Sting has skilfully navigated some sharp turns - from The Soul Cages’ meditations on mortality to the buoyant Ten Summoner’s Tales; from the high art of the Renaissance revival Songs From the Labyrinth to the Police’s long-anticipated 2007-08 reunion. And from his revelatory Bell Centre show with Peter Gabriel last summer to his gleeful downsizing to Metropolis on Monday night.
Sting and Gabriel’s Rock Paper Scissors collaboration was a thrill for its scope and ambition: two immaculate bands merged into a constantly mutating behemoth, and two icons thoughtfully rearranging their well-worn catalogues. By contrast, Monday’s club concert was a remarkably close approximation of a plug-in-and-play gig for an artist still capable of selling out arenas. And yet there were similarities: a shifting onstage lineup, a familial glow, and a visibly delighted singer.
Sting still knows how to grab attention, acting as one of his opening acts. The pensive acoustic stage-setter Heading South on the Great North Road was introduced with a recollection of the Police’s Montreal debut at Théâtre St-Denis in 1979. Joe Sumner had joined dad on vocals by the nostalgic ballad’s end, and from there, it was a songwriters’ circle - Sting hustling into the wings to give his son the spotlight for three numbers; members of San Antonio’s Last Bandoleros quietly entering; their own short set of sun-baked Tex-Mex stompers climaxing with Sting’s band and offspring joining in, the headliner content to shake a tambourine and enjoy the round-robin camaraderie.
When he returned after a short break, backed by drummer Josh Freese and flanked by father/son guitarists Dominic and Rufus Miller, there was no grand entrance. He didn’t need one, considering the electric charge Synchronicity II carried in such an intimate venue. The “oh-oh-oh” chant could have cracked the roof, and one was quickly reminded that Sting’s onstage power has always been rooted in songcraft, not larger-than-life showmanship. For all the charges of aloof self-importance over the decades, this was a star who seemed as invigorated by the up-close experience as his audience was.
After the mix-and-match possibilities of the Gabriel show, this four-piece group presented a very different set of rewards. The limber Spirits in the Material World and Englishman in New York were early crowd-pleasers from a lineup that patiently let grooves percolate and left ample room for the guitarists to breathe. The supporting cast was well employed, with Joe Sumner and various Bandoleros drifting in and out on backing vocals (and Sumner getting a spotlight in an engagingly theatrical cover of Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes) and some accordion livening up She’s Too Good for Me in particular.
I Can’t Stop Thinking About You introduced the material from the pared-down new album 57th & 9th; the guitars were a bit ragged, there were some frayed harmonies, and the performance was richer for its imperfections. Then came near perfection: Fields of Gold was burnished by the warmth of the room, its rare glow made even more extraordinary.
The players’ dexterity was displayed in effortless segues from the snarling Petrol Head to balladeer mode for Shape of My Heart (featuring a showcase for the Millers that rivalled the Sumner-and-son moments), and back again from Pretty Young Soldier’s Celtic lilt to Message in a Bottle, its corners still jagged after all these years. The remainder of the 100-minute set saw Sting engaged in some familiar Policing, and if there’s a serious complaint to be lodged against a performance that every ticket-holder was privileged to witness, it’s that the opportunity to dust off some left-field selections for a roomful of diehards was ignored.
That’s not to dismiss the chance to witness Sting set his nerve endings on fire for Next to You or see his elastic tenor enter zero-gravity mode for Walking on the Moon in a club setting. (If only the usually reliable Freese hadn’t sledgehammered the latter song.) And when you can see every subtle timekeeping hop the singer makes in Every Breath You Take from the upper rows of the balcony, it’s a night to remember. From his recent meetings of the minds with Gabriel and Paul Simon to his interest in forging an intimate connection at his solo shows, Sting is setting challenges on stage that are worthy of a global superstar with a lute fetish.
(c) Montreal Gazette by Jordan Zivitz