Brand New Day

Berkeley, CA, US
Berkeley Community Theatrewith Aswad
Passionless Performance From Sting - Dull Berkeley show lacked substance...

O Gordon, where is thy Sting?

The rock star born Gordon Sumner, who named himself after a small but painful wound, is coming off a string of indifferent albums and spent the bulk of his concert Tuesday at the Berkeley Community Theater introducing songs from his most recent, especially uninspired recording.

He played one of the most boring shows by a major name in recent memory. It wasn't an incompetent mess, but it was a flat and listless two hours, charmless and pointless.

After leaving new wave's most successful rock group, the Police, for an initially rich and rewarding solo career, Sting has been mining his gifts with diminishing returns for the past several years. 'Brand New Day', his latest album, comes after a hiatus of more than three years. His return to performing was eagerly anticipated enough that he pulled down 5 a ticket for the Berkeley Community Theater shows.

The two small-scale performances were a preview of a full tour planned for next year. But all the stage design in the world will not disguise the basic lack of substance in a show like this.

Beginning with the dirgelike 'A Thousand Years', which opens the new album, Sting didn't exactly get off to a roaring start. A fashion victim in cargo pants and a shiny, collarless shirt, his famously tousled blond hair still uncombed, he offered the slightest of smiles.

He noted that the band hadn't played together much, although his stunt of tossing away the lyric sheet to 1995's 'Seven Days', promising to remember the words this time, failed to strike the self-effacing note he may have intended.

He rearranged the handful of older songs he performed, not always to their advantage. He recast his vampire song, 'Moon Over Bourbon Street', as faux Kurt Weill. He redid the famous vocal parts at the end of 'Roxanne' and 'Every Step You Take', dumbing them down in the process.

The vocals, in fact, were particularly mystifying. He had three female background vocalists, as well as three other singers in the five-piece band, who contributed little more to the show than tight pants and bare midriffs. Sting himself seemed unwilling to let go and sing like he can, or at least has in the past. The vocals were buried in a muddy sound mix anyway.

And almost nobody heard trumpeter Chris Botti, who wandered around the stage adding muted trumpet for a spare, noir sound that was overdone the second time that atmospheric effect was used.

The concert reached a peak with 'Desert Rose', a Moorish rocker from the new album featuring guest appearances by an Algerian hand drummer and vocalist Cheb Mami. The band rose to a kind of critical mass behind the two vocalists, their voices wrapped around each other.

But the momentum was lost as soon as the band shifted into a strangely funkless version of 'When the World's Running Down', a number that desperately felt the absence of pianist Kenny Kirkland, the jazz wizard who played with Sting for many years before dying of a drug overdose last year.

Twelve years ago, in a brief set at the Amnesty International benefit at the Cow Palace, a Sting fresh out of the Police burned the place to the ground with that number. But back then he still had something to prove.

(c) The San Francisco Chronicle by Joel Selvin

Sting builds momentum without going over the top to electrify his admirers...

Maybe it's all that tantric stuff.

That's one way to demystify Sting's performance Tuesday night at the Berkeley Community Theatre, an intimate show in which one of pop music's most ethereal superstars trod the true tantric path, using musical energy in an extended way, going deeper, further, higher than seemed possible.

Witnessing the two-hour show was like watching an artisan at a potter's wheel take a glistening lump of clay and slowly prod and caress it into a stunning, curvaceous vase. Of course when the glistening lump of clay Sting starts out with is 'A Thousand Years', the show's haunting opener as well as the first cut off his latest album, 'Brand New Day', the man who once claimed he could make love for seven hours using tantric sex has a big advantage.

Still, it's a big reason not to miss the two-hour show when it comes to the Flint Center on Friday. Sting peppers his performance with hits from his days with the reggae-punk pop-rock group the Police, as well as hits culled from his 15-year solo career.

That said, though, patience is a virtue when attending the show, which starts out rather tepid. The worst that can be said is that Sting's live delivery often sounds virtually identical to his recordings. And that is a negative in the sense that when Sting, a huge star adored by men and women alike, appears in three dimensions, his songs should be similarly fleshed out, pulled and stretched until they become extensions of the man himself.

But that didn't happen early on. 'Set Them Free', 'Fields of Gold', and 'We'll Be Together' felt flat, though they were technically perfect. Andmidway through the performance, when Sting played the sentimental favorite 'Every Little Thing She Does is Magic', the retro mood felt forced. Kind of like what you might expect if you went to a Kajagoogoo concert and freaked out to 'Too Shy' after you'd spent 45 minutes waiting for the group's solitary hit.

Sting has much, much more than 'Too Shy', though, and it's an insult to use his name in the same sentence as Kajagoogoo. He proved as much when he gave a Tom Waits treatment to the soulful 'Moon Over Bourbon Street', from his 1985 solo debut, 'Dream of the Blue Turtles'. From there on, the Berkeley audience was nothing less than electrified.

And Sting finally loosened up. 'Englishman in New York', from his 1987 album, 'Nothing Like the Sun', got the crowd swaying, even though a speed bump of disco - replete with thumping beats and glittering lights - threatened to impede the song's path. The previously stoic headliner even managed an Eddie Van Halen-like split-legged jump after a gut-wrenching, extendo version of the Police hit 'Roxanne'.

Dressed in black pants and a black leather jacket that he never removed despite the stifling heat in the theater, Sting made no missteps in the latter part of the show. That's a testament to Sting's talent; he and his eight-person backing band had performed only three warm-up gigs in Las Vegas before arriving in the East Bay.

The crowd, though, loved the whole thing. After Sting went into a story about how he lost his virginity in Vegas - experiencing his first earthquake - one woman blurted out to her chagrined male companion, ''He's adorable!'' And when Sting jammed mercilessly to 'When the World is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around', the same woman shouted, ''I have to get this on CD! I only have it on vinyl!''

No doubt a similar story would be told by many in the crowd, which was very thirtysomething, and very white - somewhat baffling since Sting has always been obsessed with jazz, classical and world beat elements.

To that end, the most impressive song of the night was 'Desert Rose' from the new album. A duet that intertwines Sting's dreamy lyrics with eerie Nigerian vocals, 'Desert Rose' kept the crowd on its feet for the remainder of the show.

For an encore, Sting came out with 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You', and followed up with 'Every Breath You Take', a Police song that was No. 1 for eight long weeks back in 1983. In an ideal world, Sting would have ended the show there, with the song's decrescendo, instead of moving on to 'Lithium Sunset'.

But this is Sting's sunset. And Sting's world. We just live in it.

(c) San Jose Mercury News by Candace Murphy