The destructive dynamic that splintered the Police at the height of their popularity boiled down to a simple yet inescapable quandary: Sting was Sting, Stewart Copeland was not, and both of them knew it.
A singer who consistently writes hits can monopolize attention and power. He either checks his own ego in the interests of band democracy and longevity - see R.E.M. and U2 - or his bandmates resign themselves to an aristocracy. Easygoing guitarist Andy Summers - who has spent the two-plus decades since the breakup of the Police churning out sedate jazz albums - could tolerate Sting's dominance. Mercurial drummer Copeland could not.
A potential Police reunion, then, first required a downturn in Sting's solo career. His celebrity remains all encompassing, but radio and MTV are no longer so enamored with him. Ceding the point, his most recent release was a collection of medieval lute ballads, a project that, however noble, strayed dangerously close to parody.
Finding himself at a career crossroads, Sting instructed his manager to ring up Copeland and Summers. Not surprisingly, they made themselves available to rake in millions with a yearlong reunion tour.
That tour stopped at a nearly full New Orleans Arena on Saturday. Following an opening set by Fiction Plane, fronted by Sting's son Joe Sumner, the Police delivered a tight, 19-song set of nearly two hours that unabashedly pandered to their collective past. They neither unveiled new material nor even hinted at their post-Police pursuits. Instead, on a sleek, simple, open stage, they served up one hit after another with more precision and heft than in their heyday.
The Police were never an essential live band. U2 and Bruce Springsteen uplift arena audiences with grand gestures; Metallica and Rage Against the Machine incite them with raw power and energy. Not so the Police. Their strength lay in crafting pristine, enduring pop songs, the earliest of which they infused with lilting reggae chords and punk moxie. With no spectacle, no drama and no emotional peaks and valleys, their reunion show could have been played just as effectively - if not quite so lucratively - at Tipitina's.
Chatter and audience interaction were kept to a minimum. Sting made the obligatory Hurricane Katrina reference: "Despite what you've been through, the spirit of this city is not dead. The spirit of this city is alive and kicking." Otherwise, he said little; the other two were mute.
The threesome focused on invigorated, occasionally rearranged renditions of beloved anthems and an obscurity or two. Arrangements were strictly limited to guitar, bass, percussion and vocals - no backing singers, no auxiliary players (alas, the essential piano in 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' was absent).
All three musicians were in fighting shape. Sting strutted in black combat boots; with his chiseled biceps and slender frame, he is an advertisement for the preservative powers of yoga and vegetarianism. He shied away from the highest notes in his old songs, but his voice remains remarkably rich and full.
Summers, at 64 the oldest in the band by a decade, resembled an off-duty insurance salesman in an untucked gray button-down shirt, black slacks and shiny black shoes. In a break with arena-rock convention, he rarely swapped out his guitar. His robust fingerpicking jazzed 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'. He inserted bracing electric guitar solos in 'Driven to Tears' and elsewhere, and scissors-kicked across the stage as 'Can't Stand Losing You' built to a big finish.
Copeland's intense determination faltered only when he tripped while clamoring from his drum kit to a percussion set on an elevated riser. His hustle fleshed out the atmospherics of 'Wrapped Around Your Finger' and 'Walking in Your Footsteps', both highlights of the set.
The opening 'Message in a Bottle' and 'Synchronicity II' stuck close to the familiar recorded versions. 'When the World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around' broke down to brief instrumental passages, a welcome diversion. A meandering 'Don't Stand So Close to Me', by contrast, was flaccid. 'Roxanne' was the obvious but underwhelming regular set finale. In the encores, a spot-on 'King of Pain' and crisp 'So Lonely' fared much better.
Save Summers' "South Park" guitar strap and the guy in the 14th row of section 113 snapping pictures with a new iPhone, this could have passed for 1983. But time does not stand still, and neither does pop culture.
Rock 'n' roll thrives on the energy of youth. When a band first taps into that energy - as did the Police 30 years ago - it is at its most vital. When that same band's audience can afford $200 tickets and a baby sitter - and when the merchandise table includes a souvenir "onesy" jumper for babies - that time has passed.
Saturday's sole emotional payoff was nostalgia. During a final charge through 'Next to You', quick-cut images of Sting, Copeland and Summers from the 1980s flashed by on overhead video screens. Otherwise, they preferred to let the songs represent their considerable legacy. And they represented those songs well.
©The Times Picayune by Keith Spera