Live review: Symphonic Sting is loose and lively

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Introducing his song “I Hung My Head” Wednesday night at Irvine’s Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, Sting said that as a child growing up in northern England he spent untold hours watching TV westerns like “Bonanza” and “Rawhide.” Years later, that led to a love of country music — and, he added, to his writing the occasional country song himself. Yet always there was the “problem of authenticity,” Sting said: What does a milkman’s son from Newcastle know about the cowboy’s life?

Who cares?

Whether exploring reggae with the Police, collaborating with the R&B star Mary J. Blige or recording an album of 16th century lute music, the man born Gordon Sumner has worked for much of his three-decade career to repudiate the shopworn idea that the key to success is sticking to what one knows. His lordly manner may rub some pop fans the wrong way, but it’s also what’s provided him with a license to appropriate.

Sting’s latest project is an album (due July 13) and a world tour called “Symphonicity,” on which he performs retooled versions of songs from throughout his catalog with elaborate backing by London’s Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. Wednesday’s Irvine show was the second of two Southland dates, following a performance Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl; next month the tour will stop in New York for a pair of concerts at the Metropolitan Opera, a fact that must please the rough-and-tumble narrator of Sting’s song “She’s Too Good for Me,” who wonders if a woman might prefer him “if I took her to an opera or two.”

At Verizon Wireless, Sting gave that line an exaggerated pronunciation, rolling his Rs dramatically as the orchestra dug into a swinging neo-rockabilly arrangement that could’ve pleased Brian Setzer or the creators of the current Broadway musical “Memphis.” Atypically for Sting, the moment had a touch of camp to it, which helped soften the self-seriousness implicit in “Symphonicity.” Here was a guy locating a sense of humor where virtually none of his classical-dabbling peers have — a true testament to the singer’s magpie tendencies.


Wednesday’s 2½-hour show worked best when Sting gave himself over fully to the concept. Familiar hits such as “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” “Fields of Gold” and “Every Breath You Take” sounded fine with the lavish accompaniment, although they didn’t reveal anything new about the material or its maker. (Unless you count Sting’s apparent willingness to join those who hear “Every Breath” as a tender ode to devotion rather than a creepy product of obsession.)

Yet “Russians,” with its jabbing brass blasts, and the jazzed-up “Tomorrow We’ll See” presented this former New Wave idol as a kind of art-song balladeer, unmoored from the strictures of rock’s common-time beat. Floating over the orchestra’s undulating arpeggios, he utilized his voice as pure sound but also inhabited the characters in his songs more deeply than usual; the result came as close to the complicated theater music of Stephen Sondheim and Kurt Weill as Sting is ever likely to.

Near the end of the concert Sting played “All Would Envy,” a big-band bossa nova he said he’d rescued from some dusty chapter of his songbook. The tune concerns a romance between an older man and a younger woman, he explained, and when that description elicited a ripple of laughter from the audience, Sting insisted, “Oh, it’s not autobiographical.”

No surprise there.

-- Mikael Wood

Related: Symphonicity tour: A few thoughts on Sting and strings

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