Holmdel, NJ, US
PNC Bank Arts Centerwith None

Sting and the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra at PNC Bank Arts Centre...

Long before the Decemberists and Okkervil River made literary rock respectable, long before Sufjan Stevens and his meticulously researched folk suites about the fifty states, there was Sting.

Referencing Nabokov, singing about Jung, geopolitics and nuclear disarmament, calling himself the ''king of pain,'' the British songwriter infuriates as many people as he entertains. To his fans, he is a genuine intellectual rock star, a thinking man's pinup, and the protean force behind the Police, one of the most consistently challenging pop bands of the late '70s and early '80s. To his detractors, he is pompous and self-important, rock's great middlebrow popularizer, forever trying on genres and concepts he lacks the patience to master.

Well, those who consider Sting insufferably pretentious are going to need to sit down for this one. The star, who has worked with an all-star jazz band on his first solo album, and who translated much of his second solo album into Spanish, is now on tour with a full orchestra. Not just any chamber group, mind you - he's currently backed by the Royal Philarmonic, the national orchestra of Britain. On Wednesday night, Sting took the stage at PNC Bank Arts Centre in Holmdel with a guitarist, a standing bassist, two drummers, a female backing vocalist, 45 pieces, and a conductor.

It's legitimate, I suppose, to ask whether he really needed all that support to make his musical points. But strictly speaking, Sting, who is a fantastic songwriter, has never needed to do any of the things he's done since the break-up of the Police. His material would (and does) work fine on an acoustic guitar. Conceptual overreach is part of Sting's charm, and he wins points for continually pushing himself and reimagining his material. As somebody who understands the complaints about the former Police front man but who remains an appreciator, it is my pleasure to report that the collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic is a solid success.

It's also, ironically, one of his most conservative departures. Sting's arrangements have always leaned toward the symphonic: in the '80s, he used Fairlight and Synclavier synthesizers to simulate the feel of an orchestra. The performance of 'Russians' at PNC, for instance, didn't sound radically different from the version on 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles'. 'Fields Of Gold', a popular ballad from 'Ten Summoner's Tales', was enriched, rather than transformed, by the orchestra. Even 'King Of Pain', the Police hit and PNC standout, kept its towering shape amidst strings, woodwinds, and timpani.

On a steamy night in Holmdel, Sting kept the Philharmonic onstage for two hours, breaking once for a twenty-minute intermission, and returning for three encores. By the end of the show, the pop star's white shirt was soaked through with sweat, but he never seemed exhausted; an encore set performance of 'Fragile' gave him the opportunity to dazzle the crowd with a flawless solo on classical guitar. The ensemble never wilted in the heat, either. The musicians remained committed and enthusiastic; a few of them quietly sang along when they weren't playing. Sting's pop songs are often harmonically adventurous ('If I Ever Lose My Faith In You', for instance) and invite dense, complex arrangements; it's easy to imagine why a classical player might find engagement with his repertoire rewarding.

The famous front man returned their enthusiasm, calling out his lead chairs by name, praising them, and sharing the spotlight with them. Clarinetist Cerys Green was called to the front of the stage twice (and at the end of her solo on 'Mad About You', she got a hug from the singer that nearly prevented her from returning to her chair in time for the next song.) But the night's real hero wasn't even part of the Philharmonic.Tour bassist Ira Coleman switched between upright and electric with ease, and kept the orchestra's massive bottom end glued to the percussion section. Conductor Steven Mercurio was a kinetic showman, but Coleman was the true translator onstage.

Sting is charismatic, but slightly stiff. Born to play, he doesn't really know what to do with his hands when he's not holding an instrument. With so many supplementary musicians onstage, his intermittent guitar playing might have looked superfluous. But it put him at ease, and it prevented him from gesticulating through the songs and shaking his open hands like a revival preacher. It's a nervous tic: he doesn't overact because he's a ham, he does it to mask his geeky awkwardness. With fifty musicians onstage, he wasn't going to get too many opportunities to strum his way through his songs, and that's fine. Next time around, when he's fronting a klezmer band, he can play an accordion straight through the set.

(c) The Star Ledger by Tris McCall