Symphonicity tour: A few thoughts on Sting and strings...
A poetic taunt has been hurled frequently at the milkman's son from Newcastle
who qualifies as the New Wave era's most aspirational pop star. Oh Sting, where
is thy depth? (The great critic Charles Shaar Murray seems to have originated
the punsult, around the time the Police released the album 'Ghost in the
There's no doubt that Sting puts on airs in ways that rankle the sensibilities
of many rock fans. His taste for smooth jazz and country estates, not to mention
a songbook packed with detailed explorations of the creepiest corners of the
egomaniacal male soul, blurs the line dividing exquisite songcraft, literary
cleverness and self-indulgence.
Yet one must admit that few millionaire musicians look inward for profundity
with the diligence and care that Gordon Sumner brings to the practice. The
58-year-old singer and songwriter always has challenged himself musically,
revisiting his catalogue in new settings that make a case for the flexibility
and wide appeal of his catalogue's greatest hits. And while his uplifting songs
sometimes veer toward sentimentality, those character studies can be pretty
devastating. Plumbing his own depths, Sting has made some genuinely enduring
Still on the path, the singer-songwriter has taken a classical turn of late (see
''Sting's classical effect''), working with London's Royal Philharmonic Concert
Orchestra to rework material from throughout his career. He brought the 'Symphonicity'
Tour to Southern California this week, performing at the Hollywood Bowl on
Tuesday and at the Verizon Amphitheatre in Irvine on Wednesday. I headed down to
catch his Bowl show and found just what I'd expected from this reliable
innovator: expertly realized ideas, soothing sounds and the occasional real
A traffic mishap prevented me from seeing the whole show; The Times will have a
full review of the Irvine performance. But I can make a few observations after
catching two-thirds of the set.
First, Sting's collaboration with conductor Stephen Mercurio should give pause
to the many rockers lapping up the current trend for hooking up with a string
section (or more). These efforts can be exciting but just as often come off as
under-rehearsed and conceptually half-baked. Not so this show; an all-star cast
of arrangers reworked the songs, and time clearly had been spent making sure the
pop musicians and orchestral players onstage would work together to create a
genuinely hybrid sound. Sometimes, the drums and percussion overtook everything.
But I feel that's appropriate, since rhythm is a central element in Sting's
songwriting, even when he's reeling out a ballad.
Second, not all symphonic music is classical music, and Sting need feel no shame
in invoking other orchestral traditions. Many of this evening's most effective
reinterpretations, such as the grand 'Fields of Gold' and the Kurt Weill-inspired
'Moon Over Bourbon Street', recalled really fine film music - a realm where pop
and classical motifs have met for nearly a century.
'Desert Rose', with its Arabic flavour, had a big, blowsy arrangement that
skirted the Bollywood sound. Another highlight was the faux-folk song 'You Will
Be My Ain True Love', which Sting wrote for the film ''Cold Mountain'' and was
originally performed with characteristic understatement by Alison Krauss.
Rendered here as an eerie duet with background singer Jo Lawry, it sounded more
like cutting-edge classical music than anything on the program - but was still
very pop, using big strokes to create a haunting mood.
Third, dear Sting, your fans still want to dance. There's no doubt that the
well-toned epicure appeals to the upper crust - this entire project began, after
all, because a couple of super-rich Chicago Symphony donors persuaded Sting to
play a concert with that ensemble, giving him the big-band bug. Many fine
bottles of wine were undoubtedly sold at the Bowl, and most folks in attendance
probably liked sitting for most of the concert. In the end, though, the
aggressively rock-flavoured arrangement of 'King of Pain' had them bursting out
of their seats. They stayed up, and even sang along, for 'Every Breath You
The impulse to travel in new directions is nearly always healthy for artists,
and Sting is one of rock's greatest exemplars of staying fit by keeping on the
move. Perhaps he didn't enjoy the Police reunion, and standing in front of all
that lovely curved wood and catgut felt more appropriate now than leading
''just'' a band. Still, he really should remember that the rock idiom has a lot
to offer - not least of which is its ability to fill his fans with joy. As he
journeys onward in his pursuit of the deep, let's hope he doesn't forget the
place he was (musically) born.
(c) The Los Angeles Times by Ann Powers