Report: Sting Symphonic Tour In Cincy

 

The erstwhile
Police-man takes his greatest hits out for a ride and brings the Royal
Philharmonic Concert Orchestra with him. Spotted July 20 at Riverbend Music
Center in Cincinnati.

 

By Steven Rosen

 

While Sting certainly has no problem writing an ebullient
pop song whenever he wants, there’s a strong ruminative streak to his solo
material. Sometimes, he so painstakingly works at trying to find the right
lyric for the melody, the right instrumentation and tempos for the mood, the
right imagery for the idea, that the songs themselves don’t come alive beyond
their arresting titles. His voice, strong and plaintive, can only move them so
far.

 

That’s why it was encouraging to hear he was going on tour
with the 45-piece Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by Steven
Mercurio. (He also recently released Symphonicities, featuring orchestral arrangements.) Unlike pop, classical doesn’t have to worry
so much about a song’s overall momentum or even sense of whole. It can
highlight and punctuate individual passages, and build satisfying bridges
between them, through the endless ways that string, woodwind and brass sections
can add coloration. Add rhythm and percussion to that – a cinch for anyone
schooled in rock ‘n’ roll – and Sting with orchestra should lead to some very
sophisticated pop – make that Pops – music.

 

I tried to remember that when he closed the first half of
his show at Cincinnati’s packed Riverbend Music Center – an outdoor venue with
a roof – with the punkishly frenetic Police nugget, “Next to You.” The
orchestra was wailing away at top volume like ELO tackling “Roll Over Beethoven,”
complete with a fooler time change right in the song’s middle. 

 

Who doesn’t love stuff like this – big orchestras playing
straightforward rock ‘n’ roll really, really loud. But do we need them to?
Don’t rock bands already do that well enough? At what point does this become
bombast? To Sting’s credit, he really only used this gimmick twice – the other
time was with “She’s Too Good For Me,” a good-natured, revved-up excuse to let
the different orchestra sections stand up and swivel some hips.  (Mercurio, moving quickly to keep up with the
beat, got the best workout of anyone.)

 

Otherwise, Mercurio wisely kept the orchestra subdued on
Sting’s most melodic ballads, like “When We Dance” and “Fields of Gold,” to
avoid overkill. The orchestra sweetened them a bit, especially the opener “If I
Ever Lose My Faith,” whose slow build to rousing chorus is the perfect vehicle
for an orchestra to methodically layer on sound to reach a flourish.

 

The arrangements really helped his more melodically complex
and even theatrical songs, adding drama. The best example was the 1980s
warhorse “Russians,” which Mercurio prefaced with a reading from Mussorgsky’s
forebodingly powerful Boris Godunov. This
added apprehension and intrigue to Sting’s more introspective, quieter song
(and performance). There was also a mournful trumpet solo midway through, which
gave this song about the Cold War a nostalgic tone. Sting added to that,
probably, by recalling how the threat of ruinous nuclear war probably kept the
Russians (and President Reagan) in check. “Our current ideological adversaries
don’t seem to have that ethic,” he said. “I kind of miss the Russians in that
regard.”

 

Sting donned a black coat with blood-red cuffs for the
vampyric “Moon Over Bourbon Street.” Here, the string section provided a tense,
biting accompaniment. At one point, Sting played a theremin while the three
overhead video screens showed images of Nosferatu. The orchestra worked well
for this showy tune, helping it transcend its inherent artificiality. (It even
ends with Sting giving a werewolfian howl.). The fact there was a hard rain
during it, with lightning streaking the sky, helped.)

 

But there were weaknesses. Sting introduced “I Hung My
Head,” his murder ballad from Mercury
Falling,
by recalling how much he liked American Western TV series as a
boy. Sure enough, the arrangement sounded like a theme from Bonanza or The Big Valley, a borderline-soundtrack-y overture that drained all
the sorrow right out the song. And Sting’s harmonica playing couldn’t restore
it. Comparing this to Johnny Cash’s stark version of the song underscores that
sometimes less is more in pop music.

 

Sting’s own group included longtime guitarist Dominic
Miller, stand-up bassist Ira Coleman, and back-up singer Jo Lawry. Her
presence, by the way, was problematic. A willowy blonde, she was placed upfront
to Sting’s right where she couldn’t hide. So she tried to maintain a constant
stage presence, swaying and smiling to the music. But the attention she
garnered was out of proportion to her role in the concert, even though her
voice sweetened his on numerous songs, especially the lilting “When We Dance.”
(On their one true duet, “Whenever I Say Your Name,” her singing was too strong
– it felt like a dated power ballad.)

 

Too many older rock acts go the symphonic-accompaniment
route to extend the shelf life of their material by sanding the rough spots off
it. They’re out to make it palatable to a non-rock crowd, not make it art. But
there are younger acts – the Decemberists, Belle & Sebastian, Airborne
Toxic Event – doing some interesting experiments with orchestras. At 58, Sting
is old enough to take the safe route, but seems to really want to use an  orchestra to reveal detail and enrich the
musicality of his older material. He’s not consistently there yet, but one
hopes he stays with the effort.

 

 

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