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Legendary pop rock trio The Police played Charlottesville for the first time ever Tuesday, Nov. 6 -- bringing the second leg of its blockbuster reunion tour to Virginia.
And no, Dave Matthews didn't show up to challenge Sting for melodramatic supremacy.
On this cold and breezy evening, University of Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena was nearly full with around 12,000 predominantly white (and over age 30) fans showering nostalgic adulation on the group while reveling in its bevy of hits from the 1980s, when the band was one of MTV's first major success stories. You couldn't walk ten feet inside the arena without stumbling onto another t-shirt or poster stand -- the most merchandise for any concert I've ever seen.
The Police broke up in 1984 after its multi-platinum Synchronicity tour, but got back together for a worldwide tour this year in celebration of its 30th anniversary and the ubiquitous hit, "Roxanne." They've been cashing in ever since.
Allow me to preface this review by saying I like The Police, I really do -- especially their hungry, early material that deftly mixed reggae and jazz with punk rock attitude. Since then, the band has more than proved they're masters of the catchy pop song, having cranked out more lasting hits than most groups in a short period of time, and selling more than 50 million records worldwide.
That said, I was put off by the fact that decent tickets to see them on this tour were outrageously expensive (more than $200 a pop), and by the fact that they are basically recycling the same, greatest hits set every night with no variation. How much fun can that be for the band by the 40th show? But that's probably what people want from these long-absent hit makers; just like I have always wanted to check out native Virginian Stewart Copeland on drums. It's been noted a million times, but the man is a pimp on the hi-hat.
About a song into The Police's hour-and-a-half long set, I could see that my expectations were on the money. Having worked out the early kinks in their tour, the band came off as a well-oiled, professional '80s hit machine, barely pausing to breathe between songs. Early fears that Sting would ruin the songs with cheesy jazz interludes proved unfounded, and guitarist Andy Summers and Copeland, dressed like a bike marathon geek, did enough to make sure the proceedings didn't turn into the "The Sting Show."
Summers, his middle-aged jowls flapping on the giant video screen, showed off fusiony jazz/rock chops during several brief but incendiary solos -- even indulging Sting in a segue jam of Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" during "When the World is Running Down." And Copeland wasn't shabby either, looking like a kid in a play pen with his sprawling set, especially during "Wrapped Around Your Finger," where he tickled a host of cymbals, gongs, and bells. As for Sting, he was his snarky self -- handling the bass chores admirably while belting out melodically soulful vocals. Wearing an olive muscle-T shirt, dark jeans, and combat boots, he appeared the youngest of the three with a healthy facial glow, like he had just received a private aura cleansing (or if you read the tabloids, a group massage from high-class German hookers).
Although crowd dancing was tame, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, engaging in call-and-response ("Eee-YEH-yo") with Sting numerous times throughout the show. One of the best songs of the night was "Hole in My Life," a start-stop early tune that aptly shows off the musicians' abilities to effortlessly shift through different musical gears: reggae, rock, jazz, with catchy hooks in each.
Indeed, it was a solid performance that promised the hits and delivered them. As far as the venue goes, the sound was loud and clear, better than other shows I've seen there.
But can someone please tell me why, if the venue is not allowed to sell alcohol (being a state school), everyone has to watch employees peddling kegs of beer into the private hospitality suites all night long? What's the message here? Responsible VIPs, or corporate sponsors, get to enjoy a little beer with their rock and roll, while commoners can suck on flat Pepsi and warmed over Domino's pizza? I'm sorry, but that sucks, and not just for alcoholics.
At this point, I'd like to let the curmudgeonly critic out of his cage. The way I figure it: If you're going to charge this much money for a ticket, preventing a number of your diehard fans from going, I'm going to be nitpicky about your show. Cool and impersonal, this show was good, not great; and it could use a number of improvements.
First off, the lighting and special effects were average at best: a couple of video screens and some blasts of color, nothing I haven't seen at a concert for a fraction of the price. How about at least some interesting video imagery and more bells and whistles? And no, handpicked children from impoverished countries who look like Benetton models doesn't count (the band briefly displayed some images of its official charity, Water Aid, which is working to reduce poverty by providing safe water around the globe). High dollar concerts should be extravaganzas that leave the crowd with their jaws hanging -- like the way the Rolling Stones still do it. Granted, fireworks weren't an option here.
Also, the pacing of the show would have benefited from a mid-set acoustic interlude, like Sting performing "Message in a Bottle" solo, instead of as the opening song. "Every Breath You Take" or "King of Pain" would have also fit well.
And why not have a few guest musicians on various songs? It's not like you can't afford them. Maybe have a couple guys on steel drums during "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," a song which lost its funky island vibe when played in such a stripped-down format. Or a small chorus could back up the group on songs like "Invisible Sun" -- many of the numbers suffered from a lack of backing vocals that were clearer on the records. Summers mostly provided half-hearted back-up, understandable when forming the kind of demandingly physical chords he plays.
And Sting, why don't you loosen up a little, buddy? Try saying a few words to the crowd besides: "Hello, Charlottesville" and "ummm
home of Thomas Jefferson." His call-and-response exhortations to the crowd got so stale by the end I was about to "ee-YEH-oh" all over the senior citizens sitting in front of me.
I won't say much about the opening act, Fiction Plane, besides stating that they weren't awful. The band features Sting's son, Joe Sumner, on bass and vocals, and he does nothing to hide this fact. Tall with a full head of dark curly hair, he sounded exactly like his dad but with more lung power and less nuance, going as far as copying his moves as he bounded around stage. The groups' songs, however, did not stand out either melodically or lyrically. They were adult contemporary rock with harder guitar, or an "alternative rock" edge -- a strange mix for a young band today and one more suited to a schmaltzy teen show on the WB network, or perhaps a straight-to-video movie starring Freddy Prinze Jr. as the sensitive young jock who saves the geek girl.
I couldn't help thinking there should be a charity for the children of mega-rock stars like Sting and Bono, to help save them from an eventual messianic complex. Or worse yet, a nostalgia tour sponsored by Best Buy.Setlist:
Message in a Bottle
Walking On The Moon
Voices Inside My Head
When The World Is Running Down
Don't Stand So Close To Me
Driven To Tears
Truth Hits Everybody
Hole In My Life
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
Wrapped Around Your Finger
De Do Do Do De Da Da Da
Walking In Your Footsteps
Can't Stand Losing You
King Of Pain
Every Breath You Take
Next To You