Soul Cages

San Francisco, CA, US
Berkeley Community Theaterwith Kennedy Rose, Vinx
Sting - Caged by His New Material...

Sting wore his discomfort on his sleeve Friday at the Berkeley Community Theater, where his first tour in more than two years - and with a new band - got off to a rocky start.

''So how're we doin'?'' he asked almost tremulously after a few numbers, trying to coax some encouragement out of his partisans. For someone whose confidence customarily borders on cockiness, his insecurity looked becoming - especially considering how understandable his self-doubts were. Sting banked the entire two-hour show on material from his brand-new album, 'The Soul Cages', an undistinguished effort that trades his usual simple hooks and easy melodicism for heavy-handed introspection.

Furthermore, he tried to bring life to this dreary material with a small band of competent craftsmen, replacing musical giants like keyboardist Kenny Kirkland and drummer Omar Hakim, who greatly illuminated Sting's work in previous post-Police bands. The new show needs a lot of work before he can bring it to arena and stadium levels, as he plans to do later this year.

Almost eight years ago, with the Police, the bassist-vocalist scaled the absolute peaks of the pop music world with the album 'Synchronicity', managing the delicate balance of relatively sophisticated music and wholesome teenybopper appeal. In subsequent solo work, he has been careful to maintain a certain accessibility as he explored more subtle musical and lyrical ideas than he did with the Police.

By abandoning the snappy, well-crafted pop-song format on 'The Soul Cages', however, Sting is making a bid to be taken seriously - and putting self-expression above communication is an inevitable pitfall for a pop musician like him. Captain Beefheart he is not.

The capacity audience of excitable fans who quickly snapped up tickets for the Friday and Saturday night shows - more than $30 a pop, giving his stage name a whole new dimension - sat surprisingly still through the intricate, thoughtful new material, a little of which goes a long way. But Sting insisted on piling it on - one elongated, meandering composition after another, pausing only to toss off an enchanting cover of the Bill Withers hit, 'Ain't No Sunshine', and to engage in a patently bogus bit of show-biz shazam, asking the audience for requests and then presenting a clearly well-rehearsed version of the Police hit, 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'.

To bring the concert to a climax, he stretched out to nearly a half-hour a suite composed of 'Island of Souls', 'The Wild, Wild Sea', 'The Soul Cages', 'When Angels Sing', all from the new album, capped by an elegiac 'Jamaica Farewell'. It passed through some stunning moments of instrumental and vocal excellence, but never coalesced into a meaningful whole. He then punched the nearly sedated audience's button with an incongruous and largely faithful version of Jimi Hendrix's 'Purple Haze'.

Keyboardist David Sancious provided some sterling flights on synthesizer, nimbly spinning off cascades of notes and supple, occasionally lush orchestrations. It's not his fault that he'll be compared with the extraordinary Kirkland. Guitarist Dominic Miller offered a couple of pungent statements, but remained in a mostly secondary role. The spare sound of the band recalled nothing so much as the Police itself, without the open warmth of that trio's sound or the engaging simplicity of the material. But Sting chose to mock even his past accomplishments in the process of featuring his not-that-illustrious present. He laughed during his call for requests.

(c) The San Francisco Chronicle by Joel Selvin

Fans stung by boredom at Sting's dull Berkeley Show...

A few days before Sting debuted his new tour at Berkeley Community Theater on Friday and Saturday, a source close to the tour confided the rock star had decided that these shows would be a ''warm-up'' for his upcoming appearances in Los Angeles.

Nothing wrong with that, per se. In fact, the loose context could have made for a one-of-a-kind performance: Sting and the boys letting down their guards for a slaphappy run-through. It would have been the perfect rejoinder to the bloated and overly staged shows he gave as part of the tour for the 1987 album '...Nothing Like The Sun.'

Instead, his show Friday was a dreary affair. It wasn't loose; it was slack. It wasn't spontaneous; it was arch and sour. For the most part, it simply wasn't, period.

Mostly, this had to do with the nature of the songs from his new disc, 'The Soul Cages,' and that of the three-piece group he assembled to play them.

On the disc, those songs - which dominated the performance - are dense and complex, with lush, intricate instrumentation and brooding intensity. On stage, they were given a bare and oppressively minimalistic slant that rendered them barely listenable.

The sparse group (with Sting on bass) wasn't up to the task of re-creating the songs. Constantly, one lusted for the sound of Branford Marsalis' saxophone (a potent ingredient of the new disc and of Sting's records and tours to this point). But Marsalis and long-time Sting keyboardist Kenny Kirkland weren't there to provide the extra Ommph! the songs desperately seemed to demand.

Sting opened the set with 'Mad About You', its on-record elegance reduced to a mush of sound from David Sancious' synthesiser. 'All This Time' lost all of its bounce and Police-like spunk and Sting's vocals had none of the weary eloquence that gives the song - on disc - its expressive bite.

Others were equally dismal. 'Jeremiah Blues (Part 1)' was as flaccid as it is on the disc, while the title cut plodded along dully with none of the pounding rock energy that made it one of the high points of the disc.

Only 'The Wild Wild Sea' seemed to get on track, with Sting's astounding vocals ebbing and flowing with the rush of chords.

The title cut was one of several songs performed as a connected piece, with instrumental ensemble sections serving as a bridge. The feel was that of '70s jazz-rock, with complex improvisational forays that segued in and out of the principal themes. But while Sancious' keyboard playing was, at times, agile, and Sting's bass work was remarkably energetic and proficient, the group itself didn't have the ensemble virtuosity to be compelling and convincing.

Instead, the long sections seemed gratuitous and garish and the attention of the capacity crowd flagged. There was the inevitable Police song or two along the way. But the jazzed-up versions of such hits as 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' and 'Bring On the Night' were aimless and wandering.

And on an encore, 'Every Breath You Take' was almost incoherent, its simple suppleness supplanted by the simplistic chordings of guitarist Dominic Miller.

Sting makes a point of providing surprises in all of his shows. This time they were a mildly funky rendition of Bill Withers' hit 'Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone' and a version of Jimi Hendrix' 'Purple Haze' that was staid to the point of being ludicrous.

But the real surprise was the entire performance itself. It is one thing for a performer to reinvent himself and his songs - that is a valid and valuable creative desire and it has been crucial to the evolution of Sting's career. The trick is that, in the past, he has done it with a sense of enthusiasm and taste that were insightful and wonderfully improbable.

This tour, Sting has gone out on the limb one more time, only to find - surprise - a long drop at the end.

(c) The San Jose Mercury News by Harry Sumrall