During the first real break between songs at the Police‘s official comeback gig Monday night, Sting (pictured, left) took to the mic to take care of some official duties. "Because we haven’t been together in 25 years," he said, "I want to introduce the band." He turned to his two fellow Policemen and followed that setup with the oldest punchline in the book: "Andy, this is Stewart…"
Ba-da-dum! In fact, there were signs during the two-hour tour opener at Vancouver’s GM Place arena that maybe these three have rekindled something resembling a friendship. Toward the end of their original contentious time together, in the mid-’80s, the theme song for their relationship might have been "Don’t Stand So Close to Me." Now, with the way they were shouting accolades at each other Monday night, you could imagine them adopting a cuddlier tune as their interpersonal mantra, like "Every Little Thing [H]e Does is Magic." All right, so it was Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland (center, rear) trading most of the mutually complimentary blurbs, since guitarist Andy Summers (right), is not the emotionally demonstrative type. But we will take it on faith that he, too, was joining in the lovefest, on the inside.
Is it the sheer inevitability of renewed friendship that got these three back together 24 years after their last album, 23 years after their last regular touring gig, 21 years after their last full public performance of any kind (but who’s counting)? Probably not even the most idealistic fan wants to be quite that naïve. Yet even if it does come down to a classic case of the lure of filthy lucre as an incentive to take up unfinished business, it’s still nice to see the lads seeming to enjoy one another’s company. I can’t claim to fully comprehend what stood between them all these years, though I have been in Sting’s company when the subject of the Police tours of yore came up, and I would see what almost seemed like a visible shudder in his otherwise implacable manner. But this much we know: Two and a half decades and the absence of massive amounts of blow can both be great healers.
Everyone’s favorite message-in-a-bottle-blonds are doing both arenasand stadiums this summer and fall, in what should easily be the year’sbiggest grossing tour. Getting to the concessions booth, you canquickly tell there’ll be few attempts to position the trio as a "newand improved" version of the Police, on or off stage: All the T-shirtshave vintage images of the band, and if you want one featuring Sting’scurrently close-cropped ‘do and not a new wave modified mullet, you’reout of luck and will have to hold onto your Lute Tour 2006 T. The setlist, of course, followed along the same strictly retrospective lines.My only serious complaint about Monday’s show will be what mostattendees will like most about it: There is no new material, andnothing that hasn’t been a single, been on a best-of, or beenconsidered a radio hit. By comparison, any Rolling Stones show of thelast few years would be considered the height of adventurousness. Onthe plane back to Los Angeles from Vancouver on Tuesday, I heard somemiddle-aged fans in their new tour T-shirts enthusing to the stewardsabout how the show delivered exactly what they wanted — no more, noless — with the bonus that, unlike some Sting solo tours they’devidently had to force themselves to endure, there were no whole-scale,radical rearrangements of the classic material. If I’d heard thisringing endorsement of the tour ahead of time, I might have beentempted to skip out on it altogether, since seeing a once-vital actwillfully freezing itself in amber isn’t really my thing.
I still wish they’d see fit to burden us with a new composition, ortrot out some obscure album tracks, or even solo material (an "All ThisTime"/Rumble Fishmedley, anyone?). Yet even with my media-elitist bias against sheercrowd-pleasing nostalgia, I was taken in by Monday’s show and how thethree gendarmes seemed to be finding ways to keep it interesting forthemselves within the potentially overfamiliar playground they’dreconstructed. All three of these guys have spent a good part of theiralmost quarter-century layoff from one another doing more "serious"music, including jazz and various world beat-type stuff, so it’s not asif they were about to come back and mime to tracks. Summers, inparticular, played his solos and pretty much everything but the basicriffs like a man who hadn’t gotten the memo that he wasn’t still in oneof his jazz fusion bands. Copeland, of course, pretty well erases theline between "backbeat" and "fills"; his great gift is being able tocomplicate the rhythms without making the drunks in the crowd put downtheir pumping fists. And Sting, while not changing anything up enoughto alienate my airplane buddy, did introduce subtle harmonic variationsthat kept things just off-kilter enough for those of us perverse enoughto like our oldies off-kilter.
The opening "Message in a Bottle" was pretty straightforward ("You knowwhat to do," Sting said, right before the "Sending out an S.O.S."sing-along. They did). But by the second number, "Synchronicity II,"you could sense ‘em playing with things a little, in the way theysettled back and let a little bit of momentum drop out in the buildupto the chorus. This reoccurred throughout the night: letting part of averse or bridge get unusually quiet, compared to the recorded version,just before the hook kicked in. Even at the end of the show, they weredoing this, reducing parts of "Every Breath You Take" almost to awhisper before bringing the volume back up again. You could supposethat a little of this was due to guys who are now in their 50s and 60strying to pace themselves a little bit — though Sting, muscled up inhis sleeveless T-shirt, and Copeland, in a biker’s shirt and headbandand looking like he was fresh from the Tour de France, were clearly infighting trim. (Summers, the eldest member, had a more dapper look, soagain, we’d have to guess at his physique.) Mostly, I think, theinteresting ebb and flow that they introduced into some of the songswas just matured musicians’ sense that real dynamics help push apowerful tune homeward. Not that this was a totally new discovery: "SoLonely," which also showed up among the encores, helped prove that thePolice always had a potent sense of dynamics, with the way its reggaeverses give way to a driving rock chorus.
They didn’t take a lot of time out for witticisms. But Sting did have agood recollection about "Murder by Numbers": "In 1983 — when I was 12 —the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart, and I use the word "reverend" loosely,claimed this next song was written by the devil himself… It’s alwaysreally puzzled Andy and myself, because wewrote the f—in’ song." And then, as if in Swaggart’s honor, theyplayed a great version of the tune that had Sting introducing adescending bass line that really did sound like a descent into aparticularly cool level of hell.
There will be those who would prefer that the Police mess with theoriginal arrangements even less than the modest amount that they have.(You heard some of this grumbling after their mildly rearranged versionof "Roxanne" at the Grammys a few months ago.) I think there’s enoughfast, loud, and unalloyed stuff in the set as it currently stands toplacate these people. But the strict new wave fetishists certainly gettheir wish in the final encore, which happens to be the band’s firstsingle, the reasonably punky "Next to You," played more or less in itsoriginal boyish form.
So there may be "a time to put away childish things," as the Bibleteaches, but as rock & roll teaches, there is always a time to pickthem back up again. (Unless, maybe, you’re David Byrne or CaptainBeefheart, who are just about the last high-minded reunion-tourresisters still holding out on us.) Having plowed more respectablemusical fields over the decades, the Police probably do regardreturning to these chestnuts as kid stuff. What’ll be reallyinteresting to see is whether they can reconvene as grown-ups not justfor this highly enjoyable nostalgia trip but a new album that wouldreflect all the individual trips they’ve been on, as well as makesomething mature out of their still-rich chemistry. What I’m really curious about, I guess, is what it wouldsound like if these guys made a record as friends. That, I suspect,would truly be arresting.