Blue Turtles

Los Angeles, CA, US
Greek Theater
Sting blasts off labels in concert...

The former Police chief is minus his two favorite officers, but no one at the Greek Thursday night seemed to mind. The smooth, three-piece spartan sound has been replaced by a dynamic, resonant fusion of the pop and jazz idioms, employing four top jazzmen from New York City.

Sting hoped that by taking them out of their environment, and by removing himself from his own comfortably safe reggae-pop formulas, he'd end up with something unique - well outside the realm of what listeners are used to.

He and the four continue their performances at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at the Greek Theater and Wednesday at Pacific Amphitheater in Costa Mesa.

As the top-10 single 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' implies, the Police's singer-songwriter-bassist has not only forsaken the pathological obsessiveness of former lyrics but also managed to dynamite the dividing lines that classify music.

He feels no freedom in a label: ''My interest is to break down the rigid barriers between music types. There has to be cross-pollination, so I deliberately used musicians from a different genre... What we ended up with is not jazz, nor is it easily classifiable as rock 'n' roll. It doesn't have a label, because labels are destructive.''

But coming from such diverse backgrounds and lifestyles - Sting of The Police, percussionist Omar Hakim, formerly with Weather Report, Miles Davis bassman Darryl Jones, New Orleans horn wizard Branford Marsalis and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland - the new band's rapport and musical cohesiveness on stage is amazing.

Sting began the evening with a jumpy, fully- liberated rendition of the Police favorite, 'Shadows in the Rain'. Then came a soulful elegiac version of 'Driven to Tears', featuring a bluesy lamenting tenor underscore by Marsalis.

The evening's highlight followed: a moody dirge-like ballad titled 'Children's Crusade'. Here Sting's penchant for writing meaningful, memorable lyrics was perfectly showcased. An 11th century travesty about monks recruiting children as slaves for North Africa becomes a metaphor for the present drug crisis among young people.

As evidenced by this and later songs, Sting has opted for a more positive social relevance and longevity in his music. This turn is not surprising after the December Band-Aid ballyhoo and subsequent global concerns and commitments in the pop music world.

Lesser felt is the sadness and spiritual suffering found in the 'Synchronicity' Tour. In a way, that album mirrored the pain of the 33-year-old songwriter's previous year - a separation from his wife - which made the tortured lyrics strike home harder, feeling eerily genuine.

With this solo venture, Sting's still writing strong stuff. But the emphasis is on universally felt, easily definable ills. He now has four kids, is a devout family man (even though he remains unmarried), and the new music reflects this change in character.

And those at the concert seemed aware of this difference. Sting curtailed his usual self-centered, one-man-show persona, constantly shifting the spotlight to other band members. Backup vocalists Dollette McDonald (from Synchronicity) and Janice Pendarvis were permitted to sashay their pretty bods across stage quite often. Admittedly, with Sting's undeniable presence and angelic vocals, it's hard to avert your eyes even for a second to see what someone else is doing.

Songs generating the most audience response were 'Set Them Free' (of course) and the crescendo-ing chorus to 'Fortress Around Your Heart'. That age-old tale about the vampire with a drinking problem - 'Moon Over Bourbon Street' - proved a quiet, welcome respite. Bathed in blue while acting out the tortured ambivalence of Anne Rice's title character from ''Interview With the Vampire'', the audience howled like werewolves when Sting wailed his desperation into the creepy Greek Theater environs.

Three encores brought down the house with solo versions of the ever-faithful 'Roxanne' and 'Message in a Bottle'. The crowd sang along dutifully (and in tempo, for once). That evil, possessive record of 1983 - 'Every Breath You Take' - gracefully closed one of these sets. Its instrumentation sounded exactly like the Police's 'Synchronicity' Tour. You almost felt as if Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers had materialized for a brief time on stage. But the song seemed a strange closing number after the enthusiastic lyrical liberation of 'Set Them Free'.

Sting played lead guitar with the same juicily-phased chordal progressions of Summers. It often sounded like four instruments with just a flick of his wrist.

The reggae-influenced 'Love Is the Seventh Wave' segued out of the Third-World chant 'One World Is Enough for All of Us'. Sadly missed was the Prokofiev-inspired 'Russians', in which Sting again warns of nuclear folly.

Another nice surprise for Police fans and followers of Sting's acting career was a revised 'I Burn for You' from the soundtrack to his starring opus, ''Brimstone and Treacle''. Its treatment proved not as erotically suggestive as the film's, but the purr of his croon still managed to evoke sighs from at least half the audience. Since this tour marked the song's first public performance, its inclusion was well-received.

The concert's aim seemed to be: Dispense a little something to everyone. Diehard rockers were satiated with the pulsating, earsplitting frenzy of 'Demolition Man' and 'When the World Is Running Down'. Jazz purists could cool off on the mellower lounge-hall lyrics of ''Consider Me Gone'' or the classically-based ''Bring On The Night.''

Older jazz and blues numbers were interspersed for variety as well. Sting absolutely wailed on 'Hard To Tell the Poison From the Cure' and Little Willie John's 'I Need Your Love So Bad'.

And believe me, no one left the Greek feeling even a tad slighted.

(c) The Daily Breeze by Les Paul Robley