When Peter Gabriel and Sting announced the forthcoming co-headlining tour at the turn of the year, my instant and first reaction was “who opens?” The name, “Rock, Paper Scissors”, seemed to imply that it would be that, a flip of the coin, a product of chance, (maybe) a rotating status from show to show. And even I, the avowed Peter Gabriel SUPER-fan had to have a good think: who would the crowd be there to see MORE? For as much commercial success as So brought Gabriel, even I, in an objective moment, would probably admit that Sting had the larger body of work, had the more POPULAR body of work, and had the more crowd appealing (for live performance) body of work. So, I was ready to acquiesce. Not grudgingly in the least, mind you, as I would put Sting in my top 15 favorites as well.
And then, something really great started to come out from both camps. This would be a different type of show. There would be no opening act, and neither of these legendary artists would have to pull the curtain for the other. It was to be a total collaborative effort. My first reaction was one of unreal excitement. YES! This could ABSOLUTELY work SO well. I started to list out in my head the reasons WHY, despite only sharing a stage for brief interludes at Amnesty Intl shows back in 1987, this would be seamless, and not present even the remotest difficulty. The criteria was so evident, I thought:
They’re both BRITISH!
They both left bands on somewhat bad terms to go solo!!
*even more thinki….*
OH! OH OH OH! Sting played with Stewart Copeland in the Police! And Stewart lent his hi-hat talent to Red Rain on the So album….oh my GOD this is going to work!
So, of course, I started to let doubt creep in. Could it really work? Would it come across as campy? Would one clearly overshadow the other, and have a hard time erasing that look from their face? Would THEY have fun?
One of the last clips I watched, about 3 months before the tour was to kick off, Sting spoke two lines that made me think it was all going to be fine: “We’re going to play the hits…why wouldn’t we?” and “I may play a Peter song, he might play a Sting song”. With those two (paraphrased) notions, I was ready to soak it all in.
I attended the Rock Paper Scissors show at Nikon Jones Beach Theater in Long Island, NY on June 24th. What follows are a series of random (but somewhat cohesive) thoughts on the night. I can’t do the show justice in a traditional review format.
--- From the start of the evening, we noticed one thing pretty quickly. We weren’t skewing the demo up or down in anyway. We WERE the demo. 15,000 40-somethings, some in Sting shirts, some in Peter shirts (ok, I only saw ME in a Peter shirt…..) plenty of strap-on sandals for the guys, plenty of big sunglasses for the women. Conversations around us ranged from the Brexit results, to how tasty the lobster roll was from the food truck, to youth soccer..etc… If anything, this was not a crowd that was necessarily “ready to ROCK!”, but were buzzing with anticipation. (and probably the $15 Tito’s lemonades)
--- Seeing the stage, you could immediately tell that this was not your ordinary concert set-up. Two drum kits, multiple guitar and bass rigs, three piano/keyboard stations, and as the music kicked up, screens with the names of upwards of 14 musicians. (divided cheekily into “red” and “blue” teams for each band) It was Peter who came out first, but not with just his band, but also the backup singer and drummer from Sting’s band as well. For me, within the first 15 seconds, I was in heaven, as the opening tribal rhythm sounds of The Rhythm of the Heat pounded through the sound system. (with both drummers pounding so perfectly in time) I have never seen Peter do this song live, as it very rarely has seen a set list since the So tour 25+ years ago, yet it was the opening salvo for the many years prior. The red lights pulsed with the beat. The music swelled, Peter in fine voice leading the charge, and as people continued to file in, and the sun set slowly behind our seats, the tone was set.
--- Conversely, Sting came out (with a MAYBE 8 second lull in between songs 1 and 2) and launched right into a universally known, and easy-to-sing-along with “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You”. Within the first minute, it was VERY apparent that he was here to a) have fun and b) (as promised) do the hits. The energy was a TOTAL dichotomy of the dark opener from Gabriel, and brought the crowd to a higher level, very quickly.
--- When the two addressed the crowd in the early stages of the show, they let us know, (amongst other things, such as the connective thread of dairy cows between them….I can’t believe I didn’t mention that earlier!) that this night was about fun, and a “karaoke battle between team red and team blue”. (capped by Peter referring to his counterpart as “Mr. Sting” for the first of many times, in many iterations, including “Mr. Sting Sumner” and “Mr. Gordon Sting”) The result of the song swapping ranged from tremendous to tremendous.
Sting takes on Shock The Monkey – A straight forward interpretation, Sting and his band made the song their own nonetheless. At age 64, Sting has not lost a step in the least. His vocals, powerful and commanding, brought a new voice to a classic composition.
Peter takes on If You Love Somebody Set Them Free– In direct contrast to the earlier exchanges, outside of the words, there was nothing recognizable to the original Blue Turtles era tune. And that is not at all a bad thing. In the vein of the Scratch My Back series Gabriel did a few years back (covering popular songs from a variety of artists, interpreted by him and the New Blood orchestra) Set Them Free took the sound and shape of a boozy, jazz club torch song, complete with Gabriel crooning in his lowest register.
--- Both men throughout their adult lives, have pledged support for numerous causes; performing for them, donating time and money, organizing benefits…etc… And on this night, they used their voice to recognize some of the goings on in the world, including:
Sting dedicating a tremendous version of Fragile to the victims and families of the Orlando nightclub mass shooting.
Peter shouting out Red Rain to the witness.org group in attendance, as well as the organization as a whole.
Peter singing a new song (and a beautiful one at that) Love Will Heal, to the memory of recently slain UK politician Jo Cox.
--- Back to Sting….my goodness. He has been doing this for 4 decades. Touring, and recording, and guesting, and more touring, and more recording…one would forgive him if his voice started to show some wear and tear. People would TOTALLY understand if reaching the high notes of Roxanne, or Message In A Bottle was just not possible anymore. But here is the thing. A total of ONE song was dropped in key. ONE! (Invisible Sun for the record) For everything else, it was as if you dropped the needle on Ghost in the Machine or Nothing Like The Sun, pitch perfect to the original recording. I can not state it enough how impressive this was.
And while we are here, the man ALSO knows his crowd. Whether it be the vast number of songs he pulled from the Police catalog, the solo hits he crafted thereafter, hell, even the songs he shared with Peter (Games Without Frontiers most notably) he just KNOWS the spot. That moment in the song that calls for a little audience participation. Whether it be a traditional call and response (ie: Message in a Bottle) or trailing off vocals to let the crowd take over (ie: Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic) the man makes it look easy. And for us, all the better, as again, it’s “the hits”, we knew every word.
---They played almost 3 hours, they did 28 songs, it was prolonged moments of breathlessness….so in a bit of the finest nitpicking, one song from each that I WISH was played:
Sting - Little Wing - Why? Well, first of all, Dominic Miller, Sting’s longtime touring guitarist, is one of the most under-rated players around. He could handle the Hendrix stylings (although the Sting recorded version takes a lot of jazz-lite liberties with the original) with ease. Secondly, and most importantly, it took me 15 minutes to think of this one. The set list was THAT good.
Peter-Mercy Street - A little easier, as I could easily select Darkness to come off of the track list. BUT, I DO like that Gabriel broke out a song from the little appreciated UP record, so again, nitpicky
---Two funny lines from Peter:
As the bands left the stage following an incredible rendering of In Your Eyes to “close the show”, Peter deadpanned, back to audience, “this is when we pretend to go home”. The encore was obvious, of course.
The two vocalists shared responsibility for the (very apt for venue) tremendously overlooked Englishman In New York. Peter, who took the second verse, seemed to be having an issue hearing the music through his in-ear monitors, and was struggling to find the notes….and he let us know by concluding the verse with the adlib lyric “i am clearly not aware of what key”
---Best song from each? Tough to narrow down to one…but I’ll be short, and try
Sting - Roxanne - With it’s traditional beginning and end, but interspersed with a lengthy, running jazz line in the middle (complete with whipping in Aint No Sunshine as well) and, as noted, the crowd participation, it slightly ranks ahead of every other song, which are all tied for a close second.
Peter - Sledgehammer - This is a tough one, as this seems like such the easy pick, and I don’t always like going with the grain. However, here’s the thing…it closed the show, Sting took a verse, the place was dancing, and it made every emotion come all at once. Since it’s release over 25 years ago, it has held the mantle of a top 3 song for me, (yes, I did a post on that monstrosity known as “my favorite song ever”….) and it will STILL be there in 25 minutes, 25 hours, and another 25 years. It’s just that damn good.
I look down and see, I am already at 1900 words, and I feel like I could write 2000 more….and still not REALLY capture how near-pitch-perfect this night was. Granted, bias for me (my favorite artist, and another in my top 15 of all time) perfect company (her second Sting show – the first one being 25 years ago….which we were both at…but not together. And her very first PG show) an outstanding venue (holy WOW, first time for me seeing a show at Jones Beach in Long Island, definitely will not be the last….i could do 900 words on the food trucks alone) and outstanding weather. Without question, a top 3 show all time for me (of 200+ shows) and PROBABLY, factoring everything, my favorite ever.