Summoner's Tales
Philadelphia, USThe Spectrum

A Sold-out Spectrum sees Sting's showy side...

Arenas have a way of turning smart songs into dumb spectacles.

Sting, the philosopher/tunesmith who performed before a capacity crowd Sunday at the Spectrum, long ago stopped caring about this diminishing effect. Though he's written some of the most perceptive pop of the last decade, he continues to water down his live presentation, favoring literal signals over slight suggestions, adding hammy visuals that actually detract from the music. Bright red lights blared over the crowd when Sting sang ''Turn on the red light,'' the chorus to 'Roxanne'.

Performing in front of puffy showroom-style curtains, he connected the shuffle 'Nothing 'Bout Me' to his massive Police hit 'Every Breath You Take' with a transition you'd expect from a Saturday morning cartoon: ''You don't know nothing about me, but I know everything about you.''

And that version of 'Every Breath', which featured an overzealously belted cameo from opener Melissa Etheridge, was about as close to Las Vegas cheese as he's ever come: Anthemic chords replaced the haunting harmonic turns of the recorded version, and full-disclosure declarations took the place of the song's shadowy, lurking verses. The sharp daggers of Police songs were blunted throughout the show.

Though Sting visited most of his current 'Ten Summoner's Tales' - which has brought him eight nominations for tonight's Grammy Awards - he was more aggressive about his catalogue than ever before, perhaps recognizing that his sedate, ballad-oriented recent writing requires some high-energy relief in the arena setting.

With the help of an accomplished trio (drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, guitarist Dominic Miller, keyboardist David Sancious), Sting dusted off 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', and gave the band room to stretch on 'Bring on the Night/When the World Is Running Down', which was sparked by a blistering Sancious piano solo. He tried to expand 'King of Pain' in a similar way, but wound up with a muddled mess.

And the band's rendition of 'Synchronicity II' lacked the barely contained frenzy of the Police original; if you subtracted Sting's athletic voice, all that remained was a competent but attitude-free lounge band too hard at work.

Still, few in popular music can match Sting's ability to reinvent his songs, and Sunday's show demonstrated that even when he's drifting toward corny-land, he can make the journey interesting. He paired two odd-meter selections, 'St. Augustine in Hell' and 'Straight to My Heart', into a roiling medley that tested the concentration power of his musicians.

Ever self-referential, he dropped bits of his torchy 'Sister Moon' into the Summoner's Tale 'It's Probably Me', punctuated 'Every Breath' with the wordless chant from the Police chestnut 'Invisible Sun', and augmented 'Roxanne' with a verse from 'Consider Me Gone', from his 1985 solo debut 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles'. Opener Etheridge continued to make a case for herself as the Kim Carnes of the '90s - all belter, no depth. She surveyed material from the current 'Yes, I Am', and only once, on the single 'Come to My Window', did her music rise out of its undifferentiated generic-rock whine.

(c) The Philadelphia Inquirer by Tom Moon

Sting knows how to connect with his audience...

Sting made four albums as a solo artist, and five with his former band, The Police. But he's not shy about claiming the entire canon as his own. He's entitled, since he wrote most of The Police's best material. And after years of solo tours, he knows pop hooks play better with sold-out arena-size crowds.

So his show Sunday night at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, like the arc of his career, clearly split between what he was and who he is.

Opening with 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You', Sting ticked off five of the 11 cuts on 'Ten Summoner's Tales', his most recent A&M album, which has been nominated for six Grammy awards. He also included a competent cover of The Beatles' 'A Day in The Life'.

All were respectfully received, even his spaghetti western, 'Love Is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)', with its difficult 7/8 rhythm. But things changed when Sting attacked 'Synchronicity II', a raucous, driving hit from the height of The Police's touring career - suddenly more of the 19,000 or so people were on their feet and vocal.

Sting reached farther back for 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' (from 1981's 'Ghost in The Machine') and farther still (1978) for 'Roxanne', which is when the bright red floodlights filled the entire Spectrum. At that point they were hardly needed to connect the singer with his audience.

Ironically, Sting's band mirrored the spare trio that The Police was -with a drummer, and an improbable shaggy-haired, bare-chested guitarist (Dominic Miller, who played on 'Summoner's Tales'). A keyboardist (David Sancious) handled the trademark freestyle jazz interludes, which for the most part were tighter and more controlled than during previous Sting shows.

Again, Sting displayed the similarity and inter-connectedness of some of his songs, folding melodies over each other and sampling from his own past - 'Heavy Cloud, No Rain' was distilled from a melody in 'The Soul Cages', and 'King of Pain' segued neatly into 'Demolition Man'.

His last combination before an encore was the Bring on The Night/When The World Is Running Down (You Make The Best of What's Still Around)' package he's done in shows since his 'Dream of The Blue Turtles' tour in the mid-'80s.

Incidentally, Sting avoided the material on 'Dream', perhaps realizing a pared-down band couldn't handle the fuller sound and more intricate arrangements on that disc. A snippet of 'Invisible Sun' invaded 'Every Breath You Take', which Sting performed as an encore with Melissa Etheridge, who Sunday night finished her engagement as Sting's opening act.

The song's sentiments were particularly suited to Etheridge's brand of fatal-attraction, obsessive love songs. The encore, which came after an hour and 40 minutes into the concert, also included the snide 'She's Too Good For Me' and the in-your-face 'Epilogue: Nothing 'Bout Me'. Returning to the stage alone for a second encore, Sting closed with 'Fragile' the simple, aching composition from 'Nothing Like The Sun'.

Etheridge's performance was vital and riveting. The gritty, Janis Joplin-esque singer, whose voice sometimes sounds overblown on record, ceases to be a caricature in live performance.

(c) The Allentown Morning Call by Melanie Novak