COSTA MESA — What's Sting without an agenda?
Since he split from the Police, the English star's music has always had a subtext of some sort. There have been stylistic agendas--especially the fusion of pop and jazz on his 1985 solo debut, "The Dream of the Blue Turtles."
There have also been thematic ones--the social commentary sprinkled through "Blue Turtles" and " . . . Nothing Like the Sun," and the deeply personal reckoning with his father's death and an attendant spiritual crisis that informed Sting's best album, "The Soul Cages."
With his new album, "Ten Summoner's Tales," he shuns politics and for the most part takes a break from inward probing. Instead, he offers alternately wry and fervent reflections on love, and jaundiced commentary on what it's like to be a much-scrutinized public personage--a topic tiresome to all but the celebrity-fueled media and its darlings. Not much material there for agenda-building.
So what a near-capacity house at the Pacific Amphitheatre got Friday night was Sting sans agenda: a serviceable trouper (looking dashingly Byronic in a long coat and billowy white shirt), a willing and energetic crowd-pleaser who provided a moderately entertaining but rarely memorable night out.
The audience, or at least those in the orchestra, also got nearly two hours of free scalp massage, thanks to a harsh, rumbling sound mix in which the amplification on Vinnie Colaiuta's bass drum was ideal if you wanted your hair-roots tickled, but terribly obtrusive if you came expecting a deft execution of Sting's polished, urbane fusion of jazz, pop, rock and R&B.
David Sancious, a veteran of Peter Gabriel's band and an original (if short-term) member of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band, was able to emerge from the murk with some lively jazz-piano excursions; guitarist Dominic Miller got the worst of the mix and, save for his empathetic semi-acoustic guitar accompaniments on quieter songs, didn't do much beyond generic hard-rock whanging when the murk parted for him.
Sting was in good voice, bopped around the stage quite a bit and kept the crowd alive with danceable grooves and a six-song helping of classic-rock staples from the Police. Stringing together "Synchronicity II," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and "Roxanne," as he did in one mid-set sequence, is one sure way to get a rise out of an audience.
In a surprise dip into the past, Sting also delivered a faithful rendition of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," with the elaborate orchestrations replicated via digital technology (on that score, Karl Wallinger of World Party beat Sting to the punch six years ago, when he and his band performed the John Lennon song verbatim on their first U.S. tour). But in playing 10 of the 11 "Summoner's Tales," Sting could hardly be accused of excessive nostalgia.
While emphasizing the new and the festive, Sting ignored the brooding "Soul Cages" material and set aside any hint of social crusading, either between or during songs. His stage patter involved only routine pleasantries and a joking account of how the languid, backhandedly affectionate "It's Probably Me" came into being because he was commissioned to write a "buddy song" for the film "Lethal Weapon 3."
The show's best moments were its quiet departures from form: "Fields of Gold" was a simply eloquent love song that borrows from traditional British folk-balladry. The closing encore, "Fragile," found Sting plucking delicately on a Spanish guitar to bring the evening to a muted, reflective finish.
It may have been an unintended coincidence, but this light evening's entertainment ended with songs that could be taken as reflections on a horrible day in the life of Orange County.
In what was probably just a bit of standard, crowd-pleasing show business, Sting capped his first encore with a brisk version of the Police's biggest hit, "Every Breath You Take." On a day when the papers were filled with details of a murderous spree by an alleged romantically obsessed stalker, the song hit home with its portrayal of a man driven to shadow the woman who has rejected him. Sting waved a happy goodby, then returned for one more song: "Fragile," a somber meditation on the tragic reign of violence. He didn't say anything about the day's happenings, but when a song is good and holds some truth, it can resonate in ways the performer doesn't necessarily intend.
Dada, the Los Angeles band that had impressed as a headliner last December at the Coach House, comfortably made the adjustment to the big stage in its 40-minute opening set. The pop-rock trio played with authority, skill and clarity, offering an assortment of pleasures that included hook-filled songs, sharp tandem vocals and Michael Gurley's controlled flash on guitar.
* ALL IN A DAY'S WORK: Sting calls post-concert party in L.A. "part of the job." E6