Sting painful when focus is on the new, but classics rock


October 9, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Forget the competing entertainment up north in Wrigleyville: The place to be in Chicago on Tuesday night was Grant Park.

There was much to be cynical about as Sting performed a "free" concert that in fact required tickets handed out in advance by aggressive street teams as part of a giant corporate marketing blitz.

While I'm firmly opposed to artists living in the past, it's still difficult to accept Sting's transformation from a high-octane New Wave pop-punk with the Police into an easy-listening faux-jazzbo solo artist shilling for sports cars, designer clothes and credit cards.

Advertising was ubiquitous throughout the show. And fans who've been following the history of rock music in the park had to wonder why this concert -- and a recent show by Shania Twain that was also a corporate event -- were allowed to happen while the Smashing Pumpkins, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead and a return appearance by Radiohead were all barred by the city.

Maybe it had something to do with the $300,000 check that the sponsors handed to city officials to support music in the schools. (Everything is for sale in Chicago.)

The reason why music fans should question the city's attitude about rock in the park is because it is our finest venue to hear live music. The sound system was pristine, the backdrop of city lights was brilliant, and even the weather cooperated, with a slight breeze wafting off Lake Michigan on a warm Indian Summer night complete with a blazing harvest moon.

All of this combined for such a pleasant evening that you had to forgive Sting even his most egregious overindulgences -- and there were plenty of those.

The unnaturally buff, artfully unshaven, peroxide-blond crooner used the show to launch his newest album, "Sacred Love," which finds him taking the coffeehouse pop of recent solo discs to the Middle East via the addition of an odd trance drone here, a little doumbek or tabla there, and some obnoxiously artsy video projections of naked belly dancers splashed up behind his eight-piece band as it performed.

New songs such as the album's title track, the VH1/adult contemporary single "Send Your Love" and the ponderously self-important political toss-off, "Let's Forget About the Future," are, in a word, dreadful -- tuneless, pretentious, overwrought and (despite the best efforts of master drummer Vinnie Colaiuta) positively leaden in the groove department.

With the exception of "Walking on the Moon," which opened the show and was ruined by a rendition that found it reconfigured as a cabaret ditty featuring only Sting on bass and vocals and pianist Jason Rebello tinkling behind him, the songs of the Police were by far the highlight of the two-hour set.

Nearly a third of the show was devoted to that timeless, energizing material: "Message in a Bottle," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," "Synchronicity II" and of course "Roxanne" (which Sting offered almost as an apology for a truncated version of "Englishman in New York" -- apparently he forgot where he was for a minute, mistaking Grant Park for Central Park).

When you compare twee solo fare such as "Fields of Gold," "All This Time" and the new tunes from "Sacred Love" to these Police classics, you can't help but ask: Sting, what the heck happened? Perhaps if you spent a little less time on those marathon Tantric sex sessions that you brag about and saved a little of that energy for your current music, you'd still be an artist that matters.

Opening the concert were two modern bluesmen: Keb' Mo', who tries so hard to be "authentic" that he ought to confine his performances to museums, and Jonny Lang, who errs too far to the other extreme, churning out a hopelessly generic brand of frat-party chooglin' that is distinguishable from countless mediocre bar bands only by the fact that Jonny is the one with the major-label hype behind him.