Mercury Falling

New York City, NY, US
The Academy
Pretension Pop - Sting makes some waves in a sea of platitudes...

When Sting talks, people listen. Not necessarily because they want to, but because the guy won't stop the stream of discourse until he's satisfied that everyone within earshot has gotten his message loud and clear.

Try as he might - and to give him the benefit of the doubt, he seemed to be giving it his best shot at his sold-out Academy show on Saturday night - it's impossible for the former schoolteacher to shed his cloak of pretension.

Over the course of a two-hour set that was largely given over to material from his soon-to-be released album 'Mercury Falling', Sting did manage to loosen up now and again. But the sum total of Francophone forays (on the bossa nova-styled 'La Belle Dame Sans Regrets'), tour-guide song introductions and persistent philosophizing hammered home the point that to Sting, tight means right.

There's no disputing the quality of the raw materials Sting brings to his work. As evidenced by a double-barrelled opening salvo of 'If Ever I Lose My Faith' and 'If You Love Somebody', he hasn't lost any of the keening upper register that makes his singing voice one of pop's most distinctive. Neither has he forgotten the value of musical economy: The seven-man backing band (which swelled to an octet when guest Branford Marsalis joined on soprano sax) seldom bogged down in complicated arrangements, opting instead for light, aerodynamic sonic constructions.

If only Sting could muster a similar lightness in his lyric writing. He's prone to couching platitudes like those expressed in 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot' with a loftiness that's incredible, given that most of the sentiments could be found - virtually word-for-word - plastered across T-shirts at shopping-mall kiosks coast-to-coast. Some new songs - particularly the country-tinged 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying' and the invigorating, Motown-derived '25 to Midnight' - ward off such criticism by melodic inventiveness alone.

But more often, it became clear that Sting is gifted - if that's the right word - with the ability to find the innate Sting-ness at the core of every style he explores. Bopping stiffly against the jump-blues rhythm of 'She's Too Good For Me' or keening through the ersatz mysticism of the restrained, Celtic-tinged 'I was Brought to My Senses', he telescopes an extensive array of influences into the narrow patch of tepid cocktail-rock territory in which he seems most comfortable.

When he and his band - anchored by keyboardist Kenny Kirkland - ventured beyond those borders, the results were often exhilarating. A retooled version of 'Roxanne' deepened the reggae groove that burbled beneath the original, while drummer Vinnie Colaiuta brought some clever syncopation to an overhauled 'Bed's Too Big Without Yo'. Those splashes of color provided a welcome relief from the beige-on-beige tones of their surroundings, but the pervasive politeness of songs like 'You Still Touch Me' and 'An Englishman in New York' were more indicative of the overly refined ambience. Music by which to nibble brie.

(c) Newsday by David Sprague

Sting at the Academy...

I was thrilled when my friend from New York rang to say Sting was doing a warm-up show at The Academy and she'd got me a ticket. It's been eight months since the last concert so jumped' at the chance to join her.

It wasn't until I arrived that I realised how special this concert was. The venue held only one thousand people and the tickets sold out in less than ten minutes!

In the queue I met people who had camped out overnight and the touts were asking over $200 per ticket so they were worth their weight in gold!

As with all Sting's concerts in New York, there were plenty of celebrities there, notably: Brad Pitt, Peter Gabriel, Robin Williams, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston from 'Friends' and, of course, Trudie.

I was determined to be at the front so I went to the venue at 10 a.m. and was delighted to find only two other people already there. The doors didn't open until 7 p.m. and the temperature was minus 10 C. After a while I began to question my sanity! Did I really have to be at the front? As more people turned up we began to have a lot of fun swapping Sting stories. One girl had flown in from Texas to see the show and had never seen Sting before. Shelley Smyers flew in from California and I met up with Wanda Stone and some other club members so in the end the nine hour wait didn't seem so bad.

As soon as the doors opened and I ran to take my place at the stage I knew I'd done the right thing. There was no support act so we didn't have long to wait until Sting and the band came on. Before they started Sting explained: ''I'm going to preview the album tonight. We're going to play all the new songs and we're going to playa few tunes that we know too!!

The show started with 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You' and 'Set Them Free' to warm the crowd up before playing anything new. Sting then explained the 'ground rules' to us ''If any of the band make a mistake there's going to be a short show trial and we'll find out which one it was. If I make a mistake I'll just keep a straight face and blame one of the others! He then introduced The Hounds Of Winter' which faded into 'I Hung My Head.'

It was now time to introduce the band: Backing vocals were by Dollette McDonald and Janice Pendarvis from the 'Blue Turtles' days, along with Monica Price. Sting introduced the wind section before drawing our attention to ... ''These toe-rags at the front, Dominic Miller, Vinnie Colaiuta and Kenny Kirkland ...'' Then he introduced his special guest of the night: Branford Marsalis!

The next song was the now familiar 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot' and then a very Celtic sounding 'Brought To My Senses' and 'You Still Touch Me' during which Dominic excelled on the guitar. Sting said he realised it is hard listening to new songs so decided it was time for something old: 'Seven Days' and 'Fields Of Gold.'

Unfortunately for the Americans the next song '25 To Midnight' isn't on the album which is a huge shame because it was one of the highlights of the show. To calm things down they played 'All Four Seasons.' Then Sting explained that when he wrote the next song: 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying' it originally was in a different style but when he read the lyrics, realised it was a country song.

The next song on the set was the beautiful 'La Belle Dame Sans Regrets' which he wrote with Dominic. Sting said it was written the week the French Government decided to ban Anglo-Saxon songs on French radio and it was: ''...My poor attempt to get on French radio!''

The Celtic sounding song 'Valparaiso' has a Spanish title... ''But I won't make you suffer my Spanish...''

Then it was time for some old favourites: 'Synchronicity II', 'Roxanne' and a reggae version of 'The Bed's Too Big Without You' with a wonderful backing singer Monica Price. I don't think the crowd would have let him get away with if he didn't sing 'Englishman In New York' so he did and they loved it.

The first part of the show was finished with 'This Cowboy Song' - which was brought to life by the horn section - and 'When The World Is Running Down'. We were kept waiting until they all returned for an encore performance of 'She's Too Good For Me', 'Nothing 'Bout Me' and the final song on the album 'Lithium Sunset' brought the set to an energetic finish.

There was one last treat with Dominic taking over on bass guitar, Vinnie on percussion and Kenny on the keyboard, Sting took to his acoustic to play 'Fragile'.

Sting told us, ''Thank you for indulging us with all that new material - that's tough!''

My message for Sting has to be: ''Thank YOU for writing the new songs - it was a pleasure to hear them and I look forward to many more shows!''

(c) Sue Bett for Outlandos/

Sting has a routine...

Sting has a routine: When he puts out a new album, every few years, he starts his world tour with a club show in Manhattan. To preview his album 'Mercury Falling' (A&M), which will be released on March 12, he performed at the Academy on Saturday night.

His club shows are as much public dress rehearsals as concerts, and at them, Sting trades arena bravado for the modesty of a musician at work, still tinkering with songs on their way from the studio to the stage.

Sting kept the set informal. He warned that there might be mistakes; later he brought on the saxophonist Branford Marsalis to jam. He also apologised repeatedly for trying out so much new material, though no one minded.

Nearly half the set was unfamiliar: the 10 songs on 'Mercury Falling' and one, '25 to Midnight', that was omitted from the album. But most of Sting's songs have the instant accessibility of expert pop.

There's no sea change in Sting's latest songs. He still plays a sincere lover, a bereft man after a break-up or a reassuring friend who urges, ''Let your pain be my sorrow/Let your tears be my tears, too.''

He proffers unironic sincerity, with a reedy, breathy voice that sounds unguarded. And he holds sentimentality at bay through musical ingenuity. No other top 10 contender is so fond of odd meters or mid-song shifts of style.

In his new songs, Sting goes genre-hopping. There's a countryish ditty about a divorce, a brooding anthem, a Latin-tinged ballad sung in French, and tunes that suggest Celtic folksongs. 'I Was Brought to My Senses' starts with one of those Celtic melodies, changes to light folk-rock (in 7/4 time) and moves into a jazzy chorus.

Following the implicit advice of the new 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot', songs often look back to 1960s soul music, and Sting's band now includes a four-man horn section and three female backup singers. 'You Still Touch Me' could almost be a version of 'Every Breath You Take' backed by Booker T. and the MGs; '25 to Midnight' is Motown bent into an odd meter.

Despite Sting's warnings, the music was in fine shape. 'I Hung My Head', about an accidental shooting, easily balanced between folk-rock and soul; 'All Four Seasons', about loving a changeable woman, had the easy calm and the abundant metaphors of its model, the Temptations' 'My Girl' (written by Smokey Robinson). Only 'Valparaiso', about separation and a sea journey, lost its dreamy yearning in a strained, earthbound performance.

In material he wrote for the Police, Sting brought back styles his recent songs have left behind: the assertive rock of 'Synchronicity II' and the reggae of 'The Bed's Too Big Without You' (revamped with toasting, or rapping, from Monica Price). The band took promising liberties with older songs; in 'Seven Days', the rhythm section suddenly shifted into a snappy, playful double time. Yet it could also keep the music straightforward, unfolding the melody with simple dignity in 'Fields of Gold'.

Marsalis, who was in the band on Sting's first solo album, perked up every song he sat in on, slipping elegant fills between Sting's vocal lines.

''We'll be back in the summer,'' Sting said after 'Fragile', the last encore. ''We'll be better.'' By then, the musicians will be more practised; with luck, they'll hold on to an element of risk.

(c) The New York Times by Jon Pareles

Luck smiles on fans and Sting...

In rock and roll there's nothing like seeing big stars in little halls.

At the Academy, Sting boldly scaled down his stadium act, so it would squeeze into the doomed shoebox-sized Broadway theatre. Without question, he could have played [Madison Square] Garden, Meadowlands or Radio City, but he didn't.

Instead, by doing the Academy on Saturday, Sting set his priorities - the music and his fans rather than profits.

You could here it in every breath he took, in every song he sang during the generous, two and a half hour show. The program was career-spanning, including material from his unreleased 'Mercury Falling' disc (in stores this month) to the crowd's favourite sing-along, 'Roxanne'.

The show was built with old, familiar numbers sandwiching the new tunes. As you'd expect, the greatest hits from Sting's days in the Police's line-up were the biggest crowd-pleasers, in spite of his sterling solo career.

Sting's one stinker was a song he sang in French. Maybe it was his affected 'Pepe Le Phew' French accent, or maybe the song was more mush for a wimp, but the young women in the house seemed to enjoy it.

The top number of the night was 'The Bed's Too Big Without You' where Sting freshened the reggae-weary song with a smart arrangement that featured him and a backup singer in a vocal duet.

Sting's singing approached a free-form jazz scat at times, while his partner replied in rapid-fire Jamaican dance hall-style rap. Although it was interesting to hear Sting re-interpret himself, his melodies were transformed by one of the best: guest soloist Branford Marsalis often used them as the first step in his horn improvisations.

Sting has an athlete's grace on stage as he unconsciously sways to his own bass line. He has that rare mix of confidence and humbleness. It's easy to like a guy who summed up his life early in the show with the offhanded remark ''I'm lucky.''

And that was the way he sang and played throughout the show, as if he were the lucky one to be there, rather than the fans able to nab a ticket for this one-night stand.

(c) The New York Post by Dan Aquitalane