New Orleans, LA, US
UNO Lakefront Arenawith None

Sting sings with strings and more at the UNO Lakefront Arena...

At a sold-out New Orleans Arena three years ago, Sting performed alongside guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland, lucratively reunited as The Police. On Saturday at a not quite full UNO Lakefront Arena, Sting shared a stage with a slightly larger ensemble - the London-based, 45-piece Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, plus an additional guitarist, bassist, backing vocalist and two percussionists.

Symphonic collaborations are not new to pop music. Everyone from the Moody Blues to Metallica has gotten its orchestra on. But few have taken one on the road for as ambitious an outing as the 'Symphonicity' tour.

Framed by a smart, Spartan and decidedly contemporary stage set, the 50-odd musicians recast chestnuts from the Police and Sting's solo catalogue, some more radically than others.

Sting stood front and centre with his band and the orchestra, conducted by Steven Mercurio, seated on tiers behind him. He injected harmonica into the opening 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You'. A clarinet solo wove through 'Englishman in New York', as the musicians set down their instruments to lead a clap-along.

The string section spruced up the chorus of 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' with a playful, jubilant refrain that amplified the lyric's romantic giddiness.

The orchestra built a grand, ominous structure around the Cold War morality play 'Russians'. Sting stepped aside as a gong crashed, French horns harmonized in a mournful dirge, and a single snare drum tapped out a military cadence. The thrilling piece, a highlight of the evening, resolved in a solo trumpet.

The spooky noir of 'Moon Over Bourbon Street' was also a revelation, filled with plucked violin strings and long, low notes from the French horns; Sting manipulated the volume and pitch of a theremin, an electronic device that produces eerie, horror movie sounds. 'Desert Rose', another highlight, was a grand swirl of Arabian elements.

Violins and cellos faced off in a call-and-response during 'When We Dance'. Violins deflated before the final ''there's a little black spot on the sun today'' line in 'King of Pain', only to take exhilarating flight once again with ''I have stood here before inside the pouring rain.'' Women on the arena's floor defied ushers to dance up front.

If anything, Sting should have allowed the orchestra to take even more liberties. Strings could do little more than saw away in an effort to keep abreast of Dominic Miller's electric guitar in 'Next To You'; the uptempo opener of the Police's 1978 debut 'Outlandos d'Amour' bears more than a trace of the band's punkish origins. The arrangements of 'Every Breath You Take' and 'Fields of Gold' essentially mimicked what was there all along.

'Roxanne' received a modest bossa nova makeover. Miller's acoustic guitar carried 'Shape Of My Heart'. 'All Would Envy', a castaway Sting composition about an older man and his younger bride, contributed little to the show.

Backing vocalist Jo Lowry soared on 'You Will Be My Ain True Love', wailing the Alison Krauss part in a duet Sting wrote for the 'Cold Mountain' soundtrack. Lowry and Sting lost themselves in the intimate profession.

At 58, Sting's voice is undiminished; he can still sustain high notes and dial up nuance. And unlike his grin-and-bear-it posture at that Police show three years ago, he was chatty and gregarious. He prefaced many songs with anecdotes and one-liners, which went a long way toward neutralizing the obvious potential for pretention.

He recalled visiting New Orleans for the first time in 1979 following a Police show in Baton Rouge. Walking from Bourbon Street's epicenter to quieter blocks, he felt as if he was being followed; that was the genesis of 'Moon Over Bourbon Street'.

When writing 'Tomorrow We'll See', he said he let the music inspire the lyrics. ''What emerged from the music disturbed me greatly'' - the tale of a transsexual male prostitute.

He took a dim view of English foxhunting until a fox raided his farm's henhouse and ''killed every f----- chicken I had.'' The orchestra enlivened the chase described in the subsequent 'End of the Game'.

As a boy, Sting was fond of 'Bonanza' and other Westerns. His own efforts to write country songs encountered ''a problem with authenticity. I don't look good in a hat.'' Thus, he was thrilled when Johnny Cash covered his Old West gallows tale 'I Hung My Head'. On Saturday, it rode in on a majestic sweep of strings.

The evening wound down with 'Fragile' and its Spanish guitar. Sting returned one last time for a largely a cappella 'I Was Brought To My Senses'. In the end, the night boiled down to Sting's voice and songs. Both more than held their own.

(c) The Times-Picayune by Keith Spera