Tracy Chapman opening for Sting was a strong confluence of two veterans of slick music-making. It was a good thing the concert was on a Sunday, lest a huge chunk of the audience miss Charlie Rose. At every turn, the temptation to criticize, which should have been rampant, was held at bay by the artists’ absolute confidence.
Chapman played for about an hour, wisely splitting the material between her first, best album, and her new Telling Stories. Stories is a more compelling record than Chapman has turned out in recent years, something the audience gleaned enough to actually listen to the relatively unfamiliar material. Still, “For My Lover,” a slightly rigid arrangement of “Fast Car,” and her 1996 hit, “One Reason,” earned Chapman her biggest ovations. The last featured an extended, souped-up coda that took the song from midtempo Gordon Lightfoot territory (it always sounded a lot like “Sundown” to me) to a chugging blues boogie. If Chapman remains a reserved performer (she limited her between-song commentary to a band introduction and a word or two about having a new record in stores), she has learned to smile and move around without sacrificing any of her trademark earnestness — a trait that works best in small doses anyway. The biggest disappointment was Sting’s failure to appear on stage with Chapman, a tourmate from 1988’s Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope junket. It was her last night on Sting’s train, an event that heightened anticipation of a duet.
Sting arrived promptly at 9:30, predictably sleeveless, muscular, and tousled. Dressed in combat cargo pants, he was a good soldier, drilling his well-rehearsed band on lots of songs from 1999’s Brand New Day. His emphasis on new songs went unchallenged by the crowd, who remained in place and attentive even through the labored “Fill Her Up.” Other than that dud, the fresher material was more convincing live than on disc. “Desert Rose” lacked the elaborate, burnished arrangement it receives on Brand New Day but was still a highlight. Less impressive were a scattered version of “Roxanne” and a perfunctory “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” both of which should be retired to make room for more unusual dips in the Sting canon.
Refreshingly, Sting chose to dust off a couple of tracks from his 1985 Dream of the Blue Turtles. “If You Love Somebody (Set Them Free)” was the evening’s second number, and rightfully a crowd pleaser. But “Moon Over Bourbon Street” was marred by a clanky, percussion-heavy arrangement and some unnecessary hamminess from Sting, which made the song sound like an unfortunate parody of Tom Waits.
The other catalog bits were rudimentary: “Every Breath You Take” as an encore, a jam of “When the World is Running Down” that failed to better any previous take, a safely pretty “Fields of Gold.” The addition of trumpeter Chris Botti, who to his credit did much more than rewrite Branford Marsalis’ familiar sax solos on the older stuff, gave some of the songs a brassy charge unlike Sting’s albums. And super-drummer Manu Katche was precise without being sterile. But it took two keyboard players (one of whom was Brand New Day co-producer and programmer Kipper) to take over for what was once one slot. The late Kenny Kirkland was missed when he left Sting’s fold to return to traditional jazz but was well-replaced by David Sancious; either would have better served Sting’s songs. Longtime guitar player Dominic Miller didn’t have much room to roam, but he shone whenever he switched to nylon-stringed acoustic. Sting himself didn’t sound as aggressive as his restless stage demeanor suggested, because his bass was frequently buried in the mix. However, his voice was strong and tough and still provided the best reason to mock him or marvel at him.