Sting makes plenty of pop magic in Vancouver

At the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Wednesday, June 2

The official, media-approved title for Sting’s latest world tour won’t improve his image with those who already regard him as pompous. Try saying this fast: “Symphonicity Tour: Sting, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by Steven Mercurio”. With that mouthful, plus tickets costing between $106.25 and $267.25, cynical fans who attended the kickoff show might have wondered if he’d also reconstruct ancient Rome and find a cure for cancer.

However, it was an audience of believers who came to see the 58-year-old ex-Police frontman. Affluent, liberal baby boomers politely screamed and clapped, and gave him his fair due. Granted, the three-hour set (including a 25-minute break) basically rehashed his old hits with strings and horns, making it seem ironically fitting that the tour is sponsored by Xerox. Yet there was plenty of pop magic beneath the three big video screens—not to mention the fact that Sting’s choice for a closing encore took some serious cojones: an a cappella rendition of the 1996 obscurity “I Was Brought to My Senses”, in which he missed nary a dusky note after singing close to 30 songs.

We got to see nearly every public face of Mr. Gordon Sumner: thespian, schoolteacher, dry humorist. Coming out in a form-fitting grey-blue vest, a long-sleeved shirt, and dark slacks, he performed many songs sans instrument. He sang full-throatedly, waving his hands effusively, as if trying to keep up with conductor Mercurio’s tails-waving antics. Clearly, Sting was enjoying himself in a way he just couldn’t have if he’d had a pregig punch-up backstage with old Police sparring partner Stewart Copeland. (Sting recently described the 2007 Police reunion tour, which also kicked off in Vancouver just over three years ago, as “a mistake psychologically”.)

Prior to a slow, burning take on the ’78 Police classic “Roxanne”, Sting claimed that despite having sung certain numbers for more than 30 years, “with these new arrangements, sometimes I have no idea what song they’re playing.” That got a laugh, and it had to be in jest, because Sting is a notorious control freak creatively. Both the orchestra and his backing quartet, featuring long-time guitarist Dominic Miller and comely siren Jo Lawry, were far too well rehearsed for him not to know every note.

The between-song raps were educational and mighty alliterative. Sting introduced the decorous classical thunder of “Russians” by referring to the “belligerent and bellicose” Cold War vibe between the Soviets and the Americans. As well, he said traditional romantic scenarios were “boring and banal” before crooning his way through “When We Dance”.

This being opening night, the concert had its bumpy moments. An overly busy arrangement bogged down the classic ballad “Fields of Gold”. Symphonically retooling the punky “Next to You” from Outlandos D’Amour resulted in diminished excitement; ditto for “Message in a Bottle”. (Stewart, your snare drum was sorely missed.)

Unsurprisingly, the Centre got shakin’ the most when “the biggest band I’ve ever had” (only literally, Sting—sorry, but the Police still rule) struck up “Every Breath You Take”, followed by “Desert Rose”. Sting got his yoga-sculpted hips swivelling on the latter hit, originally a duet with Algerian singer Cheb Mami. As the ladies gyrated along, it felt for a moment as if Middle East peace must be achievable—well, at least if that troubled region were populated primarily by the well-coiffed matrons of Shaughnessy and Kitsilano.

Not all dreams can come true. Creatively, Sting may have taken the easier Symphonicity route instead of writing a new Synchronicity, but at least he’s still getting it done as a performer.