Mercury Falling

Portland, OR, US
Rose Gardenwith Samples
Sting at Rose Garden Arena...

The Northeastern English city of Newcastle is known for its faded industrial economy, its hard-drinking soccer fans and hardscrabble street culture. Yet somehow it produces pop stars of an almost patrician stripe.

Sure, AC-DC's Brian Johnson is from the area, but so are such refined types as Byran Bryan Ferry, the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant and, of course, Sting. In a Friday night show at the Rose Garden arena, the former Gordon Sumner pretty much played the role his fans have come to expect of him: strong yet sensitive, artistically ambitious, erudite, alternately broodingly mysterious and playful sensuous.

It's almost as if he is perfecting the image of the pop star as country gentleman. Ferry and Tennant at least have an arch sense of their own upscale images; Sting seems to be making an earnest grab toward significance.

Stature, he has. Still devilishly handsome and charismatic, he had a nearly full Rose Garden in his hand from the moment he stepped on stage. His voice was rich and resonant, a more rounded and nuanced instrument than the yelping tenor of his days with the Police.

And he undoubtedly has mastered his craft as musician and composer, stocking his tunes with fine details of melodic and rhythmic subtleties. But ever since he pushed the Police past compact pop/rock/reggae tunes and into brainier fare, many rock fans have been divided on whether Sting is an uncommonly articulate artist or a smug, pretentiously overreaching superstar. Nothing's likely to solve this disagreement, but the bassist/singer's latest material appears to award points to his detractors.

Sting opened his show with 'The Hounds of Winter', a typically pensive tune from his latest album, 'Mercury Falling'. Next came 'I Hung My Head', an outlaw ballad so stiff and unconvincing that it doesn't work even as a genre exercise.

'I Was Brought to My Senses' began like an English folk ballad and then took on a softly chugging Brazilian feel. which was a nice concept musically but still dull in effect until horn and piano solos broke the mood of ennui. Then it was on to the platitudes and tepid groove of his early solo hit, 'If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free.'

But just when he began to seem like an empty pop Adonis, the chilly exterior gave way enough to provide a real sense of connection. 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying' is an awkwardly country-ish tune about divorce, but Sting's invitation to a man in the crowd (also divorced, it turned out) to come onstage and sing the chorus with him was an oddly effective bit of male bonding.

And with his horn players dancing like as though they were on ''Shindig,'' it was possible to once could overlook the overblown lyrics of 'Synchronicity II'.

In fact, it was a batch of old Police songs - performed with cooler, deeper grooves than before - that pumped life into the show. Kenny Kirkland's piano solo in 'When the World Is Running Down' was especially dazzling, taking the tune down a colourful samba side street and then winding up in a block-chord quotation of Earth, Wind & Fire's 'Shining Star.'

(c) The Oregonian by Marty Hughley