Soul Cages
New York City, USMadison Square Garden
With Special Beat, Vinx

The moody English rock star gets a little happy...

Stung by charges of boredom in the first degree at his Beacon Theater shows last spring, Sting did the sensible thing: He called the Police.

Material from the catalogue of the Police, the vastly popular trio Sting formed with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers in the late 1970s, provided arena-sized excitement at his Madison Square Garden concert Thursday.

Although Sting sometimes wears pomposity the way other rock stars wear tattoos, Thursday's concert showed the singer in a light though efficient mood. The set was rife with intriguing musical juxtapositions, in which Sting would segue from serious songs into looser soul and pop standards.

Accompanied by keyboard player David Sancious, guitarist Dominic Miller and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, the show opened with 'All This Time', a pretty but sombre song from his intermittently depressing current album, 'The Soul Cages'. But the band brought a segment of Wilson Pickett's 'In the Midnight Hour' into the flow of the song, making it seem less self-conscious.

And so it went: The passionate but pretentious 'Mad About You' gave way to a heartfelt version of Bill Withers' 'Ain't No Sunshine', a tune clearly due for a revival. The excesses of 'Why Should I Cry for You?' (''under the Arctic fire over the seas of silence....'') were diminished by the inclusion of a segment of Tim Hardin's 'If I Were a Carpenter', a song from which Sting could learn a great deal about lyrical economy.

The crowd seemed attentive and at least passively involved through these songs, in which the jazzy elements of the arrangements were less prominent than they've been on record and in previous shows.

But the introductory reggae-rock rhythm pattern of 'Roxanne', the 1979 hit that instantaneously took the Police from panel truck to Lear Jet, ignited the crowd.

The Police were new wave for the masses, bridging Third World beats with Top 40 melodies. Their lyrics could range from the contrived naivete of 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da' to the universalist message-mongering of 'Synchronicity' - there was something for everyone, from bohos to frat rats.

Oblivious to consequences for the ozone layer, people flicked their Bics and zapped their Zippos to the Police's signature ballad, 'Every Breath You Take'. Even 'King of Pain', the Police song that forever marked Sting as the world's most self-important rocker, was greeted as another happily nostalgic party tune. In the wake of the Police's successful rock-reggae fusions, a slew of integrated bands developed in Britain in the late 1970s mixing rock and the buoyant, horn-dominant pre-reggae Jamaican style known as ska.

The two best ska revival bands were the English Beat and the Specials, but neither stayed around long enough to enjoy the success that was nearly in reach. Some former members of the two bands have recently surfaced as the Special Beat, and their opening set was a delight. There was the punchy, hard throttle English Beat arrangement of Smokey Robinson's 'Tears of a Clown', a more deliberately paced, politically tinged Specials songs like 'A Message to You Rudy', and a joyous version of Toots and the Maytals' reggae classic, 'Monkey Man'.

(c) Newsday by Wayne Robins