HE looks an exceptionally young 60. No doubt the result of a gruelling personal work schedule and his infamous yoga obsession. Sting is a driven, focused workaholic, continually pushing himself workwise and artistically. He has never been the critics’ favourite; most are happier to dwell on his private life and personality traits rather than evaluate the music. As Springsteen commented on stage on Saturday: “It’s funny, anytime I read about him I never recognise the guy I know”.
With the demise of The Police in 1984, guitarist Summers and drummer Copeland moved onto specialist oblivion, while Sting remained decidedly centre stage with the release of his first solo album, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, in 1985. Since then, Sting has been either in the studio or on the road continuously, with album after album and tour after tour, including a famous diversion into Elizabethan lute music in 2006, a surprise reformation with The Police and their record-breaking world tour in 2007/8, and a focus on English traditional music with a winter-themed tour in 2009.
Billed as a “birthday celebration with family and friends”, and in keeping with his long-standing tradition of being on stage for his birthday, Sting organised a charity event to coincide with his 60th birthday on October 1 in the intimate setting of The Beacon Theatre on Broadway in New York City. The venue is a small 2,000-seater, and tickets were not on sale to the public but I was lucky enough to be there..
Sporting a shaved head, Sting kicks off the evening with a rousing Englishman In New York, with its signature saxophone line delivered by Branford Marsalis, bringing the audience to their feet. Joining Sting were Christian McBride on double bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, David Sancious on keyboards, Dominic Miller on guitar, and a brass and string section. Discussing his Newcastle roots, Sting introduces Jimmy Nail and his son Joe Sumner to sing All This Time, inspired by the shipyards of his hometown. It’s followed by a brace of classics accompanied by the excellent Chris Botti on trumpet, a re-arranged Set Them Free making maximum use of the groove potential in having both Sting on bass and McBride on double bass, working with the excellent Colaiuta on drums.
Bass continued to dominate in a thumping introduction to Walking On The Moon, introducing The Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am to take the vocal line, delivering a brilliant rapped outro that marks the highlight so far.
The legendary Herbie Hancock then takes the stage, filling the shoes of the late Kenny Kirkland, Sting’s pianist in the earlier solo albums. Joined again by Branford Marsalis, a jazz club groove effortlessly develops over a number of Sting’s more sedate melodies, such as Consider Me Gone. The Police anchored him in rock. In a very pleasant surprise, Robert Downey Jr joins the stage to sing lead vocal in Driven To Tears, an exceptional performance that gets prolonged appreciation.
R&B diva Mary J Blige delivered a stirring and emotional performance of the duet Whenever I Say Your Name, which Sting wrote for her a number of years ago. Then, just when you think it can’t get any better, Sting introduces Stevie Wonder to join him on Brand New Day, featuring a brilliant harmonica solo by Wonder. This is followed by Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel taking a booming lead vocal on the classic Roxanne. Billy Joel arrives to sing Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic and stays at the piano for a few more numbers, as Rufus Wainwright interprets Wrapped Around Your Finger.
The entire show has a fresh, improvised and natural vibe, and the exceptional quality of musicians on stage is apparent. In a quite incredible jazz workout, Marsalis again trades solo after solo with Hancock in a driving When The World Is Running Down, with Sting and McBride walking stunning bass lines over each other. Lady GaGa arrives and gives a stunning and memorable rendition of King Of Pain. Stevie Wonder then returns with a simply incredible rendition of the wonderful Fragile, getting such prolonged applause that Sting has to comment: “How can you possibly follow that?”.
Bruce Springsteen roars through his version of the country-flavoured I Hung My Head, a Sting song that had also been covered by Johnny Cash. Swapping a broken-stringed electric for a simple acoustic, Bruce then does his take on Fields Of Gold, an incredibly emotional version laid bare by the Boss. The band again joins Bruce on stage for a crash through the early Police classic, Can’t Stand Losing You, before all guests join in a chorus-line rendition of Every Breath You Take.
The end of October sees Sting kick off the North American leg of the Back to Bass world tour, which will feature a pared-back four piece band celebrating over 25 years of solo work. At 60, Sting has lost none of his abilities.