Soul Cages
Austin, USFrank Erwin Center
With Concrete Blonde, Vinx

Sting: Texans only tepid over new Soul Cages' songs...

There's nothing worse than a musical hangover, and on Monday this city had a corker. It didn't go well with the heat and humidity, either. Even the normally bustling Sixth Street rock'n'roll scene sagged.

Sometime in the early hours of Monday, in some bar ripe with smoke and stale booze, the last plug on the last electric guitar was pulled and the fifth annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference came to a close. For four days, hundreds of musicians packed dozens of bars and clubs while fans, record-company execs and talent managers prowled the streets in search of the Next Big Thing.

If they'd only waited until Monday night, they could have seen the Next Big Thing and saved all that booze money and Visine. No, it wasn't Sting, who headlined at the Frank Erwin Special Events Center over on Red River Street and comes to the San Diego Sports Arena tomorrow night. Sting's already big. And it wasn't opening-act Concrete Blonde, which will never be big (or even appealing) as long as vocalist-lyricist-bass Johnette Napolitano remains so righteous. It is this endearing, eccentric, funny, man named Vinx.

''He is a major, major talent,'' said Sting, who walked on stage to introduce the 6-foot-2, 33-year-old Kansas City native and former college track star. And you get at least a suggestion of that talent in his brief performance. Vinx does only two numbers, 'Tell My Feet' and 'Temporary Love', both from his debut album, 'Rooms in My Father's House' on Pangaea-IRS Records.

And he does them without his band, the Barkin' Feet. Just Vinx's free-wheeling vocals and his sonorous African drums. And he did a few lines of Mammas 'Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys' in his unique, Afro-jazzy style. Something to hear, I assure you. And a spoof on Caucasian affection for 'The Banana Boat Song'. And a few witty and daring - given the intellectual geography - barbs about Aggies, Austin redneck cops and interracial relationships. The fans loved it.

Given the sombre pomposity of Concrete Blonde and the brooding nature of Sting's newer, 'Soul Cages' material, Vinx was a joyful respite in the midst of this three-hour night. By now, Sting's cathartic 'Soul Cages' album - exorcising feelings over the deaths of his parents - is familiar territory for many of his fans. It really isn't all that sombre, though certainly more quietly reflective than past solo albums.

Still, the 'Soul Cages' material - about one-third of Sting's playlist - got a fairly polite but lukewarm reception from the 15,000 fans in this University of Texas arena.

As ever, the old Police material, from 'Roxanne' to 'Message in a Bottle' drew out the emotions of this diverse crowd. Sting continues his homage to Jimi Hendrix with a blistering version of 'Purple Haze', which received one of the strongest receptions of the night. He also sings a handsome version of the Bill Withers classic 'Ain't No Sunshine'.

This is a streamlined, peeled-back-to-basics tour for Sting. There is no set to speak of. Just a stage, amps and overhead lighting. There isn't even much of a band to speak of. Sting has gone back to playing bass for this tour. He's backed by David Sancious on keyboards, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Dominic Miller on guitar. Beyond the simple, four-piece approach, only Sancious' wide range of synthesizer samplings augment the sound. That's half the personnel on the '...Nothing Like the Sun' tour.

And not nearly the measure in talent. Sancious is a fine keyboardist, but his improvisations lack the intuitive link that Kenny Kirkland shared with Sting. His synthesized horns and whatnot aren't always successful, either. There's a gimmicky feeling when a four-piece band sounds like a wanna-be string section. Colaiuta's drumming is fine, apparently toned down from the early weeks of touring. The biggest disappointment is Miller, ersatz rock guitarist. His electronic squeals and rips not only don't fit with Sting's soft, jazzy style, they fight against it. That is, when Miller is in there at all. In Austin he seemed miles away from the stage. Most improvisation breaks were between Sting and Sancious, leaving Miller time to practice simple chord changes off to the side. The problem was less obvious on older material that required only faithful replication, not improvisation.

(c) The San Diego Union-Tribune by Robert J Hawkins