Soul Cages
Chicago, USArie Crown Theater
With Kennedy Rose, Vinx

Relaxed Sting fails to deliver his usual touch...

For all the intense, self-centred introspection of his songs, Sting is a relaxed and affable performer.

Whether requesting a cup of tea between songs or introducing one of his opening acts, an extraordinary percussionist-singer named Vinx, he projected a warmth and sense of humour that belie his superstar status.

Yet in the opening show Tuesday of a two-night stand at the Arie Crown Theatre, Sting's easygoing demeanour failed to translate into consistently involving music.

Relying heavily on material from his newest album, 'The Soul Cages', Sting is indeed attempting to make a type of soul music these days. Yet his current band seems ill-suited for it. Not that it lacks the technical expertise. On the contrary, keyboardist David Sancious, guitarist Dominic Miller and drummer Vinnie Colauita are blessed with a surfeit of ability. And that seems to be the problem - these guys can't resist showing off.

Which begs the question: Who's show is it anyway? Sting's got a quiver full of steel-tipped pop songs, and he allowed his band free reign to embellish and expand. But rarely did they enlighten. The band's most irritating habit was to equate loudness with dynamic impact. Rather than allowing the music to breathe, rather than trusting the song, Sancious would blast out fistful after fistful of notes, Colauita would bash and splash and Miller would try to outdo them both.

A version of Bill Withers' 'Ain't No Sunshine' started promisingly, but soon was battered into submission by the increasingly bombastic soloing of Sancious, Miller and then Sancious again. A melancholy instrumental, 'I Miss You Kate', which Sting dedicated to one of his daughters, suffered the same fate. 'Roxanne' fizzled into New Age noodling.

At one point, Sting explained that he was playing a smaller concert hall such as the Arie Crown because ''it's a little more intimate and casual,'' but the jazz-fusion pyrotechnics were anything but.

Sting probably could've steered the show in a different direction; after all, he hired these guys. But even he couldn't resist some forays into scat singing, which merely sounded self-indulgent.

Perhaps Sting deserves to be applauded for stretching the boundaries of his music, but not at the expense of his pop craftsmanship. These days he seems intent on turning every tune into a tour de force, either very loud or very slow, and all very long.

During one stretch, as he played the monotonal 'Island of Souls', 'The Wild Wild Sea' and 'The Soul Cages' in succession, he left the audience squirming. This deadened the impact of the truly beautiful 'When the Angels Fall', the evening's most well-executed song with its graceful melody and poetic, melancholy story of redemption. Here the band held back before building to an understated yet emotionally resounding conclusion, with Sancious' swirling keyboards surrounding Sting's reedy voice.

It, along with the sublime closing number, 'Every Breath You Take', achieved the proper mix of restraint and passion to which Sting aspires, but that on too many occasions Tuesday he failed to deliver.

In addition to the fleet-fingered Vinx, the duo of Mary Ann Kennedy and Pam Rose opened the show. Their guitar-and-percussion dialogues and tart harmony vocals on such songs as 'Iron Horse' and 'Western Fires' were a delight.

(c) The Chicago Tribune by Greg Kot