The two legends were thoroughly invested in collaboration, not competition, at their joint concert Tuesday at the Bell Centre.
By titling their joint tour Rock Paper Scissors, Peter Gabriel and Sting set up the expectation of a healthy rivalry. And walking into the belly of the Bell Centre on Tuesday, the lines appeared to be drawn: a split screen depicting settings from their respective English childhoods (a village field for Gabriel, a shipyard for Sting), and colour-coded banners bearing the signatures of 14 immaculate musicians, evenly divided in number.
The singers met at the lip of the stage early on to outline the battle-of-the-bands concept (and to poke good-natured fun at Gabriel’s physique and aversion to yoga), in the first of several French scripts read by Gabriel. He would lead Équipe Rouge, Sting would lead Équipe Bleue, and their teammates’ outfits boasted the appropriate pops of colour. But by then, the real point of the night was already known: Gabriel, Sting and their musicians were thoroughly invested in collaboration, not competition.
You could tell as much by Gabriel’s opener, The Rhythm of the Heat, which featured almost the full cast on stage (with a notable absentee). The sinister fever dream’s mystery was deepened, the delirious percussive climax was heightened, and it was immediately apparent that the principals had approached this tour as a challenge, not a cash grab.
Gabriel withdrew when Sting bounded out for the sunny If I Ever Lose My Faith in You, allowing both men to enjoy strong introductions. But what appeared to be a simple one-for-you, one-for-me setup quickly became more complex and inspired. Gabriel and Sting often yielded the stage to one another, but they just as often wove themselves into each other’s songs, traded band members and generally kept everyone guessing.
The lack of clear division was reflected by the stage setup, with Blue and Red players intermingling rather than quarantined in blocks. There were familiar faces with clear allegiances: longtime Sting guitarist Dominic Miller, for example, and bassist Tony Levin, whose epic resumé is crowned by his four-decade association with Gabriel. But the band formation constantly mutated; when Sting took a breather during Gabriel’s Red Rain, his violinist Peter Tickell remained to add shades of scarlet. Even when one team mostly cleared out, their presence could often be felt: the best part of Sting’s celebratory Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic may have been the sight of Gabriel and some of his bandmates grooving well out of the spotlights.
There was as much trust as chemistry involved in Gabriel and Sting’s interactions. (A shared history may have helped foster that trust: they shared stages during Amnesty International’s concert tours in the 1980s.) Neither one was precious about his own songs. When Sting took a verse of Gabriel’s tense No Self Control, three songs in, it was a novelty; by the time Gabriel delivered a creeping mutation of his colleague’s If You Love Somebody Set Them Free - with Sting nowhere in sight - you simply wished more A-list artists were brave enough to follow their example and treat the stage as a playground.
That sense of play helped keep the nearly three-hour show clear of nostalgia - remarkable when you consider that, aside from one new Gabriel song, the most recent number dated back to 1999. Sting drew heavily from the Police’s catalogue, and dammit, if Gabriel won’t sing Genesis, he’ll do that too: an abbreviated Dancing With the Moonlit Knight was the concert’s most left-field number, buoyed by Tickell’s violin before a counterintuitive but masterful segue into Message in a Bottle.
You could hear Gabriel’s pleasure in trading lines with Sting on that one, and that sentiment dominated the night. The relish with which Sting commandeered Kiss That Frog suggested he was the one who pushed to include the funked-up Gabriel number. When he chomped down on the “which connection I should cut” verse in Solsbury Hill, Gabriel’s mystical farewell to Genesis, one could sense his own history with the Police being seized upon. Both singers found parts of themselves in the other’s music.
The mutual admiration was evident regardless of whether the spotlight was shared or whether someone was in a supporting role. The pair’s camaraderie as they comically prowled the stage in the closing Sledgehammer was priceless, but so was Gabriel’s subtle harmony in Fragile. Best of all may have been the sight of Sting gleefully dancing amid the backup singers during Gabriel’s climactic In Your Eyes, before trading exultant calls with Red vocalist Jennie Abrahamson.
The spirit of generosity was extended to band members. Gabriel walked the perimeter of the stage as Abrahamson offered a honeyed take on Kate Bush’s part in Don’t Give Up. And if this had indeed been a competition, Sting’s vocalist Jo Lawry would have come close to upstaging everyone when her wordless hurricane tore through The Hounds of Winter’s windswept blues.
Occasionally, a collaboration didn’t click, or a song came across as too insular for the occasion. Sting’s smooth vocal tamped down the raw nerves that run through Gabriel’s Shock the Monkey. Gabriel’s new song Love Can Heal was intensely moving, especially noting the dedication to slain British MP Jo Cox, but felt extracted from a solo gig. So did San Jacinto, even as Gabriel - the biggest of big dreamers - limited the brooding number’s necessary theatrics to a mirror that sent a beam of light ricocheting across the arena.
#These stood out as potential missteps only because of the unbridled enthusiasm both stars brought to each other’s music, and to the evening’s concept. Anyone in the 16,460-strong crowd expecting a rote co-headline show received so much more from what has turned out to be a daring, presumably once-in-a-lifetime tour (inspired in part, it should be noted, by Sting’s 2014-15 dates with Paul Simon).
Sting may have exaggerated when he promised a night of spontaneity: you can’t meld two outstanding bands so tightly and leave a substantial margin of error. (Witness the way the lineup subtly changed shape as Don’t Give Up led into The Hounds of Winter.) All the more remarkable, then, that the absolute joy on stage masked whatever painstaking work led up to this adventure. Regardless of whether someone came in cheering primarily for Équipe Rouge or Équipe Bleue, everybody won this game, and everybody clearly had a blast playing it.
(c) Montreal Gazette by Jordan Zivitz
Check out more reviews from the Montreal show of the tour at http://www.sting.com/tour/montreal where you can also leave your thoughts about the show, post your photos etc. Also remember to check and use the hashtag #RockPaperScissors on Twitter!