Soul Cages
Cleveland, USPublic Hall
With Concrete Blonde, Vinx

Uncaged classics captivate audience...

The challenge, Sting told Rolling Stone magazine before launching the tour that touched down at Public Hall last night, was to get the songs across to an audience of thousands with just four musicians. The songs, that is, from his highly personal and slickly produced new album, 'The Soul Cages'.

Not an easy task, considering that the record features a cast of 14, including two longtime sidemen, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and keyboard player Kenny Kirkland, who are no longer touring with him. And that much of its rich sonic texture was created on an in-studio Synclavier (a computerized, synthesizer/digital, sampler/multitrack recorder combo).

But more importantly, that its nine songs, pretentiously conceived as a ''cycle'' based on Jungian archetypes of loss and redemption, are anything but accessible.

'The Soul Cages', a piece of introspection inspired by the ex-chief of Police's English childhood and the recent death of his father, is dense, dour, Angst-filled and self-consciously arty - a collection of atmospheric tone poems and catchy Kurt Weillian mock arias that come off like the phone book set to music.

It's the sort of stuff Sting's former bandmate Stewart Copeland aspired to in his embarrassing attempt at opera ('Holy Blood and Crescent Moon') a few years ago.

At 39, the former Gordon Matthew Sumner is a man who takes himself so seriously that there's precious little room for fun in what he does anymore. And therein lay the real challenge facing him last night: to check his humongous ego at the door and simply lighten up for a few hours.

At the outset, it looked like that might actually happen, as Sting (on bass) and his bare-bones band - guitarist Dominic Miller, keyboardist/guitarist David Sancious and drummer Vinnie Colauita - came out of the chute with 'All This Time', the first single (No. 5 on the Billboard chart) off of 'Cages' and the one tune besides the album's title cut that even remotely resembles mainstream pop-rock. The quartet played tight and bright and seemed to be having a good time.

But then the boyishly handsome star, displaying his toned torso in a black muscle-T and matching pants, flexed his pomposity - coolly picking his nails all the while - with an pseudo-erudite intro to 'Mad About You' that recounted the biblical tale on which the song is loosely based.

And before the next tune, 'Jeremiah Blues (Part 1)', he called offstage for a spot of tea.

Sting managed, though, to rein in the arrogance enough to dedicate the new album's poignant 'Why Should I Cry for You?' to his father. And from then on, the music was all that mattered.

The songs came fast and furious: several more cuts from 'Cages', surprising covers of Bill Withers' 'Ain't No Sunshine' and Jim Hendrix's 'Purple Haze', and hits from Sting's earlier solo outings ('If You Love Somebody Set Them Free', 'When the World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around').

But what went over best, by far, in the two-hour show were the Police classics 'Roxanne', 'Message in a Bottle', 'King of Pain' and especially the show-stopper, 'Every Breath You Take', on which Sting was joined at the mike by the singer/percussionist Vinx, who had turned in a brief opening set earlier.

Concrete Blonde, an MTV friendly trio anchored by the performance-art vocals of Johnette Napolitano, warmed up the sellout crowd of 8,000 with a strong set that included their recent Top 40 hit 'Joey' and Leonard Cohen's 'Everybody Knows' (from the soundtrack to last summer's teen flick 'Pump Up the Volume').

(c) The Plain Dealer by David Sowd