BY GRAY KOTZE

As the audience trickled into the arena at Grandwest, I found myself fighting an all-consuming urge not to prejudge Sting’s upcoming performance based on the occupants of the crowd, who gently weaved their way amongst the geometrically-exact seating. The crowd consisted of middle-aged, Woolworths-attired men, being subtly forced into their seats by their excitable, yet very much contained, wives. As the lights began to dim, the last few stragglers, hindered only by their inability to read their seat numbers amidst the growing darkness, slowly found their places in the sardine-like seating structure.

A drizzle of polite, anticipative conversation flowed around the Arena, and the odd person sipped, neatly, on a pre-sold beer. Before I had time to imagine how little my 19 years impacted on the average age in the venue, the surrounding lights went down, stage lights went up, and a bright strand of spotlight highlighted the focus of the evening: Sting.

Applause descended for the oncoming hero, as he and his six-piece band took to the fairly starkly set stage. Once the affable approbation quieted down, Sting and his band dived into their first number of the evening, ‘All This Time’, Sting’s radio friendly, ’91 track: which set the tone perfectly for what was to come.

Technically, the music was tight; and incredibly few musical slipups snuck past the fingertips of the skilled musicians in the two hour set. The band on Sting’s ‘Back to Bass’ tour was technically brilliant, with stalwart musicians such as long time Sting-collaborator Dominic Miller (and his son) on guitar, mythologized drum-legend Vincent Colaiuta pounding out the asynchronous beats, and young, virtuoso violinist Peter Tickell illustrating his contemporary-classical chops. However, something was missing.

As Sting plodded away on his simple, alternating bass lines, with a voice which appears not to have aged a day, I figured out what it was that didn’t add up. Emotion: or the lack thereof. While Sting diligently engaged with the crowd through his stories of love, lust and death, a tinge of doubt hung over me. It was clear that he had told these tales year in, and year out; throughout the length of his aging, 34-year career. He had every word, joke, and accompanying pause for laughter, down to a tee. And that was the missing component: spontaneous sincerity.

Sting and his accompaniers strolled through the fairly complex musical set in a jovial fashion. Despite only offering the crowd scarce chunks of material from his time with The Police, the sensibly-dressed faction reigned down their applause. And the over-rehearsed performance continued, with the lack of genuine emotion directly contrasting with Sting’s emotionally charged lyrics. The band was like a slickly oiled, German-built machine, and glided easily over the well-received snippets from Sting’s discography. However, as the crowd obediently clapped their hands along to ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’, I was left waiting, hoping to encounter a speck of improvisatory-grit in the well oiled Sting-mechanism.

The crowd lapped up ‘Fields of Gold’, as they stood up and swayed; a sea of jersey’s tied around waists, flapping in the windless arena. However, even this greatly emotional number had a certain cheesy, slow-motion, montage sequence feel about it. I was left, sitting there, trying my utmost to appreciate this theoretically incredible song; yet could not do so. The music made me envisage Sting, complete with tight t-shirt, singing this thoroughly rehearsed track to a panel of ‘Idols’ judges.

Midway through the polished set, I began to encounter withdrawal symptoms from a lack of impetuous musicianship. I was so desperate for an impromptu guitar riff by that stage that when the young Miller stepped forward and snuck in an improvised solo I, completely unsupported, burst out with applause. The woman sitting next to me gave me a sideways glance of uncertainty before the crowd erupted in applause over another over-choreographed violin solo.

I found myself fighting against the grain like this the entire set, until, during Sting’s third and final encore, where, for the first time, he disowned the bass and went ‘back to guitar’. The song was one of his solo classics: ‘Fragile’. As the first notes rung out, I knew that this was the turning point; Sting’s return to uncalculated feeling. No father and son stories, no amateurish jokes about Cape Town, no singing along and hand clapping, just the pure, uninhibited expression of emotion.

So – perhaps ‘Back to Bass’ was the wrong approach for this tour after all, as, the moment he dropped that deeply resounding instrument, he began, for the first time that evening, to play real music.

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