Triumphant reunion hits the Big Apple. Sting brings along his butler.
New York holds special significance in Police lore. It was here, in October of 1978, that the band played their first show in the US at the now defunct CBGB down on the Bowery. It was here, too, a mere five years later, following a triumphal show at Shea Stadium, that Sting informed Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland that he rather fancied pursuing a solo career.
Fast forward a further 24 years and The Police are together once more for show number 38 of 40 on the North American leg of their reunion tour at Madison Square Garden. A couple of days later, and a hop across the Hudson River, they will entertain a crowd of 55,000 at Giants Stadium.
The second of two nights at the self-billed "World's Most Famous Arena", the Madison Square Garden show, like each of those on The Police's itinerary thus far, is a sell out. Not that this cuts any ice with New York's Time Out magazine, whose succinct preview of the band's New York stand amounts to this: "Six eyes trained on the enormous bags of cash that await backstage with the conclusion of every show. They're dull live."
It has always been thus. With their combination of "white reggae", being one of the biggest bands of the '80s and Sting, critical hosannas would always elude The Police. The first night of their comeback parade, in Vancouver, saw a new name added to their legion of detractors: that of Stewart Copeland. Writing in his online blog, The Police's drummer described their opening night as "unbelievably lame". Of Sting, with whom his relationship has been famously fractious, Copeland wrote: "The mighty Sting momentarily looks like a petulant pansy instead of the God of Rock."
Small wonder, then, that by the time Q touches down in New York the rumours circulating around The Police suggest that long-held grievances are once more bubbling to the surface, that this gravy train is in danger of coming off the rails.
Once within the concrete bowels of Madison Square Garden, matters are no less rum. Riding the elevator up to the venue's fifth floor backstage area - a warren of grey corridors and rooms populated by a small army of (the tour is keeping 77 people directly employed) - Q falls into conversation with a well-dressed Englishman with a cut-glass accent. And he might be? "Sting's butler," he offers, without suggesting that he is joking.
The subsequent steady procession of publicists (at least three), and the separate dressing rooms, gives creedence to the notion that the three Police men are by no means operating in perfect harmony. But appearances can be deceiving.
The Police, it transpires, are perfectly happy to travel to and from each show together in a single, relatively compact people carrier. Relations are cordial enough that there is now talk of extending the tour, with Asian and South American dates penciled in to follow up their upcoming swing around Europe. And here they are, huddled together in a corridor to meet the nightly procession of competition winners, radio promotions people and the like. There are smiles, there is laughter and, if not a joyous love-in, then at least the sense of three men being comfortable in one another's presence.
Andy Summers, the eldest, is also the shortest and the one for whom time has been least kind. He looks like someone's kindly, well-fed uncle, which, indeed, he may be. The tour programme talks of the reunited Police taking a break from rehearsals at Sting's Tuscan pile to enjoy the group Pilate sessions. Summers, one suspects, would have been the least committed to the cause.
Save for his hair colour and a need for spectacles, Stewart Copeland has changed little. Tall, wiry, a bundle of energy he has the air of a man forever in thrall to his inner child. Tonight, he is attired entirely in white, matching his hair. "Sting's already asked me to bring him a vermouth," he informs Q with a mighty cackle.
Oh yes. Sting. In the flesh he looks exactly like the Sting of photographs and bad films, only more so. The features are more pronounced, the presence palpable, the fruits of all that yoga immediately apparent in a physique best described as taut. In the instant you shake his hand you think of tantric sex, Amazonian rainforests, "that book by Nabokov", and much more that has had him held up to derision. And you sense that he knows you're thinking this, too.
"Ah, Q," says Sting, many time Q cover star and attendee of the Q Awards. "Is that a magazine about pool?" Clearly, he is a one.
Twenty minutes later - at 9pm precisely - Madison Square Garden's houselights dim and there, again, they are: The Police. Stewart Copeland counts them in, Andy Summers plays the immediately familiar opening chords to 'Message in a Bottle', and 18,000 voices lift as one.
By the time their 19-song set 9virtually the same one every night) concludes two hours on, little details have become apparent, like the fact that Summers is sporting an incongruous South Park guitar strap; like Sting still doing that funny marching-on-the-spot dance.
The bigger picture is this: they can play. Summers's dexterous chords, spidery patterns and extended solos frequently dazzle. Copeland, arms flying around his head like a mad scientist, switches between his kit and a bank of percussive instruments atop a platform that looks like the Starship Enterprise flight deck. He is introduced by Sting as "the best drummer in the world", and for once you're inclined to agree with him.
For his part, Sting's bass playing is more solid than spectacular. That distinctive voice, however, remains in fine fettle. How wise they were to eschew fleets of backing singers and extra musicians; the simplicity of the set-up gives them room to move and to stretch.
It takes them four or five songs to hit their stride, but once they do their modus operandi establishes itself. Each song starts the way it did on record, then either takes an unexpected turn as it progresses or goes off becomes somewhere else altogether. 'Driven To Tears' becomes a jazz-rock-wig-out, 'So Lonely' a rising and falling series of climaxes. Only 'Roxanne' (too drawn out), Every Breath You Take (too over exposed) and 'Next To You' (a mess) seem unwilling to bend.
Giants Stadium proves to be even better, more of an event. On a starry, balmy summer Sunday night, beneath the flight path of many planes from Newark airport, The Police put on a consummate stadium-rock show.
The staging is a little different from the indoor version, effective, but basic, and entirely free of grand gestures, save for the heroic tightness of Sting's trousers. 'Walking In Your Footsteps' is the sole nod to a production number, wherein the animated skeleton of a brontosaurus - knowingly? - walks across the video screens as Sting sings one of history's most lamentable lyrics ("Hey there, mighty brontosaurus / Have you got a message for us?" for those lucky enough until now to be initiated). Sting may yet have a sense of humour after all.
The setting magnifies the set's high spots, Copeland more ready to venture off the beat, Summers more likely to pull the song out of shape. Fittingly, the sound is as good as you'll hear for an outdoor gig. Because, unusually for a show of this scale, it's one driven entirely by what and how the band plays, not by any extraneous factors.
"We will see you again," promises Sting at the end. Against all prior expectations, not only might he keep his word, but he'd be welcome to.
© Q Magazine