thu 18/07/2019

Sting, Hammersmith Apollo | reviews, news & interviews

Sting, Hammersmith Apollo

Sting, Hammersmith Apollo

Earnest megastar strips down for some tantric gigging

Sting: never in the same room as Stephen Berkoff

Unlike his old buddy, Phil Collins, who now claims to be considered the “Antichrist of Music”, public consensus on Sting seems elusive. His popularity in the States has never wavered, but back home, it’s difficult to tell if the "tantric" one is generally considered to be something better or worse than a guilty pleasure. Last night, however, Sting was not suffering from any self-doubt. Nor lack of stamina. It was two and a quarter hours of flat-out “back to basics”. Or "Back to Bass", as he’s called this tour.

The stage was bare save for a drum kit, some cables and five mic stands. It was probably the most minimalist stage he had inhabited since his 2008 Police reunion. And there was no support act. Despite having the guitarist’s son performing on stage, Sting’s daughter’s band wasn’t invited to play this time. Everything was simplicity. On one side of the stage was a capacity crowd of well-heeled AOR fans, including actor Richard E Grant. And on the other was an impressively built 60-year-old in a tight T-shirt, looking like Stephen Berkoff with a bass strapped to him.

His various attempts at being a renaissance man – including literally playing renaissance music – have often felt a bit thin

This is the Back to Bass tour, because after spending so many years expanding his horizons, Sting is returning to the style he started with, just with a little less reggae. His various attempts at being a renaissance man – including literally playing renaissance music – have often felt a bit thin. But no one could really take issue with what Sting achieved when he first abandoned his blackboard. And so, even with The Police catalogue only to be sparingly exploited (“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”, “Demolition Man”, “Driven to Tears”, “Every Breath you Take”, “Next to You” and “Message in a Bottle” were played), the prospect of this makeover surely warranted listening with fresh, unbiased ears?

The one thing, above all else, Sting got right was the selection of his band, and the decision to perform like he was just part of it. It not only made everything sound more Police-like, they actually did a better job of doing so than when the actual band reformed. Stripped of their faux-jazz stylings, songs like “Seven Days” and “Stolen Car” sprouted hair, and "Sacred Love" grew balls. 

Long-time collaborators Dominic Miller on guitar and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta played skilfully and tastefully, aping the spirit of Copeland and Summers. Violinist Peter Tickell, however, went completely over the top at every available opportunity, and became the real showman of the evening. And then there was the striking blonde figure of backing vocalist Jo Lawry (pictured below right), whose“howling” solo on “The Hounds of Winter” was my highlight.

If Sting's musical direction was an unexpected success, the lack of visual spectacle was pretty much as anticipated. Occasionally Sting’s legs got some rhythm going but, for the most part, he did the sensible thing and remained stuck to his spot, backlit by a handful of spotlights. Between numbers he greeted the crowd with amiable patter, punctuated with designer swearing, and insights into his songs. “Stolen Car”, he told us, was really about the lives of the owners of the cars stolen in the story. And “Love is Stronger than Justice” was a mash-up of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Magnificent Seven. But Sting's lyrics, with all their clumsy allusions, have never really warranted particularly close attention. They are best heard as delivered. And the big songs, “Fields of Gold” and “Every Breath you Take”, with that trademark tenor as clear as at 26, sounded about as good as they get.

But for all the favours given to the individual songs by the new arrangements, much was also lost by the concert by simply going on too long, and in weak songs like “The End of the Game”. The worst rendition of the night, though, was the encore, “Message in a Bottle” played solo on a nylon acoustic guitar, with alternative chords and exaggerated vocals. It reminded me of my least favourite aspects of Sting’s solo years and of some of the florid opinions I had earlier found when tapping “Sting” into Google. It also made me think how insufferable I found Sting's last project, Symphonicities, where he played through his catalogue with an orchestra. Mostly, however, last night not only showed that there are still a lot of people in the UK who love Sting, but suggested what he might record next, if he wants to keep it that way.   

Watch Sting perform "Message in a Bottle" earlier in the Back to Bass tour


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