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People of a Certain Age will remember when Sting was cool. And not just a little cool. He was hugely cool — spikey-haired, bass-thumping, hanging-from-dystopian-scaffolding-on-MTV cool.
When he took a break from The Police to record a solo album backed by jazz musicians, that too seemed the epitome of coolness. But then, oddly, the break never ended, and Sting progressed down a winding career path that eventually, somehow, led to lutes.
Which leads me to the question that some concertgoers may have had in mind when Sting took to the stage at MGM Music Hall at Fenway Thursday night: Which Sting were we going to get? Reggae-tinged pop-punk Sting? Jazzy Sting? The Sting who writes Broadway musicals?
Turns out I needn’t have worried — Sting’s hit-laden, vigorously delivered, and buoyant 20-song set very much leaned into the winking, erudite rocker vibe his longtime fans know and love, and there wasn’t a lute in sight.
Billed as his “My Songs” tour, Sting’s current run is ostensibly meant to support the pre-pandemic album of that name, which featured new recordings of some of his classic Police and solo tracks. Neither “Taylor’s Version”-style precise recreations nor complete reworkings, the results seemed to fall somewhere between tinkering and noodling, and felt vaguely unnecessary. But an interesting thing happened when they made the leap to the live stage: They sounded fresher than ever.
First of all, Sting — looking hale and vibrant at 71, his taught frame wrapped in a tight gray T-shirt — has not lost his fastball when it comes to his vocals. Just the opposite: That his unmistakably scratchy high-register lilt is fully intact was apparent from the first bars of the opening song, “Message in a Bottle,” off of The Police’s 1979 album “Reggatta de Blanc.”
The choice of that exquisitely delivered classic to start things off — greeted with riotous approval from the audience — set a crowd-pleasing tone for the night that never let up.
He segued from there into his solo oeuvre with “Englishman in New York,” from 1987’s “… Nothing Like The Sun,” with the lyrics (awkwardly) changed to “I’m an Englishman in M-A.” (He probably should have dropped that after the first reference — even Massholes couldn’t help but sing the proper “New York” lyric, Sting’s geographically appropriate update notwithstanding. More effective was his between-songs rundown of all the venues The Police played in Boston, starting in 1978 at The Rathskellar and finishing at Fenway Park — not a bad upgrade.)
From there it was on to a bouncy take on The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” sung at points to various grateful residents of the first row, and a dead-on version of Sting’s first solo hit, “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” off of “Dream of the Blue Turtles.” That song in particular showed off the extent to which Sting has managed to preserve his voice’s remarkable timbre — it sounds as supple as it did when that album came out in 1985.
It also showed off the benefits of having a killer backing band, in particular vocalists Gene Noble and Melissa Musique. Noble’s soulful R&B interlude during “Loving You” — the most recent song in the set, off of 2021’s “The Bridge” — brought the number to another whole level, and Musique’s sexy (dare I say tantric?) interplay with Sting during a funky “Heavy Cloud No Rain” from “Ten Summoner’s Tales” was an absolute highlight of the night.
Sting, it should be noted, seemed to appreciate what was going on as much as the audience did, clearly happy to be there, delighted with his bandmates, and even before saying it out loud, appreciative to still have a devoted audience. (This is a change from Sting’s live performances when he first went solo, when he gave off a vague vibe of having done you a favor by showing up.) He put it explicitly early on in the set, saying “how grateful I am to be here right now — we do not take that for granted.”
The old actor that he is, Sting also regaled the crowd with various bits of wisdom and whimsy, including explaining how to write a good love song (“I love you, but you love somebody else … Now that’s interesting”) and teasing backup player Shane Sager about having to fill Stevie Wonder’s shoes on harmonica for “Brand New Day,” off of the unfairly underappreciated 1999 album of the same name. Sager nailed it, BTW.
(Sting also gave a knowing nod to the audience during 1993’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” to accompany the prescient line, “You could say I’d lost my belief in our politicians; they all seemed like game show hosts to me.”)
Midway through the show it started to feel like maybe the setlist was boasting one too many ballads, although for what it’s worth no one in the crowd seemed to mind — they even stood and swayed for a lilting rendition of “Fields of Gold,” not exactly what you’d call a houserocker. But there’s no denying that songs like that one, “Shape of My Heart,” and “Why Should I Cry For You?” are beautifully constructed and, on Thursday, gorgeously delivered.
Besides, just when you thought the early Police songs might have been a tease, the band launched into a spectacularly lit version of “Walking on the Moon,” with Sting’s longtime sideman Dominic Miller approximating Andy Summers’s spatial guitar part while adding his own distinct flourishes. Then came a ferocious “So Lonely” — featuring a perfectly placed segment from Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” (the song’s clear influence) — that literally got the crowd jumping as Sting thumped wildly on his bass.
Granted, the proceedings did somewhat fall into the trap that any “greatest hits” show risks, in seeming a tad unadventurous and overly nostalgic — Sting is an artist with a diverse catalog from a 45-year career, and ignoring the deep cuts seemed like a missed opportunity. (That we only got one song off of “Dream of the Blue Turtles” seems particularly criminal.)
But when Sting’s son Joe Sumner, bassist for the British band Fiction Plane, came on stage to joyously trade verses with his dad on a rollicking version of “King of Pain” — sounding eerily Sting-like, I should add — it came across as the best kind of nostalgia, the kind that yanks those old memories into the present, taking everyone along for the ride.
(Joe, by the way, was also Sting’s opening act, and presented some perfectly fine original mid-tempo rockers. But if he really wanted to get the crowd going, he should have done some obscure Police covers with that Sting-y voice of his — “Be My Girl – Sally” anybody?)
Sting and the band wrapped up the main set with a vibrant “Every Breath You Take,” and then came back to roar through “Roxanne” (his voice finally more ragged, but in a way that worked for the song) and a beautiful version of “Fragile,” switching from bass to a tenderly plucked acoustic guitar. By that time, one thing was perfectly clear: Sting is still cooler than all of us.
Start: 8:45 p.m.
End: 10:40 p.m.
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