Monday, August 04, 2008

Review: The Police with Elvis Costello & the Impostors, Comcast

I'd been torn over whether to see the Police again on their reunion tour after my mixed emotions about last summer's show at Wrigley Field. But I was reading Andy Summer's autobiography when tickets went on sale for their Boston area show, and I succumbed. I'm glad. Maybe it's because I sprung for more expensive seats. Maybe it's because the Comcast Center was designed as a music venue, unlike Wrigley Field, so the acoustics were better. Maybe it's because they tightened up the set while still giving in to Andy's desire for the occasional guitar solo. Maybe it's because I had reduced expectations after my mild disappointment last year, but it was well worth it, even if it meant sitting in the parking lot for half an hour trying to leave instead of hoping on the CTA Red Line and zipping home.

"Can't Stand Losing You," was already quite energetic, but they upped the equation by inserting a portion of "Regatta De Blanc." The pairing of "Voices Inside My Head" with "When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around" was another successful marriage. These exemplified the best of the show: incorporating both big hits with lesser-known album tracks, keeping the arrangements tight enough to maintain momentum but unexpected enough to not just offer exact reenactments of their recordings.

Sting is losing his upper register, most obviously on "King of Pain." Where other songs were rearranged for artistic reasons, his avoidance of the high notes became a distraction. "Don't Stand So Close to Me" was another awkward rearrangement, fusing the original tense version with the boring yuppie remake that bore too much of a Sting stamp at the expense of Stewart Copeland and Andy's creative input.

As moving as "Invisible Sun" was, especially accompanied by photos of children from war-torn regions around the globe, I kept thinking of "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well," Sting's parody of sanctimonious benefit songs from The Simpsons. Other songs reminded me of the members' post-Police work. "Can't Stand Losing You" brought to mind Stewart's anecdote from Everyone Stares that Sting wore his flight suit so often on one tour and they played that song so often that the flight suit could have played the song by itself by the tour's end. I had greater appreciation for "Every Breath You Take" based on Andy's description of its genesis from One Train Later. I'd always been somewhat dismissive of their biggest hit because it ironically made the least use of Stewart's unique talents. But Andy explained how the signature guitar line came to him in a flash during a tense period, and while he seemingly pulled it out of the air, it was only as a result of decades of practicing and musical exploration, culminating in a song with enduring cultural impact.

Sting and Stewart are still looking quite fit. Sting showed off his muscles in a semi-sheer close-fitting knit shirt, but his scruffy beard was too Captain Ahab. Stewart one-upped last year's moisture-wicking T-shirt with one emblazened with the Ghost in the Machine logo. But looking at their LED avatars with fresh eyes, I wondered if the dot at the end was meant to resemble a decimal point on a calculator or a goiter. Andy's physique is a bit paunchy, but he's kept his most important muscles in shape: his fingers are as nimble as ever. His South Park guitar strap was a surprising embellishment on someone not known for irreverence.

During Elvis Costello's opening set, it looked like my view of the drum riser was going to be blocked. There are few bands for whom an obstructed view of the drummer would be a massive disappointment, but fortunately, I did ultimately have clear sight lines. Stewart opened the show by hitting the gong on the secondary riser with an extensive collection of percussion instruments and ventured back there again to provide complex embellishments for "Wrapped Around Your Finger," among other songs. His percussion work pulled together so many opposing forces: playful yet intricate, athletic yet precise. He frequently abandoned used drum sticks by flinging them into the air and effortless grabbing new ones without missing a beat.

The set ended with its second encore of "Next To You." Andy returned to the stage alone, taking on a stance of mock impatience until he was joined by a boy of about 12 who came on with a bass and played with the rest of the band. I'm guessing it was Andy's son, and it was a cute gesture as the three elder statemen showed him the ropes in front of 16,000 people.

After seeing Stewart's documentary on the band and reading Andy's autobiography, it's clear that the band lived fast and died young even if the members themselves survived. They made it big through relentless touring, pausing only to crank out their five studio albums. No wonder they're planning to call it quits again at the end of this tour rather than strapping themselves back onto that treadmill.

While recording five timeless albums is no easy feat, opener Elvis Costello has pulled off a bigger challenge. Like the Police, he emerged as part of the late '70s punk scene while quickly establishing greater substance than peers who were more notable for their nihilism and wardrobes than actual talent. The Police broke up at the height of their fame, preserving their legacy, but Elvis kept going, taking the risk of diluting the impact of his initial, groundbreaking work. That he continues to earn critical acclaim and maintains an audience who aren't strictly there for his early hits is a testament to the depths of his talent. While the Police fans reserved their biggest cheers for the songs from his first few albums, he certainly had lots of fun making noise with tracks from Momofuku. My disappointment was that I didn't hear him touch 2002's When I Was Cruel, but I was also disappointed that he took the stage before his scheduled 7:30 start time, so I missed some of his set. On the style front, he earned major points for sporting a jacket in the 110% relative humidity, and he wore his scruffy beard with greater panache than Sting, who joined him for "Allison," perhaps because Sting is new to facial hear but Elvis has scaled back from his unfortunate rabbi look of the early '90s.

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