Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Launched in 1981, MTV was a popular cable show that featured bands of the day. No live performances mind you. These were synched music videos. Typically, the productions were financed with rock bottom budgets and played on a rotating basis each day. Purists hated the show, but the bean counters loved it.
The MTV era of rock music is over, but in some ways the final chapters are still to be written. I would direct historians to the “Rock Paper Scissors” Tour. Featuring Sting and Peter Gabriel, the shows will roll out over the course of 21 summer nights and across the upper half of North America.
The tour began in Columbus, Ohio on Wednesday and hit the nation’s capital on Thursday night. Gabriel, Sting and their ensemble cast of about a dozen musicians and singers played before a sold out audience at the Verizon Center.
As one would expect with a pair of legends playing a limited number of dates, tickets prices busted budgets and reached four digits at ticker resellers such as Stub Hub. Fans, however, got their money’s worth. The concert lasted almost three hours with no intermission.
Needless to say, the majority in the audience were boomers, who with the rest of the crowd, sang along to hits such as “Message in a Bottle,” Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and “Roxanne” (The Police), “Solsbury Hill,” “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer” (Gabriel, solo). In total, a set list of 27 songs.
It’s always hard to say which song stood out above the others, but “Sledgehammer” is in the running. Recorded in the mid 80s, it’s a brilliant song stuffed with subtle sexual metaphors and is Gabriel’s most popular hit.
In 1986, a time when MTV’s annual awards show was must see TV for music fans, the video for Sledgehammer garnered a record nine MTV awards. Wiki points out it is the most played video in the history of the program.
So, the bloke sold out, some might say, a loss of integrity that put him in the same room as Duran Duran and all those 80s hair metal bands forced by the music companies to write ballads or record cover tunes.
Maybe, but for me, Thursday night’s show proved that Gabriel is a musical genius who retains all the integrity he earned before MTV and even after. The balding, 66-year-old Englishman reached back to his Genesis days, playing some progressive songs that were never played on the big time radio stations in the 60s and 70s, and didn’t seem progressive anyway in the sense of an Emerson Lake and Palmer.
One of my favorite numbers from the show, if not the favorite, was “Games Without Frontiers,” a brilliant anti-war song (hello earworm) that was difficult to pull off live.
The song, recorded in 1980, was also difficult for Gabriel, in terms of getting Atlantic Records on board. It’s worth quoting Gabriel from his website.
The album was full of, what at the time were ‘strange’ sounds. I remember when I met Ahmet Ertegun [founder of Atlantic Records] and he’d first heard that record, which Atlantic later dropped, he’d asked if I’d been hospitalised myself and obviously thought that I’d gone from being some sort of pop artist to some strange backwater. In the end Polygram took the record up in America and it did quite well, with some success for ‘Games Without Frontiers’, but at the time I remember the A&R guys were trying to encourage me to sound like the Doobie Brothers.
At this point you might be thinking I’m suggesting Gabriel stole the show, with Sting taking a back seat.
In some small way it did seem like Gabriel edged out his fellow statesman vis a vis stage presence and awe. Standing behind his stack of digital ivories or walking gracefully, sometimes to stand beside Sting, Gabriel looked like some kind of an oracle. On a handful of occasions he paused to make a topical or political point. Not preaching, just softly trying to edge the masses along on an important issue.
Sting fans, don’t even worry. The 64-year-old star soared in his own way too. Maybe his problem is he makes it all seem so easy, playing bass, singing and flashing smiles as a buffer to the cynicism of some his Police songs.
His voice reached high notes without any hint of aging, and it seemed the audience was a bit more pleased to hear his (The Police) hit songs, which included “Every Breathe You Take.”
In addition to the songs the audience recognized and sang along to, both Sting and Gabriel tapped into lesser-known tunes. I have to admit I did not know all of them, but these two musicians are so talented, I sat back and enjoyed their sounds anyway. Standing out this way was “Desert Rose,” a mesmerizing Arabesque number that Sting concluded by saying – “Shukrun,” Arabic for thank you.
At one point, the show sagged as some non-hit tunes stretched out. But the return of the full ensemble (the skins department consisted of two drummers and a percussionist) and the two singers always brought us back.
As far as any other drawbacks, there’s only one and it is quite obvious. In their planning for the tour, Sting and Gabriel had to pick and choose which songs they would play, a long list on both accounts. From the Police’s “Ghost in the Machine” alone, Sting could have picked “Spirits in the Material World” and “Demolition Man.” The band did play “Invisible Sun” from that album and another one of my favs.
In the wake of this amazing concert, I was tempted to google some of the songs that were played, and watch their MTV videos on You Tube.
But I’ve got the live versions playing in my ear and the images in my mind’s eye.
Heavy rotation, without the waiting…