I wasn't really planning on seeing Sting on his current tour. After a ho-hum show a few years back at the Rose Garden, I decided that perhaps the best shows for Sting were behind him. I find it extremely difficult to watch some of my favorite performers from my childhood struggle to try to recapture a spark they have lost. Musically, there's almost nothing worse than listening to a song you love, sung by someone you used to love hear singing it, and having it sound like someone doing a karaoke version of their own song.
I'm extremely grateful that I ended up seeing Sting in his latest tour "Symphonicity" on its first US stop in Portland, Oregon. Not only was Sting's Symphonicity show a fantastic musical experience, it was a rare opportunity to see an extremely accomplished performer celebrate his work in a way that enhanced the memory of it rather than denigrate it.
Backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sting seemed to be right at home on stage with 48 other musicians. Sting has always been attracted to great music and musicians, from the mad genius of Stewart Copeland in The Police, Branford Marsalis in Bring on The Night, and more recently Chris Botti. Playing with talented people always seems to elevate Sting's performance.
There was a lot for Sting to draw from with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, expertly conducted by Steven Mercurio. Sting adapted the arrangements of many of his iconic songs for the orchestra and they did a superb job of accompanying him. Not all adaptations were a home run, however. Message in A Bottle lost its sense of loneliness and longing, Next to You felt like someone trying to force a rock sound out of an orchestra, and Whenever I Say Your Name was an utter train wreck. But when things worked, they really worked.
Songs from Sting's Ten Summoner's Tales album adapted extremely well for an orchestra. If I Ever Lose My Faith in You, the opening song, sounded fantastically full, Fields of Gold got some great texture, and Shape of My Heart became more dramatic with symphonic exclamations.
With such a strong orchestral accompaniment, Sting's backup vocalist, Jo Lawry, got pretty lost in the shuffle. The duet I Say Your Name, originally performed with Mary J. Blige, came off poorly, and the chorus for When We Dance was muted and stripped down to accommodate Lawry's voice. The only place she really shined was on You Will Be My Ain True Love, a song Sting wrote for the motion picture Cold Mountain (originally recorded by Alison Krauss). Even there, her voice didn't quite mesh with with Sting.
With Symphonicity, Sting's greatest on-stage collaborator was really conductor Steven Mercurio. It was extremely clear that Mercurio 'got it' – his conducting was animated, dramatic and just plain fun. For some this concert may be an introduction to seeing an orchestra live, and I couldn't think of a better introduction than Mercurio.
Sting has had a pretty diverse musical journey throughout his career, from his pure rock days with The Police, his ballad-focused solo work, jazzy Bring On The Night, and even country I Hung My Head (which was ultimately recorded by Johnny Cash before his death). Rather than just making Symphonicity an evening of Sting's greatest hits, Sting drew from all the corners of his musical cannon in a celebration of the breadth of his work. Songs like Tomorrow We'll See and End of The Game fit between classics like Moon Over Bourbon Street and King of Pain, and Hung My Head and You Will Be My Ain True Love syncopated with Shape of My Heart and Mad About You.
One of the things I loved the most about Symphonicity was the absolute pure clarity of sound. Sting's voice was exceptional. He effortlessly hit the high notes on Roxanne while still maintaining a strong soft and quiet voice on A Thousand Years. The orchestra also sounded fantastic, from the dramatic orchestration for Moon Over Bourbon Street and Russians, to the softer Why Should I Cry For You and Fields of Gold, The Royal Philharmonic had a richness and depth of sound that was simply spectacular.
The absolute high point of the show for me was King of Pain. It was the moment that all the elements came together perfectly – a classic Police song, sung exactingly by Sting, and sonically expanded by the orchestra. It was the absolute 'a-ha' moment of the show and the moment I knew I would have deeply regretted missing Symphonicity.
With fairly high ticket prices, some may accuse Sting of using Symphonicity to 'cash in'. I've seen Sting phone it in before and he isn't doing that here. Sting delivered over three hours of top level performance backed by one of the better orchestras I've seen on stage, all of which are more than enough to justify paying the ticket price. Rearranging these songs for the orchestra has breathed some new life and energy into Sting's work and Sting seemed really invigorated by it. If you are a fan of Sting, this is the tour you absolutely should not miss.
Here's the setlist from the June 4th Sting Symphonicity show at the Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon:
Lose My Faith
Englishman in New York
Every Litte Thing She Does Is Magic
Straight To My Heart
Fields of Gold
I Hung MY Head
Shape of My Heart
Why Should I Cry For You
Whenever I Say Your Name
When We Dance
Message in A Bottle
Next to You
20 min intermission
A Thousand Years
Tomorrow We'll See
Moon Over Bourbon Street
The End of The Game
My Ain True Love
All Would Envy
Mad About You
King of Pain
Every Breath You Take
She's Too Good For Me
I Was Brought To My Senses (acapella)
Sting performs again in Portland on June 5th in Portland and then: June 9 at Red Rocks in Denver; June 15 at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles; July 17 and 18 at Chicago’s renowned Ravinia Festival. Sting will also perform in New York, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle and Washington and return to Canada, with stops in Toronto and Montreal. Tickets can be purchased at Live Nation.