"We're going to do this without a net," Sting said early in his two-hour concert Tuesday at the Universal Amphitheatre, as he reached for a page of lyrics on a music stand.
The veteran English singer-songwriter had just explained that he has kept the lyrics for the song "Seven Days" on the stand after twice blanking on them in precisely the same spot earlier on this tour--his first in three years.
In a nice bit of showmanship, he then tossed the piece of paper across the stage, and the audience cheered mightily when Sting got through the song without missing a line.
In a larger sense, Sting has been operating without a net for most of his career. After reaching superstar status in the '80s with the rock group the Police, he ventured into the uncertain waters of a solo career.
On his own, he has created what is arguably an even more distinguished body of work--one built around frequently challenging music that blends pop, rock, jazz and world-music textures in ways that are both wonderfully sophisticated yet deeply rooted in everyman sensibilities.
Sting's daring continues with his new album and tour, which finds him one of the few major pop figures willing to risk delivering a millennium message.
The musician isn't advertising either project as millennium-themed, but how big a leap is it to think of their title "Brand New Day" as "Brand New Century"?
And the message?
Backed by an excellent five-piece band and three female backup singers, Sting defined it in the elegant opening tune Tuesday, the first of his four nights at Universal. In "A Thousand Years," Sting speaks of the resilience of the human spirit and the importance of love in replenishing that spirit.
Over the next two hours, he wove music from the new album and songs from the past into a beautifully designed series of reflections on various aspects of relationships.
While it was the familiar ones, from "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" to "Every Breath You Take," that drew the most consistent response, the new tunes gave the show its most compelling moments. As with the best of Sting's songs, selections such as "After the Rain Has Fallen" and "Ghost Story" are far from conventional pop love songs. They deal with relationships from odd angles, and the band's arrangements aggressively highlight each of the music's uncertain turns.
The standout was "Desert Rose," whose timeless longing and desire are underscored by the allure of Algerian strains supplied vocally by Algerian singing star Cheb Mami and members of Mami's band.
Though there were accounts of setbacks and struggles in the evening's tunes, the overriding tone was optimism--so it's fitting that Sting closed the show with "Fragile," a reminder that none of life's blessings are guaranteed.
Besides his duet with Sting on "Desert Rose," Mami also opened the concert. A leading voice in the rai style, Mami isn't an especially charismatic performer. Indeed, he initially seemed to simply be a guest vocalist with an extremely aggressive, percussion-driven band. As the set unfolded, however, he began to assert increased authority both in his singing and in his manner, eventually matching the spectacular beats of the band with his own absorbing punctuation. Mami is an artist worth exploring--and conveniently, he'll be featured in concert tonight at the El Rey Theatre.
* Sting plays Friday and Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 8:15 p.m. Sold out. (818) 622-4440. Cheb Mami opens for Aswad tonight at the El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., 9 p.m. $21. (323) 936-4790.