Mercury Falling

Camden, NJ, US
Blockbuster Sony Centerwith Natalie Merchant
Wintry Sting chills Fourth of July concert...

It was the Fourth of July Weekend, but Sting didn't seem to be in a summery mood as he began his Friday night concert in Camden. ''I'm as dark as December, I'm as cold as the man in the moon,'' he sang in the show's first song, 'The Hounds of Winter'.

A few songs later, he reminded the crowd that in his home country, England, people don't set off fireworks on the Fourth of July. ''They stay home and grumble,'' he said.

The former Police frontman, who shared a double bill with Natalie Merchant at the Blockbuster-Sony Music Entertainment Centre, didn't spend the whole night in a downbeat mood: The show included rousing versions of songs like 'Synchronicity II', 'When the World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around' and 'Demolition Man', and solid performances of Police classics like 'Every Breath You Take' and 'Roxanne'. But it was hardly a feel-good extravaganza either. A surprisingly magic-less 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' epitomized its worst tendencies. The Police's version of this song was instrumentally complex, but still exuberant. Sting's current band drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, guitarist Dominic Miller, keyboardist Kenny Kirkland and horn players Butch Thomas and Clark Gayton drained the life out of it, ambitiously adding polyrhythms and skittering fills, but ignoring the sunny groove that made it a delight in the first place.

Throughout the show, Colaiuta showed disdain for simple, accessible grooves of any kind, playing busy patterns with harsh, clinical precision. This brand of playing may go down well in drum clinics, but Sting needs warmer playing to balance his cerebral instincts.

The show was also weighted down by songs from Sting's ponderous new album, 'Mercury Falling'. All the tricky 9/8 time of 'I Hung My Head' did was make the song sound stilted. 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot' and 'I Was Brought To My Senses' suffered from plodding rhythms and formulaic lyrics (e.g., ''I was blind, now I can see'').

Two songs from 'Mercury Falling', 'You Still Touch Me', a classically styled soul ballad, and the refreshingly breezy 'Lithium Sunset' fared better. And 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying', Sting's daring foray into country, became one of the show's most entertaining numbers when Sting invited an audience member to sing it with him. Delighted by his guest's guts and surprising vocal ability he had warned Sting he couldn't sing Sting played the warm, gracious host, letting his ''important artist'' guard down for a moment.

Sting also shined on 'Seven Days', reciting the storytelling lyrics with a touch of wry amusement, and ended the show with a graceful unplugged version of his ballad, 'Fragile'.

He gave generous soloing time to his adept sidemen, and especially Thomas and Gayton, who specialized in soprano sax and trombone, respectively, but also played a variety of other horn instruments. Both took plenty of solos, frequently walking to the front of the stage to stand beside Sting, and added to the onstage energy with their synchronized, high-stepping dancing.

Sting was unwise, though, to let Thomas rap in the middle of 'Englishman in New York'. The segment was out of place in this melancholy song, and came off as a desperate attempt to be hip.

Opening act Natalie Merchant, who will headline her own amphitheater shows later this summer, has found success as a recording artist after leaving the band 10,000 Maniacs, but presented a show that didn't approach the power of the Maniacs at their best.

Her newly assembled band is adventurous, turning 'These Are Days', for instance, into the kind of breezy tropical celebration one might expect to hear at a Jimmy Buffett concert, and adding flamboyant blues-rock licks to 'Carnival'. But other jams were clumsy, and the band played several songs, including 'San Andreas Fault' and 'Eat For Two', at frustratingly slow tempos.

Merchant is still a charismatic performer, with her rich, deep voice, relaxed, slyly knowing vocal style and eccentric dancing: She sways and twirls as if she's in an intoxicating world of her own. But she has put together a band that doesn't always do her justice.

This was the last joint Sting/Merchant show of the summer, but both will be back in New Jersey soon. Sting will be at the Garden State Arts Center (which may be officially known as the PNC Bank Arts Center by showtime) tomorrow night, with the Cowboy Junkies opening; the show is sold out. Merchant will be at the Arts Center July 25; tickets, priced at $42 and $20 (lawn) are available through Ticketmaster and Ticketmaster Phone Charge, 201-507-8900.

(c) The Star-Ledger by Jay Lustig

A whirlwind tour of Stingdom...

With the release of 'Mercury Falling' last March, many of Sting's fans began to wonder whether the Newcastle rocker would settle for a spot on the adult contemporary charts with gravel-voiced crooners Rod Stewart and Bryan Adams.

To be fair, not all of 'Mercury Falling' was trite - some selections, like the wispy 'Valparaiso', achieved a depth reminiscent of 1991's 'The Soul Cages'. But all in all, the album seems too deliberately commercial, as if it were crafted with a target market in mind: Boomers with Beemers who can shrug off $56 concert tickets. Those folks turned out in droves at the Blockbuster-Sony Entertainment Centre on July 5.

Almost everyone in the front rows remained seated during Natalie Merchant's set, despite the tight and soulful grooves of her sextet on songs like 'Carnival'. At one point, Merchant surveyed the audience and quipped, ''I feel like I'm at a wedding... with no booze.''

After a lively calypso version of 10,000 Maniacs' 'These Are Days', the audience woke up a little, but it wasn't until her encore (a medley that included 'Son of a Preacher Man') that the crowd really stirred. I felt genuinely bad for Merchant, whose performance proved to be the best opener Sting has had in recent memory, and who deserved more than the scant attention she received.

When Sting walked onstage with measured stride, bass tucked under one arm, there was no question he meant business. From that point on, the concert was a whirlwind tour of Stingdom, fast-paced and relentless. In addition to the 'Mercury Falling' singles, the band tore through Police tunes and managed to play at least one song from each solo album.

Vince Coliauta's thunderous drums propelled the group through the show, and guitarist Dominic Miller fit Sting's sound perfectly, as always. Kenny Kirkland, who has accompanied Sting on five out of six albums, supported each tune on keyboards and played an absolutely amazing solo on 'Bring on the Night/When the World is Running Down'. Saxophonist Butch Thomas filled Branford Marsalis' soprano seat admirably during the solo break in 'Englishman in New York', and Clark Gayton cranked out a great trombone solo during the reggae breakdown of 'Roxanne'.

It's probably no coincidence that the band sounded most inspired on old Police songs, which boast an intensity unlike most of 'Mercury Falling'. Tunes like 'Synchronicity II' and 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' are timeless: like Sting, the melodies age incredibly well.

There's no telling whether it's the yoga or the Wiltshire mansion, but Sting looked like a million bucks onstage, and his voice was as clear as it has ever been. He also showed a good amount of heart when he let an enthused fan onto the stage to help him sing, 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying'. The fan, Scott Antoine, brought the crowd to its feet with his awkward gyrations and his confession: ''I really can't sing... I just wanted to be up here.''

The 'Mercury Falling' tour was great fun - Sting and company simply blasted their way through a barrage of songs, covering enough ground to please everybody.

(c) The Philadelphia City Paper by Nate Chinen