LIVE: Sting / Joe Sumner @ Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 07/09/2022

Legendary singer, songwriter, bassist and former frontman of flagship new wave band The Police, Sting, brought his my songs visit to a receptive late summer crowd at SPAC on Wednesday night. At first, the long-running, Covid-delayed tour (named after his 2019 album) seems to be simplistically named, almost a throwaway. But it’s actually quite insightful. More on that later.

Sting (f) and Kevon Webster (photo by Dakota Gilbert)

Sting (born Gordon Sumner) delivered a fast, consistently solid, sometimes great set of material, more or less split between Police songs and 80s and 90s solo material, as well as a few tracks from his most recent album, 2021. The bridge. As he noted at one point, this was his eighth time playing SPAC – seven as a solo artist and one with the police. I saw his last appearance in 2017, which I think was a pretty impressive showcase from start to finish. Last night’s show was a little short of that. It started off a little stiff and, if I’m being honest, I got a little worried halfway through the set that it would never catch up. It eventually did and provided highlights that were really, really high.

He started his set, naturally, with three older classics: “Message in a Bottle”, “Englishman in New York” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”. These are obviously all killer songs, which have only gotten better with time. But their performance was a little… clinical… for me. He was playing these classics and the crowd was going to love them. Period. Well-deserved trust from a living legend, sure, but that’s dangerous territory to tread. To be clear, I enjoyed all three of these openings. I just wasn’t turned on by them.

At this point, Sting “solemnly” (jokingly) warned us that – yes – he was now going to be playing new songs. First up is “If It’s Love,” which features Sting whistling throughout. Songs that incorporate hiss and avoid being boring are quite rare. It wasn’t one of them. “For Her Love” was the strongest of the new ones, raised by the two singers (Gene Noble and Melissa Musique) whom I noticed earlier for the first time. A fairly innocuous “Rushing Water” followed…

Sting (photo by Dakota Gilbert)

I was definitely a bit bored at this point. And it wasn’t “new song syndrome”; I’m one of those weirdos who generally like new material from artists, because (usually) that material is the most exciting for the performer, and it (usually) elevates the performance. But as I really started to zone into Sting, I noticed that he, too, looked a little bored. I was in front, and the crowd had also sat down. I looked at the group a little closer and wondered why it was so hard to notice them.

Three from 1993 followed. “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You”: I never particularly liked this song (it’s my fault), but I noticed the strength of Sting’s voice and (for the first time) the presence father and son guitarists (longtime sideman Dominic Miller and his son Rufus). Some signs of life, but an overly antiseptic “Fields of Gold” followed, followed by “Seven Days”. (The only song to check every day of the week and get away with is still, IMO, “Police on My Back” by The Clash). I didn’t like it live any more than on record.

I wasn’t really expecting a cover at this point, but…

Sting (f) and Zach Jones (photo by Dakota Gilbert)

18-year-old Shane Sagar and his harmonica were spotlighted for “Brand New Day” and – wow – the first song with real guts and the first to legitimately catch. Paw? “Shape of My Heart” also gave backup vocalist Gene Noble some sunshine and once again – wow! Where did he go ? “Heavy Cloud No Rain” started off a little slow, but when Music joined in, it turned into a winner. Miller’s guitar break added even more and, dare I say it, things were getting exciting!

Sting said in a recent interview that “grown men shouldn’t be in bands” and that bands “are just a vehicle for songs, not the other way around.” No doubt everyone in the amphitheater was there to see him and hear his songs, but… the best songs last night were the ones where the band had room to breathe and shine. His statements in this interview explained what I had felt; the best moments of this Sting gig were the ones that weren’t 100% Sting, and the ones that allowed the other seven people on stage to do more than just deliver the song.

“Walking on the Moon” was well overshadowed by its successor, a killer “So Lonely”, with great guitar work by the Millers, and a great interlude from Bob Marley. The uniqueness of “Desert Rose” kept the level of interest going, before Sting’s son (opener Joe Sumner) returned to the stage to sing “King of Pain”. While this song wasn’t necessarily super tight, it was at least fun and loose, and felt good in the moment. The required set closer “Every Breath You Take” intended to be the triumph that everyone wanted, but actually paled a bit after some of the highlights of the last half dozen songs.

Sting and band (photo by Dakota Gilbert)

A two-song encore of a worked and slightly reworked “Roxanne” followed by the intentional denouement of “Fragile” followed.

Was it a start to finish, barn burner of a show? No, but the second half of the set showed he was still capable of it. Sting (no slouch on bass himself) works best in a band. And I’m not just talking about the police. It’s not just about my songs.

Joe Sumner (photo by Dakota Gilbert)

Apple opener not far from the tree Joe Sumner delivered a likeable, if somewhat fast-paced, eight-song run. His art has improved significantly since his last appearance here five years ago. If his look is unmistakably that of Sumner, his voice sometimes reminds me a bit of Bono. He is confident, but not arrogant, and seems to have a way forward independent of his imposing father. He plays the Colony at Woodstock tonight (September 8) as a headliner.

Bandaged Members

  • Sting: vocals, bass
  • Dominic Miller: guitar
  • Rufus Miller: guitar
  • Zach Jones: drums
  • Kevon Webster: keyboards
  • Shane Sager: harmonica
  • Gene Noble: backing vocals
  • Melissa Music: backing vocals

set list

  • message in a bottle
  • an Englishman in New York
  • Every little thing she does is magic
  • If it’s love
  • For his love
  • Rapids
  • If I ever lose my faith in you
  • fields of gold
  • Seven days
  • new day
  • The shape of my heart
  • big cloud no rain
  • Walk on the moon
  • So alone / No woman cries
  • desert rose
  • king of pain
  • Every Breath You Take
  • Roxane
  • Brittle

Dakota Gilbert Photo Gallery