By Mark Guarino
Crisis at the gas pump, an unpopular president, tensions with Iran — sound familiar? Welcome to the late 1970’s, 30 years removed. The twin bill of the Police and Elvis Costello added to the flashback Saturday at the Allstate Arena; both bands took part in the U.K. punk invasion of that era but hung on the fringes to become major pop stars once it was over.
“What the (expletive) happened?” asked Sting, the Police singer who recalled his band’s first appearance in Chicago, in 1979 at the long-shuttered club Beginnings. “It was (expletive) cold. Seven people were there,” he remembered.
Consider this a victory lap of the U.S. for the band, having promised to end its current reunion tour this August in New York, 15 months after it started. The 18-song, 95-minute set was not far removed from the two-night stand at Wrigley Field last July: hits were big and so was the ticket price, but actual band interaction was slight. The Police ruled the pop world for a contentious six years before breaking up in 1984; this reincarnation was a showpiece for the catalog they built rather than any rekindled fire between players.
So far, a year of playing together has bettered them individually. The Police are far improved musicians than they were in the early days. Sting’s slurping bass leads danced around melodies, his voice packed with more luster. On almost every other song guitarist Andy Summers played taut solos sad with blues but he gutted the songs with the instincts of a fickle jazz improviser. Even though Stewart Copeland had a chance to twice show off his dexterity on a percussion riser of chimes, a timpano and a gong, he best served behind the drumkit, the excitement in his playing translating beats dozens of ways.
Put together the band provided serviceable renditions of theirs hits, although after almost 12 months of similar setlists, there was disinterest: The jittery sexual panic of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” sounded like a sluggish pledge of abstinence. But there were moments, like “Demolition Man” and “So Lonely,” when the band played to raze the song’s interiors in order to still raise expectations.
Elvis Costello was determined not to settle for hits: his 12-song, 50-minute set featured many new songs from “Momofuku” (Lost Highway), released two weeks ago the old-fashioned way: on “big, fat vinyl,” he said. Played with the Imposters, a band of long-time stalwarts, the new songs were cranky with fuzz guitar and carnival organ. Yet when Sting stepped out to share lead vocals on his 1977 ballad “Alison,” the promise of fidelity from a young man’s perspective was endorsed by the cool assurance of middle age.