would surely disagree, but what the band was playing was almost irrelevant. Weir's songwriting is undistinctive, but the performers he has enlisted make it shine. Bassist Rob Wasserman, sax man Dave Ellis, keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, guitarist Mark Karan and drummer Jay Lane all displayed tremendous skill and creativity - but also restraint. Instead of showing off their individual virtuosity, they concentrated on creating a magnificent whole.

In fact, though it borders on blasphemy to say so, Ratdog was more impressive and more exciting in concert than the Grateful Dead, though the venue - an intimate theater instead of a football stadium - certainly made a difference.

In a recent 'Behind the Music' special on the cable music channel VH1, Sting remarked, ''What works for me in art is benevolent dictatorship,'' and there's no doubt this philosophy has served him well. When it comes to live performance, however, Ratdog offers a powerful argument for democracy.

(c) The Arizona Republic by Kerry Lengel