Sting in Northridge? Although the music business continues to be a puzzle for many in terms of how to make a living these days, that doesn't mean it doesn't still hold its share of intriguing surprises.
Thus, one of the biggest rock stars in the annals of rock — Sting — materialized Wednesday at Cal State Northridge's Valley Performing Arts Center, at noon no less ("Good evening!" he said after sauntering on stage, and quickly correcting himself, "Or good morning, I guess"), for a midday preview of new music before a tiny but boisterous crowd of about 300.
The raison d'etre was the forthcoming release of his new album, "57th & 9th," due out Nov. 11. As part of a quick media blitz through the Southland to get fans talking about it, he visited rock standard bearer KROQ-FM (106.7) Wednesday morning for a guest spot on Kevin & Bean's "Breakfast With…" series, then schlepped to Northridge for the lunchtime show that will air at 5:30 p.m. today on the campus-based non-commercial station KCSN-FM (88.5). An online stream of the performance will debut on Sept. 9.
Sting looked fit as ever in a band-collar leather jacket over a dark T-shirt and black jeans, the signature shock of hair looking a more natural shade of brown than the dyed-blonde style he favored fronting the Police in the late 1970s and '80s. Also gone was the hirsute look he had sometimes worn in the last couple of decades — his chiseled jawline no longer camouflaged by stubble or beard.
KCSN has championed new music by emerging musicians as well as veteran artists, helping earn the tiny operation some big shout-outs from A-list rockers, including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt.
Sting added his name to that list, saluting general manager and program director Sky Daniels after their brief question-and-answer session, and the station's format for providing much appreciated exposure to him and other musicians who have fallen out of favor with Top 40 and other commercial radio outlets.
Over the course of a tight 25-minute set, for which he was backed by a rock trio and four male backup singers, he premiered a couple of new songs, including the album's first single, "I Can't Stop Thinking About You."
Each song found him working again in energetically bouncy rock rather than what he had just described as "more esoteric" settings such as his 2006 album of 16th century lute music, "Songs From the Labyrinth."
"My record company said 'What?!'" he told the audience, which consisted of radio station contest winners as well as several of the performing arts centers donors. "But it did sell a million, which I reminded them of."
As far as the new songs, for even on what was a first listening for most in the house, Sting successfully urged them to sing along with the title's repeated refrain, showing his skill at crafting instantly memorable lyric and melodic hooks is undiminished at age 64.
His driving goal in music, he said, is to maintain "the element of surprise." It's a goal he often achieves with compositional techniques that sustain tension for extended periods before reaching their structural resolutions.
Along with the samples from "57th & 9th," named for the location of the New York recording studio in which he recorded the work, he fed the fans a few Police and solo hits: "Message In a Bottle," "All This Time," and the song that now sounds like a prescient description of smartphone-era concert-going, "Every Breath You Take" ("Every breath you take, every move you make … every step you take, I'll be watching you").
At the end of the set — an unusual one for him in that the sun outside the theater was still high overhead, he bid the audience farewell: "Good night!" Then he checked himself again, and modified it: "Good afternoon — whatever!"
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