Thursday, June 07, 2007

Concert Review - The Police

The Police reunion in Seattle ranks as one of the best shows I have seen in years. Right out of the gate there was mass excitement – just seeing these three back onstage again was a real kick. The opener, Message in a Bottle was loaded with energy and was played for the most part just like the recording – high energy and with abandon. But with the second and third songs (Synchronicity II and Spirits in the Material World), it became apparent that the band was not going to play it by the book.

Basically, Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers re-worked their whole catalog for this tour, with mostly excellent results. They changed keys and tempos. They added solos, cut verses, and repeated musical sections. On some songs, they changed the key for the first two verses and choruses, only to jump up to the original key at the last minute, bringing the intensity up for the conclusion.

Copeland changed the beat in a number of songs. For example he played the choruses of Synchronicity II half time for the first line and double time for the second. A number of songs had new intros. They spliced songs together, extended the ends of some, the beginning of others.

Sting looked and sang fantastic. It was unreal how good he sounded. Copeland was a machine. As busy, frenetic and pummeling as ever. Summers was solid – I was really impressed with him because I sort of expected the least from him. But unlike the lone guitarists in other power trios like Rush, Queen, The Who, Zeppelin or Cream, Summers does not rely on layered effects or huge banks of amps to fill up the sound. He goes in the other direction, playing sparsely with a sharp, clean tone. He almost approached some of these songs like a jazz player. Really, the whole band was very minimalistic.

They made quiet songs rocking and rocking songs quiet. For example, Walking In Your Footsteps is a pretty quiet, droning track off of Synchronicity. But last night Copeland started the song on a percussion set up but moved quickly to full drum kit and laid a BEAT behind it after the first verse – made it very funky. And to the converse, they took a song like Truth Hits Everybody, which is a proto punk burner from their first album, and played it slow and in a lower key.

All in all, this was three mature musicians daring to play their catalog with a fresh approach. And good for them.

When I saw U2, they struggled to achieve the big sound they have on record. Many of the big songs like Vertigo suffered for it. The Police didn’t even bother to try. If a song had too many parts to cover from the recorded version, they just changed the songs. For example, songs like Spirits in the Material World, Every Little Thing She Does is Magic and King of Pain rely on piano or keyboards on record. The Police either rearranged the parts or had Summers play them with a clean guitar tone. There were a number of songs where I had no clue what they were playing until Sting sang (these were hit songs, not obscure rarities!). And as he has always done, Sting changed up how he sang the songs so even in that department it was fresh.

The three were having a blast – lots of smiles and interplay, musically and with onstage banter. This was also a good time to see the band. Because it was one of the first shows on the tour, they were still rusty in spots and there were a couple of flubs here and there, but the trade off was that they are so clearly on the ‘beginning of the tour’ high. The energy was great and they were clearly having the time of their lives onstage.

I don’t know if I am getting this across, but this was not Clapton’s bossanova version of Layla. This was not “The Police unplugged” (which I hear they are going to do for MTV by the way). This was a mature re-working of a vital and important body of work by three passionate, seasoned musicians not content to roll out rote versions of their many hits for a sold out reunion tour.

Purists might be pissed at this approach, as this was not a note for note rehash down memory lane. But I say too bad. I wish more bands did this with their songs. The Police are comfortable enough with their musicianship, repertoire and audience to totally re-work their entire catalog and bust it out in front of 20,000 people live.

Set List:
--Message in a Bottle
--Synchronicity II
--Spirits In The Material World
--Voices Inside My Head/When the World is Running Down
--Don't Stand So Close to Me
--Driven to Tears
--Walking on the Moon
--Truth Hits Everybody
--Every Little Thing She Does is Magic
--Wrapped Around Your Finger
--The Bed's Too Big Without You
--Murder By Numbers
--Dee Doo Doo Doo Dee Da Da Da
--Invisible Sun
--Walking In Your Footsteps
--Can't Stand Losing You/Regatta De Blanc

encore one:
--King of Pain
--So Lonely

encore two:
--Every Breath You Take
--Next To You

Photo credit: Digg Doug


Ganymede said...

Thanks so much for the great review and updated set list. We've been listing to an iPod playlist of the one from Vancouver for days to get ready for the concerts. My daughter has nailed some of the really complex guitar bits. That's not my instrument, and it amazes me. In her opinion, minimalist or not, this is some hard stuff. Did Sting play the upright bass or just his Fender?

Since I really didn't get into Sting until he went solo, I've been having some regrets about bring back the exes,it sounds like that's not going to be an issue. Even so, it's hard to imagine Copland and Summers filling the shoes of people like Miller, Botti, Marsalis, Rebello, or of course, the great Kenny Kirkland. OTOH why he ever let Kippper on the same stage with him is beyond my understanding. We went to the Broken Music concert at Penn State, and those guys were amazing. I'm trying to imagine how he'll ever top that.

I heard about the unplugged work too and am totally excited I've often wondered why Sing never went there. He could so kick Clapton's ass in that venue. At his first solo concert here in Houston, his first encore piece was "Message in a Bottle." He came out in total darness, then bamm, he's standing there, alone, stripped down to nothing but a pair of black pants and black army boots, with an acoustic guitar and a single spotlight. I was totally blown away. There has never been a rock star, in my experience, perform with that level of virtuosity. I was more impressed by that single song than by the entirety of Plácido Domingo's entire performance as Othello.

Morgan also says there are rumors flying about the Police doing some new material. Sting flatly denied that as far as this tour goes, but he has released any new compositions in a long time, and I can't imagine he's taking a break from writing music.

I don't think anyone who ever saw the Police live, back in the day, will expect a regurgitation of their recorded work. In fact, Sting had a major complaint when they did a newer release of "Don't Stand So Close to Me" several years ago. He thought the other two weren't ready for where he was going. But even then, all three of them knew to bring more to the stage than a 3D repetition of the albums.

It's interesting that you mentioned the key changes. I've noticed in the past 5-10 years that Sing has been moving more toward the lower end of his vocal range. I was really shocked at how far down he can go. The first song I realized he had the chops for that was on the opening of "I was Brought to My Senses." I've heard him perform this piece live 3 time and know it's not just a patch job in the studio. He also made a push toward the lower end on "Valparaiso" from the same album.

(I always thought it was really sad that Freddie Mercury let himself be pushed to mostly perform as a tenor when he had the most amazing range as a baritone. But evidently the convention in the rock world has been for tenors to sing lead vocal.)

I think it's brilliant for Sting to consciously adjust to the natural changes in his vocal facility as he grows older. One of the saddest things I've ever heard was a live performance by Elton John. He just didn't have the juice anymore. Plus, who wants to hear a 50+ rocker scratching out falsetto for an hour and a half?

My greatest doubts with the reunion were with regard to Copland. (I'm not a percussionist and have some inherent suspicion about those guys.) I knew that Summers had really brought some of best guitar riffs to Sting's compositions rather than Sting himself. He pretty much admitted it in the Broken Music autobiography. What I've seen of the rehearsals on the fan site still has Copland way to heavy on the drums. I've a ife-long dislike the percussionists using nothing but a standard rock and roll drum kit. Every kid I knew had one in his garage or basement, and it seems a professional should have more in his bag. Maybe Copland really does and I've just missed it.

Wow, sorry for the ramble, but it's been great talking to you.

Dr. John said...

Great review. On the same vein of the unplugged show, is their any word of a CD/DVD coming out for the show? Glad to hear they reworked some songs. That always makes things exciting and new. Kinda wish Rush would do that more, although their songs and arrangements are considerably more complex...

Anonymous said...

Great review, but, did we go to the same show? Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge Police fan, born in the early 60's. It was truly wonderful to see Andy, Gordon and Stewart together again on stage! They have a unique sound that has been missed for 20+ years. However, I thought they were tense and a bit out of sync until "Don't stand so close to me". They were also late on vocals and simply not "tight" as a group at times. I enjoyed some of the new arrangements, but, felt others strayed to far... They also had their moments of excellence. All and all a good performance, but, one that could have been better. A good friend went both nights in Seattle and said the show was better the second night. Thanks for sharing your perspective, I enjoyed sharing mine.

Isorski said...

Thanks for the comments from some new readers! To Ganymede's points, don't expect Copeland to be anything but a rock drummer when you see The Police! But he is certainly one of the most innovative, creative and unique ones to hits the skins. One of the big selling points for me with The Police has been how frenetic and reckless he is on the drums. The guy overplays, speeds up and just goes for it constantly. He's more subtle now, but not much!

As to the posting by anonymous, I agree they were a bit haggard on Wednesday but that was, what, the third night of the tour? Give them three weeks of road work and they will be tight. This happens to me all the time (especially with Yes) where the bands start their tours on the West Coast and are still working out the bugs/finding their groove, but by the time they hit two or three weeks into the tour they are tight and unstoppable. By the end of this tour, The Police will be unreal.

Dr. John, I would be shocked if there was no DVD from this tour but I have not heard anything. I would bet on a tour DVD and maybe CD, and the same from their upcoming rumored MTV Unplugged session. Gotta milk this cash cow when you can, yeah?

Ganymede said...

Sting has never made a big jump in his professional life where he didn't make a film. No way the boy is going to give up on the $$$$$$$$$$$$$.

Aaron said...

I saw the show last night in Phoenix and wanted to add my two cents worth. Since I was only 12 when the Police called it quits I came to enjoy the Police working backwards from Sting’s solo work. One of the things I came to love about Sting’s live performances, and any live recordings of The Police I found, was that they always tried to make each performance standout from the album version. I hated going to other concerts and hearing a reproduction of the album. That NEVER happens with these guys. I didn’t really see any mistakes other than Sting seeming to get lost for a moment on one of the early songs and missing a few words, but to me that’s what makes it real. If I wanted perfection, I’d buy a CD and save the money.

The set list had already been cleaned up from the Seattle show to the one in Phoenix. Spirits in the Material World and Murder by Numbers were dropped (Walking on the Moon and The Bed’s Too Big Without You were moved into their places). The rest of the set was identical to the list you outlined from Seattle.
I also loved what they did with the speed on the songs. The only one I didn’t care for was Don’t Stand So Close to Me; the timing just didn’t seem to click. They revisited this one with Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86 and it didn’t work then either. I think this is one that needed to be left alone. My favorite of the night had to be So Lonely. This hadn’t been one of my favorite songs but that all changed last night. They totally rocked this song! I have had it in my head non-stop since the show.

Even though I was half hoping for some on-stage fight between the Stewart and Sting, they all looked like they were genuinely having a great time and the chemistry clicked. I had been joking with some of my friends that you need to see them early in the tour because who knows if those two egos can stand each other for that long, but from what I saw, I don’t think there is any danger of them imploding before they have done all they want with this tour. It’s a bit early to speculate about any new music, but based on what I saw last night, I wouldn’t rule it out.

The only question I have is: What is the story behind Sting’s bass? That thing was hammered! Is that a relic from the good old days? Any insight (conjecture or fact) would be appreciated.

Isorski said...

Thanks for your comments, Aaron. I agree that the Don't Stand was a throwback to the 1986 remake and I like the original better as well. Sounds like they rocked it in Phoenix! I appreciate your take on the show.

budd said...

interesting to hear the various reviews. Isor nailed it when noting that it was a different experience for those that expected exact renditions of the originals and those who would enjoy the three being on stage and mixing it up.

2 co workers gave me very different reviews, one was disappointed mostly by the slower tempo's and one was thrilled to see these three playing together and taking some chances.


meg said...

I just saw the Staples Center show last night in LA- which, including the set list, was the same show.

As a Police (not Sting) fan for ages, an attendee of their last 3 tours before the split, and a former tour lighting technician, I think I bring a slightly different perspective.

First, I think there was brilliant musicianship- it wasn't right off the record, they tried (some moments better than others) to change things up a bit and grow the songs musically. As I said, some moments worked better than others, some arrangements I didn't think were as strong. Others were amazing.
While I didn't always totally love the re-arrangements I thought all 3 brought excellence to the stage- and yeah, I caught some of the mistakes.

But, I have been listening to the recorded music for 30+ years- if I wanted to listen to the recordings, I can do that at home.

I'm totally biased- I am a huge Stewart Copeland fan and that has not changed. He drove the entire performance for me. Never embarassing, never trying to be something he's not, in touch with his abilities and his age! God, the man just is amazing, surprising, delightful!(Andy was incredible too- he's a guitar virtuoso- not a 20 year old rock star)

As a technician, I can get caught in the technical aspects of the performance. I tried sooooo hard to ignore that- I was just getting into the business when the Police broke up (I am not that old) so their shows were some of the last i just purely enjoyed! That said, I didn't mind the paired down staging (the set is nothing new for designer Tait Towers- those zip lifts for the lighting are the only 6 like them and have been used before). I'd prefer to see them puton a great show than try to be too flashy- like a hot woman of a certain age trying to dress younger than she is- no thanks!

However, I thought the video production was great and very very much overshadowed the lights. The lighting used state of the art fixtures- to no use- simple washes, no syncopation with the music. I don't know who the LD and operators are, but I definitely got the sense that they familiarized themselves with the albums, don't know the new arrangements and just played it very very safe.
You're over 5 shows in now- play with it a little please- blue song, red song, come on!
My husband's also an ex roadie and not a huge Police fan- his comment? Ok, those guys are rockin up there and nothing is happening.
We didn't want a tarty overly flahsy show. And we know they didn't do it on the cheap- we can tell.

But the staging lacked what I would say would be a passion for the music as it stands today.
And I don't think the band lacks that- I think most people would have been satisfied paying top $$ to hear exact recreations. I was pleased they tried to infuse new life into the music for them.
Now, if only they could get that passion and enthusiasm into the lighting operators!

I'll be at Dodger on Saturday- am secretly hoping the Foos will add a little something more than just support act!

Still,despite my technical disappointments, I would pay all over again just to see Stewart and the other two playing the sings I grew up to with the adult version of the passion and enthusiasm they did 25 years ago.

Isorski said...

Thanks for the insight, Meg. Cool to get a perspective from an 'insider.' The staging did seem to be pretty sripped down (and I liked that) but I guess that didn't mean the light crew needed to deliver a boring show!