Sting is the new nirvana. I don’t mean the band; I mean the highest beatitude one can achieve, the final stage of reincarnation. Watching Sting joyfully perform a catalogue of his songs to a few thousand fans at Etess Arena at the Hard Rock Casino in Atlantic City, my first thought was, “I want to be Sting when I grow up,” but then I realized that no, I wanted to die and come back as Sting.
Earlier this year, Sting released My Songs, an album of fifteen re-recorded songs from the first 20 years of his career, many re-imagined with a contemporary feel. That’s an interesting proposition, considering that the songs of The Police were never really stuck in time; they followed their own trajectory, moving from punk-reggae in the late ‘70s to a crisp, moody new-wave in the MTV era. Sting’s solo work has a more experimental, spiritual, boundary-free feel, but what ties it all together is Sting’s high, soaring, woodwind-like voice.
He brought his tour, and his eight-member ensemble, to Etess Arena at the Hard Rock Casino in Atlantic City on November 15. Though a large space, it felt intimate for a talent of Sting’s stature. The seating spans 180 degrees around the stage with floor seats and a couple of levels of risers. Large video screens displayed the action for those in the back. The sound was flawless – this room is made for music.
The floor seats implied that this might be a chill show, but on the first notes of “Message in a Bottle,” (1979) the crowd rose to its feet. Whether it was because of the huge smile across the 68-year-old Northumberland native’s face or if his grin was due to the audience’s reaction is anyone’s guess, but right away everyone, including those on stage, knew: we were all going feel quite happy for the next hundred minutes. “Here’s how it works,” he said, mid-song. “I sing, then you sing, then I sing, and you sing and then we’re all friends, okay?” The instructions were unnecessary, but reassuring. In addition, Sting’s left wing was in a sling (from a recent shoulder surgery, he would tell us later), which meant he wouldn’t be hiding behind a bass or guitar at all; he was going to have to entertain us, and he was clearly up for it.
The band went immediately into 1993’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” and though the style and maturity between the two eras was evident, the songs melded well together. He split the difference next with “Englishman in New York” from his 1987 solo album, …Nothing Like the Sun and “If You Love Somebody Set them Free” (1985), where the backing vocalists had their turn to shine, and they would continue to have moments in the spotlight. Sting challenged Shane Sage, the harmonica player, to play Stevie Wonder’s parts from “Brand New Day” (of course, he already knew he could do it). Gene Noble took the Shaggy parts on “If You Can’t Find Love,” the only song from this decade to find its way to the setlist.
Sting knew how to play the crowd, though, and the next several songs were subdued, and the crowd took their cue to sit for a while. We relaxed through “Whenever I Say Your Name,” from 2003’s Sacred Love, the backup singer coming forward to play the role of Mary J. Blige, “Fields of Gold,” “Shape of My Heart” and a majestic version of “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” While we were sitting, Sting planted himself downstage and shared that he always wanted to be a cowboy and a country music star, both of which were improbable for a kid from North England, but he was thrilled that Johnny Cash covered “I Hung My Head.”
The audience stood back up for “Walking on the Moon” from The Police’s 1979 album, Reggatte de Blanc, and the band threw Bob Marley’s “Stand Up” in at the end. As if driving home the British band’s reggae roots, they also snuck “No Woman No Cry” in the middle of “So Lonely” (1978) next.
The set ended with “Every Breath You Take,” but it didn’t take long for the band to come back for a four-song encore, featuring three Police songs. A fairly unretouched version of “Next to You,” the first song from their first album, reminded us all how his music journey started. The show ended with, in Sting’s words, the “quiet and thoughtful” “Fragile” (1987).
Sting’s unmistakable tone has barely changed over the years, though there were some changes to songs that might have been due to physical limitations (such as avoiding the high “put on the red light!” in “Roxanne”). The songs did indeed meld together well, illustrating the timelessness of his songwriting style. I had the euphorically conflicting experience of being in the presence of a living legend and an ageless deity, while at the same time sensing his appreciation for us, his humility and his eagerness to please, and I doubt anyone left that room disappointed.
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