Sting at the Konigin Elizabethzaal in Antwerp...
The latest leg of my travels on the Labyrinth tour took me to the historic city of Antwerp in Belgium. An area I have always wanted to travel to for ages, it enabled me to also pack in some all important site seeing along the way. For some unknown reason the English bad weather seemed to be following me (and the rain is still pouring down even as I write this) as I was trekking around the centre of Antwerp during a normal (you would think busy) Saturday morning, it felt more like a lazy Sunday afternoon.
No one was about or was I the only person mad enough to venture out in the pouring rain and high winds to visit the ancient Maritime museum and Cathedral precinct? Stormy conditions abounded with visions of the 'Wild Wild Sea' going around in my head as I bravely battled the elements.By late afternoon and after a superb lunch I headed back from my sight seeing and record buying trip in the general direction of the venue. I had planned things just right and had left enough time to take a tour around the zoo. Stay with me here!
Shortly after I entered the zoo complex I saw a man waving at me, the face seemed familiar so I went over to talk to him. It turned out to be a Belgian fan that I had met before (outside the Concertgebouw) in Amsterdam two days before. Where he was sitting was at the back of the venue which overlooked the zoo's ground. It was also one of a number of possible entrances to the venue that Sting could potentially use? We had a good chat about Sting and the tour and I then made my apologies as I wanted to see the monkeys! (Some might say I should join them?) He probably thought I was odd? The zoo is actually the oldest in Belgium, established in 1843 as well as being one of the oldest zoos in the world. (Well worth a visit and anyway I wanted to get full value for my admission price.) After my tour of the grounds I came back to talk some more to this Belgian fan again and was suitably impressed at his level of knowledge about the venue and all things Sting related.
The Konigin Elizabethzaal hall complex, also houses other rooms which can be booked for conferences or other events. Whilst we were waiting for Sting to turn up, I couldn't help but start laughing to myself. (Had I finally gone mad, err only just finally mad, some people are probably thinking I'm already there?) It was either in the ''Marmeren zaal'' or in the ''Darwinzaal'' room; a Flemish crooner was singing his heart out. (Quite literally) The nearest equivalent I can describe it as, is a Flemish equivalent of Max Bygraves singing at a tea dance in Bournemouth. (Not that I've ever been to one of these events! Honest, my reputation would be in tatters if anybody started that rumour about me?)
The crooner was really working up the crowd and getting them to have a good sing-a-long Flemish style to traditional Flemish songs, (room for some nice horns in the arrangement) and the average age of the crowd I would hazard a guess at being the same as you might expect to see at a Des O'Connor concert? What was going through my mind is if Sting were to turn up now, he might have to contemplate doing a sound check with this singer performing as well! So would traditional Flemish singing work with the lute I was thinking? My amusing thoughts did not materialise as Sting turned up during the final moments of this singer's performance.
I had become so interested and distracted by this music that I had failed to observe Sting arrive, (He had snuck into the venue by a different entrance, and all I saw was the car with nobody in it) but I was quietly chuckling away for along time to myself about the Flemish music I had heard beforehand. I was content just observing the view from one of the most picturesque and unusual backstage areas of any venue I have been to. The other plus being that it had actually stopped raining for the first time that day! With this in mind, the back of the venue being so beautiful, it was a surprise to find the inside looking and feeling more like an Odeon cinema than a classical music venue. It also had the trappings of a cinema with the seat numbers hard to read, or half missing and those unmistakable cinema seats. You know the ones, oddly designed, a bit awkward and strangely uncomfortable after about a twenty minute time span sitting down in one. This was really a minor detail; I personally thought I had the best seat position in the venue and in row one.
Sting and Edin Karamazov did not disappoint, we were treated to an excellent show with the same set list as the show in Amsterdam. The concert began, with two classical solos by the master lute virtuoso, Edin Karamazov. I would have to consult a classical expert to name the introductory two songs. I am pretty confident the first song was a J.S. Bach composition, but precisely which one I could not be certain. It may have been a variation of Partita in D-minor? (Or was it in B, you can tell I'm not a classical buff?) I am sure the classical scholars amongst Sting.com members will be able to correct me. I am probably way off the mark anyway? Both were about ten minutes each, and were the perfect introduction to the evening's proceedings.
Being up so close, I could see the detail and care Edin was playing the lute, he was happily in his element and proving without doubt his skills on the lute. As I have mentioned before in previous reviews the range of his playing stretches from both the delicate to the intense plucking actions of the musical arrangements. Edin has a totally unique style as well as gesture and pose whilst playing the instrument. Using the foot rest to balance himself, (requires skill in itself just to balance properly let alone play the lute.) although at one point he nearly tripped over it. You wouldn't want such a delicately crafted instrument to go flying across the stage now, especially during an intimate rendition?
This was the third time I had heard these two songs at the beginning of the set and in my view this was the best rendition, even better than in Paris, which I thought sounded incredible. Edin's distinctive style and range of performance is exceptional, I probably spent the first part of the rendition with my mouth open in sheer awe of what I was hearing. Edin was also engrossed in the performance humming along at times as he was caressing his beloved instrument. The tenderness and care on display during his performance is not too dissimilar from how I would describe falling in love with a beautiful women or being seduced by her wonderful charms. (Yep I better stop there?) I was totally absorbed almost transfixed to the spot.
Edin likes to explore different avenues of the lute's sound, going down avenues in a way a jazz musician might explore their genre. Timing was of ultimate importance, and this performance had everybody savouring every last note with eager anticipation. You could hear a pin drop; in fact Edin looked perturbed at one point during the second recital as he could clearly hear one of the doors of the hall close for a second. (During a quite section of the music) The expression on his face articulated this fact, but it did not disturb either his concentration or his technique. His performance was an absolute joy to watch, a huge treat and an addition to the concert that wasn't in last year's performances.
Sting started out Saturday's performance, by introducing John Dowland's work The lights now turned up to a fuller intensity; I could now feel the spill of the stage lights onto my face. Another sure sign of a good seat is when you are warmed up by the stage lighting and in danger of getting a sun tan. I was getting quite hot during the whole concert, and I wasn't even doing my usual dance routine! In terms of view from my seat in row one, it could not be bettered, an honour and privilege. (Again only possible through the fan club and again big thanks go out to Tina, Dave and Wendy.) You could see everything! (I mean everything!) I am reliably informed that during the concert someone spotted that Sting had a hole in his trousers (which probably makes googling at chest hairs appear quite tame in comparison?)
I hasten to add, I did not notice this fact as I was looking at Sting's lute playing, but I would imagine female fans are getting excited at this point? (But nothing unexpected happened, thank god / unfortunately! (Delete where appropriate) before anybody starts getting hysterical - deep breaths now.) Picking up the tickets at the venue was easy and fan club members picked up their's in the same section as the VIPs. This saved considerable time, as the staff were having problems with issuing tickets; some had to be hand written as the printer system packed up at one point in the evening!
Sting started with 'Flow, My Tears', which is strategically placed and I think acts as a warm up song to allow Sting's voice to reach full resonance. It is a most challenging of songs to sing, and Sting's voice did croak at one point whilst singing the ''Happy'' part of the lyrics, this was the only time in the whole concert he seemed to have problems with his voice. This was probably due to the venue being hot, (certainly under the intensity of the bright white spot lights, which Sting clearly indicated in his facial expressions on at least one occasion during the show as being too bright for him or too intense towards his face.) The air was dry, not conducive conditions for singing. I even noticed a fly circling around on the stage during the show during one song, clearly attracted by the light. Once he finished the song he took a gulp of water which helped soothe his vocal tract, and like other shows, after the first couple of songs, began to look far more relaxed and feel totally comfortable.
These songs have now been performed many times live now, and appear to flow with ease. This is further demonstrated by the level of eye contact between Sting and Edin which is far less than at the St Luke's concerts. The quality of performance seems to rise the further into the tour you get? The acoustics were good from where I was sitting, but it would be interesting to get feedback on what it was like in the balcony section. (As the design of the building was more like a cinema, the quiet parts of songs may have been hard to hear or pick up in the higher parts of the venue?) Acoustically you could hear everything from the front section of the stage, and at one point during the concert; I could sense Sting could hear somebody walking about backstage. Who this was I don't know?
Sting was probably wondering whether ''Stile Antico'' (the singers from London) were preparing to come on stage too soon. As shortly after this moment, I clearly saw Sting give a signal to the backstage crew (Towards stage right) by raising a finger to indicate that it was indeed one more song before ''Stile Antico'' needed to come on stage to perform. The audience were quick to applaud the songs with strong vocal harmonies, exemplified to maximum effect on 'Can She Excuse My Wrongs?' and 'Fine Knacks for Ladies' which saw ''Stile Antico'' put in another polished and fine performance. Sting's vocals really did shine when he was in full singing mode on these songs.
Sting looked thoroughly happy during the concert, and liked playing little musical jokes with Edin throughout. Who was going to play the last note on the lute duets? Sting made a point of playing the last note to joke with Edin. Sting's enthusiasm was clearly evident; anybody who thinks Sting has lost interest in performing John Dowland songs couldn't be further from the truth. On 'Come Again', which appeared to have renewed vigour? Here, I felt at this point in the concert that Sting was actually performing directly towards me. I was quietly mouthing the words to myself, Sting could clearly see that. On 'Clear and Cloudy' (If my memory serves me correctly?), Sting enjoyed stamping his foot to add a counter rhythm during the tail section of the song, and delighted in doing one final loud stamp right at the end to try and startle Edin. It didn't faze him, but Sting was clearly having fun and enjoying the moment. Sting could not have failed to notice me by the end of 'In darkness let me dwell' as I was the first person to my feet to show my apprehension, I sensed that people where not expecting the concert to end at this point or this soon? Well it didn't, once Sting and Edin had returned to the stage we were treated to a gem of a rendition of 'Fields of Gold' in its full lute interpretation.
A good way to describe this would be to use a diamond analogy here (which of course Antwerp is so famous for.) If the song was compared to a diamond, then the museum next to the venue would be packed to capacity as everybody would be gloriously marvelling at the display on show. Gasps of ''wow'' echoed around the hall when people recognised what the song was. I have to admit I was starting to get quite emotional at this point. 'Hellhound' was delivered in a slightly lighter tone than normal, Sting was relishing singing the ''awoals'' parts in the songs, delighted in the humorous reactions it was getting from the audience.
The musical jokes were continuing to be traded with Edin holding his Lute in a funny way, to almost mock Sting or pluck a note at a particular moment to poke fun at his friend.
Early the previous evening I had joked with Andy that by the time 'Message in a Bottle' appears in the set that I would most probably very emotional. ''Not the only one'' was the reply. Sting would surely be wondering what on earth was happening to the audience in the front row? It was probably a combination of factors that had came together at one point in time. During the opening twenty seconds of the song, I cracked. Whether it was the realisation that this was the last time I was going to experience Sting and Edin perform a lute concert on this tour. Maybe it was also the recognition that time had flown by way too quickly, and we were nearing the end of the set and other emotions were whizzing around my head? The stripped down rendition on the lute portrayed an indescribable beautiful texture, conveying both a feeling of loneliness as well as highlighting certain vulnerabilities in my own emotions. As I looked directly ahead towards Sting, I not only felt the intense heat of the lights on my head, but felt a tear slowly trickle down from my right eye and down the side of my cheek. I looked to my left to see if Andy had seen me?
Sting's chord structures and performance had moved me more than any other music I had ever experienced before at a live concert. By the end of 'Message in a Bottle' and I am sure it was this point in the evening that Sting very nearly sent his glass of water flying. (Accidentally) It just about managed to stay somehow onto the stand, spilling its contents all over the place. It wrapped up a thoroughly enjoyable trip to Antwerp and the audience made sure they showed their apprehension at the end of the song. The final song of the evening was an encore that was first introduced into the set in Paris. I have been pondering over the last week (before the concert) what the song might be? I have always been under the impression it was a John Dowland song?
I have nick-named it the ''she song'' with the lyrics in the main rhyming couplet being ''She and only she, she only queen of love and beauty.'' (An ode dedicated to the beauty of women everywhere?) If I could only rework the lyric I think I would have devised the perfect chat up line? (Especially if it was accompanied with some fine Belgian Chocolates as well?) What do reckon ladies? I am pretty confident the song is called 'Say, love, if ever thou didst find' from the third and last booke of songs no 7, by the one, most honourable, John Dowland. The audience refused to stop clapping and Sting had to return a further two times because of the size of the ovation. During the first ovation Sting bowed, then noticed me, smiled and recognised me and then shook my hand.
What a perfect way to end the concert. Sting was still smiling when he was whisked off by car (under the cover of moonlight), and he looked clearly delighted to have another successful concert under his belt. I would also have imagined he would have experienced a great view of the lunar eclipse later that night whilst being driven in what looked like the general direction of Brussels as he set off into the distance beyond. His thoughts may just have been thinking about how 'Walking on the Moon' will be performed on my eagerly awaited next trip, the Police tour!
(c) Roger Puplett for Sting.com