The news that Sting returned to rock last year was not greeted with the same kind of excitement as Garth Brooks returning to concerts, Kevin Garnett rejoining the Timberwolves or Vin Diesel coming back to the “Fast and Furious” franchise.
We knew Sting was a rock star, but we’d forgotten that he made rock music anymore.
For the past dozen years or so, the ever adventurous, ever ambitious artiste followed his muse and made a lute album, recorded symphonic versions of his hits, crafted a Christmas album and created and starred in a Broadway show.
Who can blame him? He’s Sting, Renaissance man, practitioner of tantric sex and unofficially the most intellectual man in rock. Oh, he’s also the recipient of 17 Grammys, an Emmy, the Polar Music Prize and a Kennedy Center Honor. Queen Elizabeth honored him with Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, apparently one step below being Sir Sting or, more properly, Sir Gordon Sumner. On Sunday, he was a finalist for an Oscar for best original song for the fourth time.
Last November, Sting released “57th & 9th,” his first collection of rock and pop songs since 2003. The title doesn’t mean anything to anyone, even someone who lives in New York City. It’s just an intersection Sting crossed daily on his way to a Manhattan recording studio.
What should “57th & 9th” mean to Sting fans?
There’s some genuine rocking on “Petrol Head” and echoes of the Police on the opening track “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You.” “If You Can’t Love Me” evokes the thoughtful jazz-rock of Sting’s early solo career. There’s some well-crafted balladry, including the Tom Waits-like “The Empty Chair,” an ode to a journalist killed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Of course, there’s political commentary. He’s Sting, king of causes. The Middle Eastern-tinged “Inshallah” talks about the refugee crisis, and the sunny-sounding “One Fine Day” addresses the climate crisis.
And, given the musical landscape of the past year, there’s some aging rock-star introspection on “50,000,” which ostensibly salutes Prince and David Bowie and contemplates rock-star immortality.
What’s Sting worried about? He’s the rock star who probably will outlive them all, even the apparently indestructible Keith Richards. Sting, 65, is the same age as Phil Collins, John Mellencamp and Mick Mars but looks 25 years younger than all of them and maintains a health regimen that would make a Marine proud.
What “57th & 9th” means is that Sting’s returning to modest-sized venues — clubs, in fact, in some towns on his current tour. On Thursday, he’ll be at the Myth in Maplewood, the same place Prince played in 2013.
Sting being Sting, his tour will feature his son, Joe Sumner, as opening act and backup vocalist in Dad’s band. Sting’s group also will feature the father-son guitar combo of Dominic Miller, Sting’s longtime axman from Racine, Wis., and Rufus Miller. On drums will be Josh Freese, who has worked with Guns N’ Roses, the Replacements, a Perfect Circle and Nine Inch Nails.
Fan-friendly set list
What this tour means is that Sting is playing a fan-satisfying repertoire that includes a half-dozen or so Police tunes, several Sting solo faves and a Bowie cover. He also offers a good helping of “57th & 9th.”
Sting has never seemed to be a rock star interested in satisfying his fans. He’s always been about his agenda, whether it was saving the rain forest or interpreting the songs of British Renaissance composer John Dowland on lute. He even performed on Broadway in “Threepenny Opera” and his own “The Last Ship,” about the demise of British shipbuilding, a musical that closed after his performances in 2015 at the end of a scant three-month run.
Even the 2007-08 Police reunion tour was done to please him and watch the songs develop, he told Rolling Stone at the time. Remember drummer Stewart Copeland accusing his two bandmates of playing “avant-garde 12-tone hodgepodges” of Police hits? Welcome to Sting’s world.
As a solo artist, Sting has toured sporadically and with mixed results. In his early solo career, he was accompanied by some top-flight jazz musicians, such as Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland. Later, Sting decided he needed to work with players who wouldn’t outshine him instrumentally in concert, so he revamped the group to include Miller and others.
In recent years, without any new material that translated to big venues, Sting has opted to share arena tours with Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel. Until now. He’s returned to rock. He’s back in theaters and clubs. He hasn’t played a club in the Twin Cities since the Police made its local debut in 1979 at the now defunct Longhorn in downtown Minneapolis.
Whether playing clubs, stadiums or Broadway, Sting has always held himself to a higher standard. He’s always been smarter than the average rock star. And he’s always taken himself “way, way, way too seriously,” as Rolling Stone accused in December.
“Pop music is supposed to be about girlfriends and cars and the color of your shoes,” Sting opined to Rolling Stone.
Sting has triumphed in part because he knows a good piece of pop when he crafts one, whether it’s about a lady of the night, a message in a bottle or nothing at all. Let us sing:
“De do do do, de da da da
Is all I want to say to you
De do do do, de da da da
They’re meaningless and all that’s true.”
So Sting is back to rocking. Let’s hope it’s as meaningful as the comebacks of Brooks and Diesel, and not like Garnett’s return to the Wolves.