Sting, Gabriel Balance Light and Dark

StingGabriel_Promo2_72dpiSting and Peter Gabriel set out this year on a tour together, delivering a set list of hits and core tracks from each of their respective careers, in much the same way as Billy Joel and Elton John have done in the past. They brought the show dubbed “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to San Jose’s SAP arena on June 14, 2016. For this long time fan of both artists, I had mixed feelings about the event; my conclusion is that the show overall while entertaining and well staged was not quite greater than the sum of it’s parts.

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Gabriel’s approach to performance is to draw audiences into a dark world, a place where deep emotions are explored, even disturbing emotions, the lonely, the outcast, and the criminal and mentally disturbed. Songs like “No Self Control” represent this aspect of his work. The journey takes patience; time to invite the audience in, to dig into that place, to StingGabriel_Promo1_72dpifeel a bit of the sorrow, of the anger, fear or loathing felt by his characters. Importantly, Gabriel always lifts listeners out of that place, shines light in that darkness, taking all attentive guests on a sort of journey through the soul. Gabriel alternates darker and lighter songs, but the palette between them is complementary and all but the most commercial concert tours from this artist have expertly charted this territory. It can be emotionally overwhelming on the best nights, exhausting but completely satisfying.

StingGabriel_Promo3_72dpiIn this setting, there wasn’t time for this kind of excursion as the artists alternated songs on stage – for instance, the dramatic Gabriel opener “The Rhythm of the Heat,” led directly to the joyful, buoyant Sting hit “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” – it was a bit of emotional whiplash. Sting’s sound is happy and soulful, and even when exploring darker themes, like “Invisible Sun” the music and lyrics are infused with hope while major tonalities trump the minor. His best concerts are celebrations of life; they do include social commentary, dire warnings, yet nearly always with a call to action, and a celebration of life and vitality that lifts the spirits. A centerpiece of his shows are the sing-along moments, the times when the audience gets in on the song, where there is a call/response whether reggae style yodeling, or lyrical refrain. One leaves his shows similarly spent and smiling. Again in this setting the chances for audience participation were there but more limited than Sting’s typical concert.

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But to be fair, setting aside a bit of the “seen ‘em 5 times” rabid fandom, the concert was surely excellent entertainment. Both performers were in fine voice, and they sound great together in harmony. The band, which was culled from both artists touring troops, was fantastic. The audio and video quality was top notch. An enthusiastic crowd at the SAP arena greeted the ensemble warmly and stayed engaged throughout the three-hour set.

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As to the set list, it met expectations with a few surprises. I was taken by how many Police songs Sting included, given the breadth of his solo catalog. Songs like “Driven to Tears,” Message in a Bottle,” “Walking in Your Footsteps,” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” sounded fresh, and were precisely played, which is an enduring attribute of his solo tours. Gabriel’s relatively lighter tracks were featured, including “Kiss That Frog,” StingGabriel_Pik4_72dpi“Big Time,” and “Sledgehammer” along with frequent set closer “In Your Eyes.” In one chilling moment that made the whole event worthwhile for this fan, Sting sang the opening verses to the Genesis prog classic “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight,” opining the this was fitting given current events in his homeland, “selling England by the pound…” Gabriel himself hasn’t played a note of music from his former band in decades, though just as this article went to print, he stepped out to do this refrain instead of Sting, a rare moment that lit up social media fan networks. In addition, the times when the guys played and sang on each other’s tracks were well chosen, adding to rather than detracting from the original works. I was concerned about this aspect of the show given the terribly melancholy readings Gabriel was giving on the “Scratch My Back” tour, but worry wasn’t needed, this aspect of the show was wonderfully played.

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Ultimately a very nice evening, one that while maybe not leading to a sum greater than the parts, left me and I imagine most audience members pleased and intent on seeing each artist again on future outings.

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Set list, as shared on the very helpful website Setlist.fm

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