Sting and the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra at PNC Bank Arts
Long before the Decemberists and Okkervil River made literary rock respectable,
long before Sufjan Stevens and his meticulously researched folk suites about the
fifty states, there was Sting.
Referencing Nabokov, singing about Jung, geopolitics and nuclear disarmament,
calling himself the ''king of pain,'' the British songwriter infuriates as many
people as he entertains. To his fans, he is a genuine intellectual rock star, a
thinking man's pinup, and the protean force behind the Police, one of the most
consistently challenging pop bands of the late '70s and early '80s. To his
detractors, he is pompous and self-important, rock's great middlebrow
popularizer, forever trying on genres and concepts he lacks the patience to
Well, those who consider Sting insufferably pretentious are going to need to sit
down for this one. The star, who has worked with an all-star jazz band on his
first solo album, and who translated much of his second solo album into Spanish,
is now on tour with a full orchestra. Not just any chamber group, mind you -
he's currently backed by the Royal Philarmonic, the national orchestra of
Britain. On Wednesday night, Sting took the stage at PNC Bank Arts Centre in
Holmdel with a guitarist, a standing bassist, two drummers, a female backing
vocalist, 45 pieces, and a conductor.
It's legitimate, I suppose, to ask whether he really needed all that support to
make his musical points. But strictly speaking, Sting, who is a fantastic
songwriter, has never needed to do any of the things he's done since the
break-up of the Police. His material would (and does) work fine on an acoustic
guitar. Conceptual overreach is part of Sting's charm, and he wins points for
continually pushing himself and reimagining his material. As somebody who
understands the complaints about the former Police front man but who remains an
appreciator, it is my pleasure to report that the collaboration with the Royal
Philharmonic is a solid success.
It's also, ironically, one of his most conservative departures. Sting's
arrangements have always leaned toward the symphonic: in the '80s, he used
Fairlight and Synclavier synthesizers to simulate the feel of an orchestra. The
performance of 'Russians' at PNC, for instance, didn't sound radically different
from the version on 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles'. 'Fields Of Gold', a popular
ballad from 'Ten Summoner's Tales', was enriched, rather than transformed, by
the orchestra. Even 'King Of Pain', the Police hit and PNC standout, kept its
towering shape amidst strings, woodwinds, and timpani.
On a steamy night in Holmdel, Sting kept the Philharmonic onstage for two hours,
breaking once for a twenty-minute intermission, and returning for three encores.
By the end of the show, the pop star's white shirt was soaked through with
sweat, but he never seemed exhausted; an encore set performance of 'Fragile'
gave him the opportunity to dazzle the crowd with a flawless solo on classical
guitar. The ensemble never wilted in the heat, either. The musicians remained
committed and enthusiastic; a few of them quietly sang along when they weren't
playing. Sting's pop songs are often harmonically adventurous ('If I Ever Lose
My Faith In You', for instance) and invite dense, complex arrangements; it's
easy to imagine why a classical player might find engagement with his repertoire
The famous front man returned their enthusiasm, calling out his lead chairs by
name, praising them, and sharing the spotlight with them. Clarinetist Cerys
Green was called to the front of the stage twice (and at the end of her solo on
'Mad About You', she got a hug from the singer that nearly prevented her from
returning to her chair in time for the next song.) But the night's real hero
wasn't even part of the Philharmonic.Tour bassist Ira Coleman switched between
upright and electric with ease, and kept the orchestra's massive bottom end
glued to the percussion section. Conductor Steven Mercurio was a kinetic
showman, but Coleman was the true translator onstage.
Sting is charismatic, but slightly stiff. Born to play, he doesn't really know
what to do with his hands when he's not holding an instrument. With so many
supplementary musicians onstage, his intermittent guitar playing might have
looked superfluous. But it put him at ease, and it prevented him from
gesticulating through the songs and shaking his open hands like a revival
preacher. It's a nervous tic: he doesn't overact because he's a ham, he does it
to mask his geeky awkwardness. With fifty musicians onstage, he wasn't going to
get too many opportunities to strum his way through his songs, and that's fine.
Next time around, when he's fronting a klezmer band, he can play an accordion
straight through the set.
(c) The Star Ledger by Tris McCall