By Mark Guarino
A show by Sting used to have three basic ingredients: the audience would be comprised of mostly all women, the setist would culminate with his hooker anthem “Roxanne,” and at some point in the show, he’d peel off his shirt — sometimes during “Roxanne” and all the time to the squeals of the ladies.
At the UIC Pavilion Monday, Sting played to his female contingent put didn’t play up to them. And for a rock star who lately became a shill for luxury cars and bank cards, this time he was not hawking a product. Instead, the former Police frontman was taking a step backward to his earlier work, before his days as a sex symbol for the Oprah crowd. Eleven of the 21 songs were Police songs that dropped off his itinerary years ago (“Demolition Man,” “Invisible Sun”). They were performed, not with an ensemble of backup singers, horns and keyboardists like previous tours, but with a no frills four-member rock band. On this tour of college campuses, he is also making day visits to music theory and composition classes to talk about his early influences — at UIC, he spoke to 30 students the afternoon of the show.
“It’s a way to get back to my roots, I suppose,” he said.
There’s good reason. After conquering the world with the Police, Sting set off on an adventuresome solo career that combined rock, jazz, reggae and country. Creatively, his albums gradually slagged as he became less a songwriter and more an iconic symbol of debonair style. His 1999 album “Brand New Day” required a boost through a tie-in with Jaguar and his 2003 album “Sacred Love” faltered.
At age 53, it is clear he is seeking rejuvenation. Many of the songs were performed like rediscoveries. Glancing at times to a Teleprompter, Sting dug deep into the rubbery reggae grooves of “When the World is Running Down” and “Bed’s Too Big Without You” while barking the lyrics to “Next To You,” from the Police’s earliest punk days. Many of the songs sounded like they were written yesterday. Which included “A Day in the Life,” an unexpected Beatles cover choice performed minus the horns, strings and long suspended piano chord.
Yet there was no denying this remained a star trip. Although the setlist was from his band days, there was little band interaction. Perhaps it’s to the credit of former Police players Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers that drummer Josh Freese and guitarists Dominic Miller and Shane Fontayne could not fully capture the dynamics and intensity that made that power trio so special. There were moves to replicate Summner’s spooky guitar squalls and Copeland’s polyrhythms, but they were mostly thin.
Hearing Sting investing new energy into Police songs without the Police begged the question: why not a reunion? For the time being though, getting an adult contemporary balladeer to rediscover rock is better than nothing. Next up: Rod Stewart?