Sting kicked off his 57th & 9th tour with a surprise: Sting. Nobody expected when the lights went down at the Commodore Ballroom (capacity: just under 1000) that the rock star headliner himself would walk out onto the stage. But that he did, catching the chattering, largely vintage crowd off-guard as they rushed to whip out their smartphones and capture the moment.
Sting, in a slim-fitting black blazer, was chatty, gracious, funny. He seemed relaxed, real. It felt as if we were getting a glimpse of the man rather than the pontificating performer.
He recalled playing the Commodore in 1979. "Don't pretend you were there," he said. "I was 12." He played the place again in 1980. "I remember those gigs," he explained. "I'm very honoured to be back."
This being the first show of a wildly different tour for him – rock 'n' roll in intimate venues – he explained that we could expect a "bit of dirt, bit of grit, a few mistakes."
What we got was the show, maybe, of a lifetime.
For those of us who had grown up with the Police on repeat during their Police Picnic heyday – eyeballing the crowd I feel confident I was not alone in this demographic – this was an awesome, in the true sense of the word, experience: Sting right there, a few metres from us, on this amazing stage in this tiny place.
And this was not holier-than-thou, taking-myself-oh-so-seriously, I'll-play-a-few-Police-hits-if-I-must Sting. This was rock'n'roll Sting, playing the guts out of his bass guitar and sounding fantastic. Yep, still got those pipes, still got those biceps. The king of pain was in great form – and seemed to be having a wonderful time. Sure, this was a nostalgia show. But nobody was mailing this in in the interests of collecting a paycheque.
Sting (real name: Gordon Sumner) was also a gracious host, opening with an acoustic appetizer from 57th & 9th – the autobiographical Heading South on the Great North Road, then explaining how the evening would go: first the opening acts, then "the old man will come and finish it off." Then, making room for San Antonio, Tex.'s the Last Bandoleros, Sting dragged his chair off the stage with him.
But he didn't disappear. He accompanied the Last Bandoleros (who were great) on their last tune and returned to the stage to introduce his other opener, his son Joe Sumner. "The next musician, I've known his entire life," Sting said.
After Sumner ("baby Sting!" one of the women behind me kept yelling) played a couple of tunes – including the wonderful Jellybean (in which he showed off his Stingesque vocal range), he took his place with the other backup singers (the Bandoleros!) and out came dad.
Sting and his excellent band burst into Synchronicity II. For those of us who had worn out our Synchronicity cassettes back in high school (see above) this throbbing, angry tune that charts a litany of domestic boredom and frustration took on new, profound meaning. Ah, we get it now, Sting. We get it now.
Spirits in the Material World and She's Too Good For Me followed. An audience-singalong Englishman In New York was an early high point. ("This is why we start in Vancouver, British Columbia," Sting said, in praise.)
Sting spoke of climate change (oh, how he wishes it were a hoax), quoted William Blake, asked his band for some help as they tried out a reggae version of the Sting-penned country song I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying, which he also recorded with Toby Keith.
He drank apple cider vinegar from a shot glass and joked "nobody's going to want to kiss me after this."
On that note, quite a bit of pushing and shoving broke out around me in the general admission venue, as people (mostly women, I observed) aggressively worked to get closer to the stage. One woman, who identified herself as being in her 30s, explained to me in no uncertain (and unprintable) terms what she would like to do with Sting, in spite of his age (65).
But back to the show. The new stuff sounded great, including Petrol Head – about a man obsessed with his truck, religion and sex ("I only have one of those things in common," said Sting, crossing himself). Another track from the new album, 50,000, was written about the deaths of fellow superstar musicians such as Prince and David Bowie. "Rock stars don't ever die, they only fade away," Sting sang.
But of course, it was the older stuff, as always, that had the place going middle-aged nuts. So Lonely, Walking on the Moon, Roxanne, Message in a Bottle, Next To You, the widely misunderstood stalker-tune-turned-wedding-dance-favourite Every Breath You Take.
Sting ended as he began, quietly, on a stool with his acoustic guitar. He sang the Oscar-nominated song The Empty Chair, written for the documentary Jim: The James Foley Story.
Foley, a U.S. journalist, was abducted in Syria in 2012 and murdered by ISIS in 2014. Sting spoke to the importance of Foley's story "at this time when journalists and the truth are being attacked every day."
For one night, those of us so disheartened by the news and a little exhausted by life, veterans of so many suburban family mornings, were able to take a break from it all and recall the soundtrack to our teenage angst and joy, on an unforgettable night at a tight, hot venue. After all that has been going on in the world, what a relief it was to dance again, to gather with a bunch of strangers and shout at the top of our lungs, "sending out an SOS."
Tickets for this tour are scarce and expensive. If you can find one and you can swing it, it's worth every cent you pay.
Sting plays Rebel in Toronto March 5 and Metropolis in Montreal March 6.