The Power of Lowering Expectations - A Concert Review of The Police at MSG

 Stewart Copeland's next gig: The Spin Doctors. (image via  Wikimedia Commons )

Stewart Copeland's next gig: The Spin Doctors. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Adapted from my initial concert review on my Livejournal site. The original piece was more of a play-by-play of each song at the show.

Concert Review:

The Police

August 3, 2007

Madison Square Garden

Maybe when Stewart Copeland is done being a drummer, he has a possible career as a political spin doctor.

He's clearly mastered the art of lowering expectations. Based on his review of the first show the Police performed during the band's 2007-2008 Reunion Tour, you'd think you were watching a real-life version of "This is Spinal Tap." There was Sting messing up his footwork during his big leap at the end of "Message in a Bottle," making him look "like a petulant pansy instead of the god of rock." When it comes to being on the same page, Andy Summers "is in Idaho" which would be fine if opening night took place in Boise. Unfortunately, they were in Vancouver. Copeland doesn't let himself off the hook, admitting that he missed several cues and even screwed up the easiest part of his night - hitting a gong at the start of the show. The only way the show could have been worse would have been if Sting had gotten stuck inside a giant plastic pod, a giant prop moon (for "Walking on the Moon") ended up being the size of a cantaloupe, and the band had gotten lost on the way to the stage. After an underwhelming display at Live Earth in July, during which Kanye West made his least welcome surprise appearance until the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, it's safe to say that expectations for the Police's two shows at Madison Square Garden were lower than the sales figures for Sting's recent madrigals album.

Instead, the Police were in top form when they played MSG for the first time since 1982. Performing a stripped down set that was devoid of keyboards, backup singers, and cameos, Sting, Copeland and Summers kept the focus where it belonged: on the three of them. With the efficiency of a well-oiled machine, they went through their greatest hits catalogue and turned back the clock to a time when they were the greatest band in the world.

Wearing a sleeve-less shirt that showed off arms any man would kill for, while displaying vocal pipes fit for someone half his age, Sting was, once again, a rock god. Gone was the man who spent more time in the last few years playing the lute and collaborating with anyone willing to show him the money. Instead, the Sting who showed up at MSG was the same one who shot to fame in the 80s, albeit older and with less hair. He hit just about every note (I only counted one instance where his voice cracked - and it was at the end of their two-plus hour set) and had no problems with his jumping, this time around. Copeland, the drumming virtuoso whose brash style reflects his off-stage demeanor, demonstrated his versatility by playing multiple instruments, sometimes even on the same song as he did on "Wrapped Around Your Finger" (he played windchimes, xylophone, tympani and his regular drum kit before hitting the gong at the end of the piece - this time, he nailed it), "King of Pain" and "Walking in Your Footsteps." Andy Summers, the prototypical "quiet one," was less active but loomed just as large on stage, as his precise guitar playing provided the anchor for the band's numbers.

In a way, the band had to lower expectations; otherwise they never would have lived up to the demands of their rabid fan base. Police fans have been waiting for the band to return ever since it went on a near 20-year hiatus that made the Eagles' breakup seem like a long weekend by comparison. After all, the band had followed the show biz maxim of "always leave them wanting more" to a tee by imploding right after releasing their most popular album- 1983's "Synchronicity." Instead of trying to top that album, Sting, Summers and Copeland allowed personal animosity, as well as the lure of solo projects, to rip the band apart. Until they kicked off their reunion with a well-received performance at the 2007 Grammys, the three had only played together on a handful of occasions: At Sting's 1992 wedding to Trudie Styler and at the band's 2003 induction into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.

The decision to strip down all of the songs and go it alone on stage (I'm sure there were supplemental musicians backstage, but on stage, it was just the three of them) may have explained why the first show was such a disaster. After all, these three haven't played a full show together since the end of the "Conspiracy of Hope" tour. Let's not forget, that they spent a considerable amount of time in the 1980s (and maybe beyond) fighting and hating one another's guts. The creative tension helped push the band to new heights but it also made their acrimonious split inevitable.

All of that seemed to be water under the bridge, however. The band sounded tight and were on the same page from the moment they opened the show with "Message in a Bottle" before launching immediately into "Synchronicity II." Sting got to show off his bass chops by playing the hypnotic riff from "Bed's Too Big Without You" and gave multiple shout-outs to his bandmates, notably on "So Lonely" when he called it the "Stewart Copeland Show" and the "Andy Summers Show." As the lead singer and main songwriter, Sting always got a disproportionate amount of attention and credit for the band's success. While most of that was deserved, Sting's solo material has lacked a lot of the innovation and adventurousness of his Police output ("The Dream of the Blue Turtles" notwithstanding). Much of his post-Police work is regular mainstream pop and his boldest single, "Desert Rose," is as polarizing as it is different. His uneven output over the last few years has left him in a position where he needed to do something big in order to regain his "rock god" status (as well as make people want to like him again). The Police reunion was just what the doctor ordered.

Not all of the new arrangements worked. "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" sounded flat without the piano riff that holds up the recorded version of the song. Instead, it was up to Summers to play it on guitar, and while he did an admirable job, the muted tone of his guitar (at least compared to that of a piano) seemed out of place for a song that's supposed to be upbeat and happy. By contrast, using his guitar to play the keyboard parts in "Invisible Sun" worked because it added gravity to the song's political message (flashing images of starving kids in Africa also helped in that regard).

Ultimately, it didn't matter as the crowd clearly loved seeing the band back together and would have been willing to hear them recite the phone book as long as they played "Roxanne" and "Message in a Bottle" at some point before hitting the "z" section. Thankfully, it didn't come to that. It's impossible for me to figure out whether, objectively, the concert was a huge upgrade over the Yellow Pages. It may be that the set didn't hold a candle to any of the shows from their stadium tour for "Synchronicity" or their arena tour for "Ghost in the Machine." All I know is that it was light years better than their flat Kanye-inspired performance at Live Earth. Behold the power of lowered expectations.

Setlist:

Message in a Bottle

Synchronicity II

Walking On The Moon

Voices Inside My Head

When The World Is Running Down

Don't Stand So Close To Me

Driven To Tears Truth Hits Everybody

Bed's Too Big Without You

Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic

Wrapped Around Your Finger

De Do Do Do De Da Da Da

Invisible Sun

Walking In Your Footsteps

Can't Stand Losing You

Roxanne

Encore:

King Of Pain

So Lonely

Every Breath You Take

Next To You

Victor Li

chicago, il