I’ve been doing the rounds of old timers concerts the past few years – Simon & Garfunkel, Yes, the Doobie Brothers, and I would’ve been to see Paul McCartney but I was 9 months pregnant and on bed rest and just didn’t feel up to it, aside from the risk to my baby’s ears in utero. Last night I was lucky (thanks to my husband’s eBay gravitas) to see The Police at the Oakland Coliseum – only the third stadium tour I’ve seen (including the Jacksons, circa ’85 and Billy Joel & Elton John, circa ’95).
Getting there was a chore – traffic was some of the worst I’ve ever been in over my whole life. It was worth it, but if I had to do it again, I would’ve taken Caltrain to BART and brought some sandwiches. Finally entering the stadium, wafts of pot smoke filled the air as thousands of people pushed and shoved to get through lines of nearly 100 to get to the ATM, the bathroom, the beer. We were still on the concourse when the concert began, grabbing a late dinner after 2.5 hours in traffic and could see the entire stadium full of people. Just the audience itself was a sight to behold, but then seeing that trio of so many classic tunes together on stage after a 20 year hiatus was a breath to behold.
I wasn’t an immediate fan of The Police as a kid. I didn’t like Sting’s voice at first because – and this took me a long time to figure-out – he tends to ride the low side of notes, lingering dangerously close to being flat. And the raspiness mixed with the style of some of their songs – the reggae elements, perhaps – was a little too mature for me as a pre-teen. Then one day I listened to the lyrics of “Every Breath You Take” while my dad was in the ICU of a hospital on a ventilator and it struck a chord deep inside me. The words can be interpreted different ways, of course, but for me as an 11 year-old, I stuck more with the literal connotations and I kept meaning to dedicate it through “American Top 40” during my dad’s long recovery, but I was too chicken to try. As I grew older, I learned to appreciate the musicality and depth in the sound both in the music by The Police and Sting’s solo stuff. I bought all of their albums and listened intently to the quality of their unique sound.
As we made our way last night to our seats in the 3rd row on the field, off to the right by the speakers, and the way it was setup, we were basically right next to the barrier of the stage area (but still about 100 feet from the band). We were close enough to see their body language from a distance, but not their faces. Still, with a jumbo jumbotron right next to us, we could see every nuance on their faces just fine through the camera’s eye. Clearly, Andy Summers didn’t want the camera on him and he spent the first few songs looking frustrated while Stewart Copeland had a serious look on his face, pounding away on his immense drum set, but Sting, veteran performer and one of the most beautiful men in the world, held the show together, using every ounce of his glorious charisma to get the 3 musicians to play to the same beat while calming the audience with his melodious voice.
I’ve learned from being a singer in ensembles that warming-up and rehearsing just before a concert is essential. I’m guessing they didn’t do that. Acoustic guitar, wireless bass, a couple of drumsticks and a can – whatever… just to get the muscle memory working. It takes the body longer to warm-up as you get older, no matter how talented you are. It took them 4-5 songs to really gel. Physically that’s to be expected, but when you pay a pretty penny to see legends play music, you expect a little more precision. After seeing Simon and Garfunkel though, these guys seemed polished. It took Art Garfunkel until almost the encore to warm-up his voice.
In their defense, it’s incredibly difficult to play in an outdoor arena setting like that – the acoustics are tough to hear. For bands like Rush who’ve played together in every setting for over 30 years, it’s no big deal, but there were moments in this concert where Sting had to start the song like a high school garage band: “1, 2, 1, 2, 3…” to get them all on tempo. Copeland, it’s been noted, is one of the most incredible drummers ever, so half the reason I wanted to see this show was to see him. I’ve studied Neil Peart, Ray Cooper and others, I am always impressed by those drummers who can play both drums and percussion brilliantly – Copeland is one of them. And as we’re all our own worst critics, he roasted their performance in Vancouver.
I think Oakland was probably better. The mistakes I noticed were really miniscule and since many people in the audience were drunk, stoned and/or tone deaf (I think one woman behind us was all three), I doubt most people noticed. By the end of the tour, they’ll be in great shape. I think Sting surprised himself singing some of the high notes later in the set. Hey, if Elton can still do it after major rehab, Sting and his finely tuned instrument should be A-OK.
Some of the unique points in the show are worth noting, like Sting’s ancient Fender bass – his original – warn and tattered – he probably gets splinters from it, but it looks great and sounds great on stage. Summers’s guitar was held on his shoulder by a strap reading “Oh my God, he killed Kenny!” with a picture of the red coated South Park character. It added an element of comedy to the stoic look on the guitarist’s face during most of the show. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” included not only amazing percussion but some nice visual effects with the candles from their old video. They showed moving video footage of children and soldiers in Iraq (I’m guessing here, but it was definitely the Middle East) during “Invisible Sun”. I like it when musicians ask their audiences to think a little with that kind of message in concerts – U2 and Rush have shown footage like this.
Supposedly the band changed keys of a few songs (I noticed something different but couldn’t pinpoint that until later) which may contribute to the slower pace – they weren’t used to playing it that fast in another key… makes sense. I’m sure they have their reasons for doing that and it’s a risk they can take with packed stadiums all over the world. They definitely altered the vocals to lower in several songs – and although it still sounded good, I missed the old melodies. I also missed the higher backup vocals. I could tell Summers and Copeland were singing backup vocals during the performance, but they weren’t mixed in very well – I thought they could’ve been a little louder as to not be overshadowed by the guitars, but perhaps it was just where we were sitting that they sounded that way.
By the time the trio got to “Roxanne”, they were playing perfectly. It was like being transformed back in time to see them live. Then they went on to “King of Pain” and “Every Breath You Take”, both which were fantastic to see and hear. They performed 3 encores and at the end took a few bows holding hands together – all of them smiling. We were mesmerized. I don’t know about the rest of the crowd, but they had me wrapped around their fingers.