Sting is a man who needs no introduction. Or maybe he does in a world where his solo tour has been hitting up medium-sized venues rather than the arenas and stadiums of years past. He is probably known to most as former The Police frontman, the 1970’s new wavers who exploded globally with their three-piece rock offerings before bowing out in a blaze of glory following hit 1983 album Sychronicity (obligatory noughties reunion tour not withstanding).
But Sting was always more than just a rock singer and bassist, having a foundation in both Spanish guitar and jazz, so it’s no surprise that each of his twelve solo albums are uniquely crafted and distinctly different both from The Police and from each other – from 1985’s Dream Of The Blue Turtles, 1993’s fantastic Ten Summoner’s Tales, classical record Songs From The Labyrinth to last year’s 57th And 9th, his first ‘rock’ record for some 13 years.
And this blend of styles, influences and explorations are what make Sting’s live shows fantastic adventures in music, be they solely focused on a particular record, a mixed reworking of some of his biggest hits or, if you’re lucky, a blend of the two. And tonight, at west London’s Hammersmith Apollo for the first of two shows at the venue … we were lucky!
This 57th And 9th tour has become a true family affair with both long-time guitarist Dominic Miller’s son Rufus Miller joining the fold (also on guitar) and Sting’s own son Joe Sumner breaking away from his Fiction Plane outfit to both open for his father as well as join him on stage on vocals and guitar.
And that was how tonight’s show kicked off, Sting appearing on stage first, looking far younger than his 65 years, for the delicate and somewhat mournful 57th And 9th cut Heading South On The Great North Road, introduced as “a song about leaving Newcastle”, before introducing Joe onto stage mid-way through, leaving him to continue a short set: “A man I’ve known all his life, Mr. Joe Sumner” the former Police-man said as he departed the stage.
From then on, the ‘support’ slot was a flowing mix of Sumner junior, San Antonio-based ‘Tex Mex’ outfit Last Bandeleros and Sting himself popping out to appear on backing vocals and tambourine for the band that would later become his own backing band.
Appearing back on stage to huge cheers with the now six-piece band, Sting kicked off his main set with a massive one-two punch of The Police hits Synchronicity II and Spirits In The Material World, his famous call-response of “eeyo-yo” energising the west London crowd from the off.
A signature reggae baseline led straight into 1988 solo single Englishman In New York, drummer Josh Freese making the most of the song’s drum break to keep the energy high while with Joe Sumner’s vocals uncannily similar to his father’s, their harmonies could have been mistaken for double-tracking.
Next up was fast-paced new album cut I Can’t Stop Thinking About You, a welcome return to rock from Wallsend’s famous son before he addressed the crowd for the first time, taking time out introduce his band. About guitarist Dominic Miller he said “Dominic’s been my right-hand for almost three decades, so very shrewdly on my part I’ve hired his son Rufus”.
“I want to dedicate this song to Donald Trump’s environmental protection agency, because one day he might wake up and realise what those words mean”, the known environmental activist poked dryly ahead of One Fine Day, a song addressing the political apathy surrounding climate change.
Classic Ten Summoner’s Tales song She’s Too Good For Me followed, it’s clockwork ticking and funk baseline providing a fun singalong tune. Rare treat I Hung My Head was up next from 1996 record Mercury Falling, Sting quipping “I thought you’d like a song about a hanging!” at its close.
Hit 1993 single Fields Of Gold followed, the gentle summery tune complimented by the expanded band, the two Millers taking time out to perform acoustic guitar duets before a shift in pace with new album track Petrol Head, familiarities with Police tune Demolition Man ringing through before slowing once more for Down, Down, Down.
“I can’t drink and play at the same time, otherwise I’d be an alcoholic” the 65-year-old quipped as he sipped at a mug while Miller senior spurred him to move on to the next number – downbeat Ten Summoner’s Tales single Shape Of My Heart – a fan favourite delivered with true heart.
“This song is about cross-dressing among women in the 18th century. Why you say? Because it’s a waltz and you can dance to it” the Wiltshire resident offered by way of explanation ahead of new album cut Pretty Young Soldier, a tune about female navy personal who disguised themselves as men to achieve both naval positions and equal pay.
Hit 1979 single Message In A Bottle upped the tempo of both the music and the crowd next, most in the audience immediately singing along with the Police staple, Sting handing vocal duties over the crowd every now and then while still aiming for the high notes himself all these years later. “I wrote that song 37 years ago in a little basement flat in Bayswater and the only audience I had was the cat, who wasn’t at all interested in the song” Sting jested. “Now we’re here 37 years later in Hammersmith and you all sing it back to me, and that means something to me” he continued, to cheers from an adoring crowd.
57th And 9th’s second single 50,000 is a soulfully poignant rock song, an honest self-reflection of life as an aging rock star and a somewhat direct response to the recent deaths of contemporaries such as David Bowie, Sting singing “rock stars don’t die, they only fade away” immediately after covering the Starman’s hit 1980 single Ashes To Ashes, son Joe taking over lead vocal duties with Sting throwing his baseline out from the shadows, words that both sadden and make you appreciate the living legend performing in front of you at the same time.
Number one Reggatta de Blanc single Walking On The Moon was up next, it’s familiar sparse reggae guitar licks and simple baseline somehow significantly more than the sum of its parts, lighting the Hammersmith Apollo on fire once more ahead of 1978 Outlandos d’Amour single So Lonely, the likes of contemporary Sir Bob Geldof and London Mayor Sadiq Khan bopping along from their seats in the venue’s balcony section.
Brand New Day single Desert Rose had Sting skilfully taking on Cheb Mami’s Algerian Arabic vocal parts as well as his own English lyrics, the world music feel of the cut still managing to keep the energy high before the main set was closed out with The Police single Roxanne, the whole venue now on their feet for one of Sting’s most enduring hits which had Bill Withers’ classic 1971 single Ain’t No Sunshine woven into it.
Following a brief departure from the stage, Sting and his troupe returned for more The Police classics, kicking off with Next To You before undoubtedly the biggest hit of his career – Every Breath You Take – the 1983 classic still evoking the same spine-chilling emotion as it did on my first and every subsequent listen, the feeling heightened by this live performance.
After another brief departure from the stage, Sting and co. returned, the bandleader having traded in his signature battered Fender Precision bass guitar for the first time, instead brandishing a classical guitar for an outing of …Nothing Like The Sun single Fragile, the “quiet and thoughtful” acoustic number dedicated to the people of Syria closing the show in the same subdued fashion the night had been opened.
With such a legacy of great music behind him, it must become trickier over time to put together sets that allow his new material to breathe while not disappointing fans by excluding the hits. But tonight, Sting made sure he covered both while seemingly keeping things fresh for himself as he lapped up the atmosphere generated both on stage and in the audience. Tonight was a tour de force and not just for hard-core fans, proving that this old dog’s tricks are worth your attention, both old and new.
Photos and live review of Sting @ Hammersmith Apollo by Kalpesh on 9th April 2017.
Kalpesh has more music photography up on his flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate