The two faces of Sting - part shallow glitz machine; part musical icon of passion and power...
It was the best of concerts and the worst of concerts. It was a night of high kicks and low jinks; of musicians who were inspired and others who were simply clever; of music that was record-perfect and little more; of songs and a voice that are as sublime as any in pop. It was a tale of two Stings.
On Thursday, Sting played the first of two nights at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.
Within that show there were two shows and, oddly, two personas of Sting himself, separated rather too neatly by an intermission, the first as off-putting as the second was stunning.
First, there was the New and Improved Sting. Black-suited and long-haired, this Sting stood at center stage, surrounded by his eight-piece backup group, and sang many of the songs from his most recent album, '...Nothing Like the Sun'. Not that this was bad in itself, but it was obvious that Sting was performing these pieces just to sell the record. Such songs as the rousing 'We'll Be Together' and the enchanting 'Englishman in New York' were played with little emotion or invention.
And Sting, the pop star, began to act like one, slapping hands with his mates, chasing after vocalist Dollette McDonald and making as if to grab her derriere, and mimicking the playing of saxophonist Branford Marsalis. It was as idiotic as it was ironic - Sting, the one pop star who had yet to yield to the stage cliches of his counterparts, doing just that, while neglecting the musically deserving songs of the rapturous Sun.
Perhaps it was a matter of his backup group. With the exception of Marsalis' stirring sax work and the angular and intrepid keyboard playing of Kenny Kirkland, Sting was accompanied by musicians who knew their place and seemed content to display their dexterity. Or perhaps it was simply a matter of staging. For most of the first set, Sting was without an instrument, dabbling occasionally at a nearby synthesizer but otherwise appearing awkward, as if he didn't know what to do with himself. When he picked up an acoustic guitar for 'Consider Me Gone', he delivered the first real performance of the night, his presence and voice finally in sync with the brooding words and jazz-tinged feel of the piece.
It was not until after intermission, however, that the Old and Not-Requiring-Improvement Sting emerged. Returning to the stage with his guitar, he presented such songs as the Police hit 'King of Pain' with a passion and power that were nothing short of breathtaking.
On the delicate 'Fragile', he played the song's bossa nova-like guitar phrases with a simple suppleness and wrenching intensity, while his voice glided with the melody as if both were transported on a warm wind. And as the set drew to a close, the Sting wit - not the Sting buffoonery of the start - also emerged.
Leading into 'Sun's' version of Jimi Hendrix's 'Little Wing', Sting picked out an elegiac rendition of that master's 'Voodoo Chile' - subtle, intelligent and hilarious. But at the end of the song, he allowed his lead guitarist to finish the set with a blaring, obnoxious solo that could have been the close of a Dokken show. Incomprehensible.
And to make matters more confusing, he came back for a series of encores that ranged from an improbable 'Home on the Range' to a stormy reading of the 'Blue Turtles' hit 'Fortress Around Your Heart' and an exquisite rendition of 'The Secret Marriage', his voice intertwining with Marsalis' sax, both embracing the gorgeous melody.
And finally, in what has become a trademark, he stood on stage alone and played 'Message in a Bottle' as the capacity crowd sang along.
(c) The San Jose Mercury News by Harry Sumrall