Summoner's Tales
Las Vegas, USSam Boyd Silver Bowl

Sting proves a good match for the Dead...

It's difficult to imagine a more incongruous opening act for the Grateful Dead than Sting.

But that's the odd couple that began making its way across North American stadiums over the weekend with three sold-out shows at the 42,000-seat Silver Bowl. It promises to be one of the year's biggest tours, including performances June 18 and 19 at Soldier Field.

The Dead, of course, have taken rock improvisation to extreme - some would say absurd - lengths, by playing three-hour shows without a set list. They also attract a legion of followers that revels in spontaneity.

With his movie-star looks and reputation as a pop craftsman, Sting would seem to represent everything the Deadheads revile.

But with recent albums such as 'Ten Summoner's Tales', the British singer has been writing songs with more than a few unexpected twists. At the Silver Bowl, a similarly adventurous aesthetic prevailed.

Sting played about a dozen songs in each of his 70-minute sets, and repeated only a handful over the three days.

''After the first show, he said, 'This is like a jazz audience,''' said Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia backstage on Sunday. ''We told him, 'Go out there and push your limits, because these people are gonna listen to you.'''

With David Sancious on keyboards, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Dominic Miller on guitar, Sting has a band that's eager to be heard. Sometimes too eager - both Sancious and Miller can sound like they're auditioning for Weather Report instead of serving the song.

But the combination of Sting's structured arrangements and the blow-out-the-boundaries musicianship was frequently exhilarating. No longer weighed down by the somber tunes that plagued his introspective 'Soul Cages' tour in 1991, Sting applied the looser atmosphere of 'Ten Summoner's Tales' to his entire repertoire.

Miller shredded the self-pity in 'King of Pain' with some Metallica-like riffing. 'Love is Stronger Than Justice' evolved from a country-western spoof into a jazzy free-for-all. And on 'When the World is Running Down', the quartet stepped on the gas pedal with the fervor of hard-core band.

Sting's go-for-broke approach did not go unnoticed by the headliners.

On Saturday, after he fearlessly tackled the Beatles' epic 'A Day in the Life', the Dead responded with a soaring 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'.

Sting came back the next afternoon by opening his set with a tender reading of yet another Beatles tune, 'Black Bird', and later was brought back for an encore.

''Thanks for having us,'' Sting said with a wave. ''Thanks for listening to us.''

The weekend's spirit was perhaps best captured by the Dead as twilight approached on Sunday. In their tribute to kindred spirit and fellow searcher 'Cassidy', the sextet went on a journey of its own. Garcia's solo began somewhere in the middle and slowly began fighting its way toward resolution, at first grating against Bob Weir's rhythm guitar and Phil Lesh's probing bass, then locking in with them and taking flight.

Unlike most middle-age rock acts, the Dead and String aren't ready for the Vegas lounge circuit quite yet. Instead of opening for Buddy Hackett, they're still opening doorways of possibility.

(c) The Chicago Tribune by Greg Kot