Soul Cages

Pittsburgh, PA, US
Star Lake Amphitheaterwith Special Beat, Vinx
Sting stung by full-throttle approach...

As a fan of Sting's musically and verbally literate pop, I was looking forward to his concert Sunday night at Star Lake Amphitheatre. But I came away disappointed.

Sounding uncomfortably similar from one song to the next, Sting and his three bandmates stripped away much of the variety, subtlety and intimacy of his songs.

The careful arrangements of his solo recordings - from elaborate vocal harmonies to snake charmer soprano saxophone - gave way to an overly loud, constant pounding that sometimes offered only the tunes' skeletons.

The set began auspiciously enough with a tight, fast version of 'All This Time', one of the best tunes from Sting's strong new album, 'The Soul Cages'. But something odd was happening (or not happening) already - no one sang harmony. All night, catchy choruses and refrains suffered without vocal backup.

Sting's pleasing, distinctive tenor sounded just a little hoarse. He played bass, with guitarist Dominic Miller, keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta joining him. None of these guys (including Sting) is a slouch on their instruments. In fact, Sancious is a monster. But they all seemed unwilling to vary their full-throttle approach. Miller, especially, indulged in unnecessary glitz.

The pyrotechnics worked best on new uptempo material like 'Jeremiah Blues (Part 1)' and old Police rave-ups like 'Roxanne', which elicited the loudest response from the crowd of 9,720.

Actually, all the old Police tunes sounded good. Perhaps the small band was closer in spirit to vintage Police than to other, larger Sting solo tours.

Most of the more delicate tunes from 'The Soul Cages' didn't connect so well at volume levels that buried Sting's vocals. Besides, there was often something perfunctory about his singing.

Exceptions were 'Why Should I Cry for You?', a song Sting dedicated to his father, and the show-closing 'Fragile', from '...Nothing Like the Sun', which featured Sting on acoustic guitar.

Also perfunctory were Sting's remarks. He mentioned halfheartedly that the Steelers won. He said that Newcastle, the English city where he was born, was like Pittsburgh - but he didn't say why.

It wasn't until near the end of the show, when the evening's opening acts joined Sting, that his songs gained sorely needed textural variety. Special Beat added backup vocals on 'Every Breath You Take' and 'Message in a Bottle'. A performer named Vinx played cuica, an odd-sounding Brazilian percussion instrument, on 'Walking on the Moon'. It's the kind of special touch the whole set cried for.

Special Beat consists of members of the Specials and English Beat, both heroes of England's ''two tone'' ska revival in the late '70s.

In its opening set, the nine-member group tore through rock and ska that ranged from politics to partying, including 'Message to You, Rudy', 'Nite Klub' and 'Doesn't Make It Alright'.

Vinx is an unusual performer who sings in a rich, soulful tenor and accompanies himself only with hand-hit drums. He played only 20 minutes, time taken largely by his formidable wit. But the two full songs he did sounded good, especially 'Temporary Love'.

(c) The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Peter B. King