Ghost In The Machine

East Rutherford, NJ, US
Brendan Byrne Arenawith Black Uhuru
Police and Black Uhuru at Brendan Byrne Arena...

It looks intriguing from a distance, the Byrne Arena, glowing in the darkness of the New Jersey Meadowlands. But it starts to look scary as you get up close. Opened last years, this is the first American arena built specifically for concerts, not sports events, and it was designed with crowd control functions primarily in mind. It is an impenetrable, uninviting fortress. The high fence surrounding the building gives it a concentration camp feel, and the security boys searching everyone at the gates for bottles, cans and cameras don't do much to dispel the impression. The loudspeakers outside blaring a constant tape-looped warning against trying to smuggle in these forbidden items update the image to '1984'. The building talks, imposes, threatens. You get to your seat feeling intimidated and small.

But that's not right, that's not right, that's not right in this sight. Because - can you believe it? - Black Uhuru are on that big stage. And Black Uhuru make me feel warm and big and in touch with strange reservoirs of determination and strength. It's just a little bit harder in a place like this, and takes a little bit longer.

It was the biggest place Black Uhuru had ever played in, though not the biggest number of people. The vast majority of the audience were still in their cars driving towards the gig when Black Uhuru took the stage, at the dot of 7.30pm. The Police, they knew, wouldn't be on till 9.30pm.

So Black Uhuru sang to those who were there, and worked their magic well. Michael Rose danced around the way he does, an inspired shaman, full of grace. Puma danced around the way she does, an elegant, sturdy, strong woman. Duckie stood glowering the way he does, a tight-lipped, almost silent partner. They look bright and beautiful, draped in colours that could carry over distance.

The guitars rang out, a clear compelling sound, and the keyboards played inventive flourishes all over the melodies, and it was sweet music. At the end Sly and Robbie did their dub outro - dubwise at the Meadowlands! - and the audience applauded. Not thunderously, not enough to get them an encore, but they didn't just run off to get another hotdog. This was by no means a small victory.

The Police are much more prisoners of this fortress. Captured by this treadmill of touring, beat by the almost insurmountable odds against bringing real imagination and life to these identical concrete expanses, they have surrendered themselves to a catalogue of gestures. They know their genius, and so do I, but it's not enough. They are coasting.

Sting is, as always, the immaculate pop presence - smiling, commanding, so easy to receive and love. The attractive grin, the broad movements, the sweet soaring voice - this boy is one lively mannequin, a made-to-order idol. But the drive to personalise the pop-star myth I once thought I saw in Sting's performance is on a long holiday.

Of course I would much much much rather see The Police than any other act that troops around these arenas. They do have their moments of greatness, when they jump on the simple great pop tunes and just play it, and Sting is jumping around like a madman pumping great bass and Copeland is snapping and cracking, and Summers is under control and, especially, when the horn section comes in wailing and it adds up to sexy soul spirit body music.

But every time they hit that peak they follow it with some contrivance, some stretched-out bit of artiness or some deadly guitar soloing from Summers, all flash and no heart, or some area-rock grandstand play with the lightshow going berserk. They lose it.

Song after song gets inflicted with deadly dub passages that they just can't play, long meandering breaks taking a detour to nowhere. Even 'De Do Do', that shiver of simplicity, gets ruined by this treatment and the longwinded mess they make of 'Bed's Too Big Without You' is painful to recall. They save some of their best songs, 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' and 'Can't Stand Losing You' for the encore, so as to end on an up note, but still insist on those asinine call-and responses.

(c) New Musical Express