The Police make me thankful The Beatles never had a full-fledged reunion.
It was a strange Sunday evening in the wilds of Holmdel, New Jersey. The PNC Arts Center usually allows patrons onto the property two hours before show time at 6:00 PM, and so I found myself on the Garden State Parkway with Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth CD on the stereo and thoughts of scoring a sensible parking space bouncing in my brain. Little did I know that, as a courtesy to the weekenders, the venue let people in at 4:00. They dumped me out into the adjacent woods to park! This did not bode well.
I’ll freely admit I was more excited to see Costello and the Impostors and was not disappointed. Mixing older fan favorites like “Pump It Up,” “Every Day I Write The Book,” and the requisite “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” with newer songs like “45” from When I Was Cruel and “American Gangster Time” from the current and very worthwhile Momofuku album, Costello covered the necessary bases. Performing them with the gusto and spastic fire of a man half his age was wonderful to see, especially after hearing all the rumors that things would be toned down for those tender Jerseyan sensibilities. And just to give the set an extra dash of coolness, Sting came out to duet on “Allison.”
Now, had the evening ended there, I wouldn’t have walked away from this performance completely baffled. It would have been my shortest concert experience, but we all would have felt like we wanted to be in the same room with each other, band included. We’re all aware of the behind-the-scenes tensions purportedly happening in Camp Police. We’re also aware that even back in the early days, Sting commanded the majority of the attention, a position that could quickly irritate, and while hearsay shouldn’t color one’s impressions so early in the game, it was evident when Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland took the stage that they were plainly irritated.
The PNC Arts Center is a weird venue to start with. It is essentially a large, round coffee table where you and the stage are placed beneath. It is both an indoor and outdoor theater and, at the same time, neither. So there is a tendency to rig the electronics and the mix to accommodate all seats, including the uncovered lawn seats to the far back. The upshot is that the mix tends to be louder than it truly needs, causing all the music to come at you as a bass-heavy muddle. It can be compensated for. A few years back, Megadeth played the main Gigantour stage and the sonics were perfectly fine. An hour earlier, Dream Theater was on and the sound was that of a seal being clubbed (miked from the inside of the seal, no less). The Police, by contrast, were much louder than either of those bands, louder than any other show I’ve seen there this year, and easily the most sonically murky.
Issues of alpha male dominance now play into the previously mentioned ego tripping, in part coincidental but no less present. The bass becomes the loudest of the sounds, but who plays the bass? Sting. There are three video projection screens and the vocalist often gets the most face time. That would also be Sting. During the first half hour of their set, Andy Summers was clearly scowling and I can’t say I blame him. With the lopsided mix, all the high tones were either lost or warped or something. For the better part of the performance, his guitar sounded completely off-key. For all I know, he was actually off-key, but his earphone monitor was failing him. Either way, he was pissed. The audience member carrying the banner reading “Sting U Got Me Stung” wasn’t helpful, I’m sure.
And as for Mr. Sumner, he cracked off a few bum notes too, most egregiously in the build-up in the encore featuring “So Lonely” further lending credibility to the bad electronics theory. The guy who seemed to have the least vexation was the one who often gets the worst rap: Copeland. I freely admit my bias against him, that he has exhibited the same degree of arrogance as Sting has in the past, and his angst over still coming in second sometimes manifests in flat-out petulance, but you know what? Dude rocks (how’s that for qualification?) Although his technique was sometimes overshadowed by his manic, menacing concentration, making him look undeniably crazy, his performance was solid as can be. He easily takes the “Best Drumming Live” award for the season.
Okay, so we have the residue of infighting, the possibility of a less than stellar show and the probability that someone behind the board was severely fucked up. Nonetheless, I enjoyed myself. I’m not joking, being a masochist or a martyr here. I really enjoyed myself, and here’s why. The audience. Standing on their feet the entire time the Police played, attempting to sing along even when the notes went in the opposite direction, following the frequent exhortations to shout “eeee-YAY-yoh!” and generally enjoying every moment, the audience made the evening for me. No drunken louts (even though there was drinking aplenty), no excessive tokers (even though that smell was percolating around the auditorium) and the realization among the crowd that this event just was never supposed to happen, yet we were here, made even the worst aspects a little easier to deal with.
To the left of me were my two nieces, singing, laughing as Sting confessed the origination of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” (being, “I fucked up”) and enjoying both the pros and cons of live music. It didn’t seem so long ago, on a Christmas morning to be exact, my Mom gave me the LP of The Cars’ Shake It Up, and my sister, Amanda and Holly’s mom, gave me The Police’s Ghost in the Machine, still my favorite of their recordings. Everything just tied up very neatly in the moment when the band played “Invisible Sun” and the kids sang along. So sue me for my anti-climax, but even in the face of so many professionals dropping the ball and not being grateful for the place and time they were in, I was.
I’m still glad The Beatles never attempted it. Just sayin’.
The Police set list for August 3rd, 2008, PNC Arts Center, Holmdel, NJ
“Message In A Bottle”, “Walking On The Moon”, “Demolition Man”, “Voices Inside My Head”/”When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What’s Still Around”, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”, “Driven To Tears”, “Hole In My Life”, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”, “Invisible Sun”, “Can’t Stand Losing You”, “Roxanne”, “King Of Pain”, “So Lonely”, “Every Breath You Take”