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Along for the Renaissance ride

The crowd buys in as a master of reinvention moves forward by going five centuries back.

January 13, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Is Sting our most shameless pop star? Maybe so, and what's wrong with that? Many disparage the former Police frontman's pretentious ways, but really he's an old-fashioned rock-and-roll rule breaker, with a glass of claret in his hand instead of a whiskey bottle. His forays into jazz and world music (along with his mansion-hopping, yoga-practicing lifestyle) have made him the butt of many a joke, but he couldn't care less. Now he's recorded an album of songs by John Dowland, the Elizabethan lutenist and composer, which he brought to the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night.

"Songs From the Labyrinth," a collaboration with Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov, is a hit on the classical charts, but Sting acknowledges that it's more of a detour than a career shift. Looking like Terence Stamp in tasteful black, the star presented himself humbly, almost like a student acing a big recital. Quietly working through the 75-minute set after asking members of the audience to hold their applause after each song "to let it ring," he aimed for and mostly achieved the intense control that early music demands, elongating his vowels into diphthongs and aiming for a stable, soft tone.

He added a few pop flourishes, getting saucy on "Come Again" (the "Let's Get It On" of the 16th century) and punching up the rhythm in "Can She Excuse My Wrongs," whose lyrics were written by the Virgin Queen's would-be amour, Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex. "He was the first to lose his head over the queen -- literally," Sting joked about the noble, who was beheaded in 1601.

That aside typified Sting's casually educational manner -- a good choice, since the hall was filled with his acolytes, not Dowland's. As on "Labyrinth," he juxtaposed the songs with excerpts from a letter Dowland wrote in 1595, when he was in voluntary exile, possibly gathering intelligence to offer his queen. It was a mistake to paint Dowland as a sexy double agent; his spare, evocative songs sell themselves. In concert, the framing device was kept to a merciful minimum.

The 41-year-old Karamazov was a dazzler; his mid-concert solo turn elicited the night's first rock 'n' roll whoop from the seats. Switching off between the archlute (his specialty) and a smaller Renaissance-style instrument, he used the microphones expertly to vary his dynamics and swayed like a rock guitarist, but his flash never impeded his meticulousness. Sting occasionally picked up his own archlute, but as he said, he stuck to the easy parts.

The all-male early music group the Concorde Ensemble joined the pair for several songs. These highly trained voices could have cast a cruel light on Sting's less-even timbre, but the rocker restrained himself in their presence. The ensemble sang spiritedly, probably tickled to be making new fans with a repertoire that generally attracts only the discerning few.

The night ended with something the itinerant Dowland might have appreciated: a set of crowd-pleasers. First, Sting milked an obvious joke by getting woolly on his lute with a version of bluesman Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail" -- earlier he'd played a rather less-raw selection by the Elizabethan composer of the same name. Next came Sting's signature ballad, "Fields of Gold," a bring-down after the blues romp.

He concluded with the Police classic "Message in a Bottle." (Gossipy aside: He dedicated it to "two people who are very special to me," and since ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland was present, it seems likely that the trio's hotly rumored reunion may just happen.)

That bouncy tune may have seemed a strange choice for the lute, but it drew a neat circle around the night. Sting began his career by absorbing a highly stylized musical subgenre that pushed him toward a new place as a vocalist. It wasn't Elizabethan music, it was reggae. Only someone as audacious as Sting could reveal that connection.

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