Philadelphia, PA, US
JFK Stadiumwith Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Madness, R.E.M.
The Police play JFK...

''It's 98 degrees,'' said Sting, as he and his band, the Police, took the stage at JFK Stadium yesterday afternoon. ''That's the temperature of blood,'' he added. This enigmatic statement was nonetheless greeted by riotous cheers.

By any standard, yesterday's big outdoor rock concert was an unusual one. There was, as Sting noted, the temperature: ''This is quite literally the hottest day of my career,'' he noted sardonically.

But more interestingly, stadium-sized rock shows just aren't supposed to function the way this one did. This concert, featuring Joan Jett, Madness, R.E.M. and the Police as headliners, was remarkably well-organised. The bands played concise sets, and there was no more than a half-hour wait between acts - at a time when it's commonplace for rock-concert intermissions to last up to an hour. Moreover, the bands who made up this bill are not your usual arena-rock fare. Stadium-size shows are typified by the sort of hard-rock and heavy-metal acts whose loud, blunt music loses none of its effectiveness when funnelled through great mountains of amplifiers.

But yesterday's show was different: The Police is an English trio whose albums are models of pop precision, even subtlety. It must have stunned the stadium security guards, used to enduring bestial snarls and crude vernacular from the entertainment at these shows, to hear a band that laces its music with knowing references to Jung, Nabokov and Paul Bowles.

But if this was all the Police did, of course, they wouldn't be filling JFK Stadium - they'd be playing coffee houses accompanying themselves on bongos. No, the Police - singer-bassist Sting, guitarist Andy Summers, drummer Stewart Copeland - makes irresistibly catchy, devilishly intricate pop songs, tunes you hum well before you grasp the words. The band's new album 'Synchronicity' is currently at the top of the pop charts, and is full of the band's synthesis of rock, reggae and Third World rhythms. On record, the Police's music can sound thick, lush, layered. In concert, the band drastically reworks its material so that it sparkles with simple clarity.

When Sting plunked out the opening bass guitar figure of the group's hit 'Every Breath You Take', the ground rumbled along with him. In song after song, from 'Roxanne' to 'King of Pain', the band made little adjustments - speeding up a tempo here, bringing Copeland's percussion forward there - that allowed their songs to take on fresh life in front of thousands of boiling but happy fans.

Preceding the Police were Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, a first-rate hard- rock band. The band's performance was marred a bit by awkward pacing, but Jett has a knack for taking simple riffs and fashioning fast, amusing music from them. She didn't play nearly enough songs from her new record, 'Album', but relied instead upon old favourites such as the anthemic 'I Love Rock 'n' Roll'.

Both R.E.M., the brooding Athens, Ga., band, and Madness, a giddy English group, played quick, light sets that allowed them just enough time to prove their talents.

R.E.M.'s quirky, dark music may have been too melancholy to go over with a cheerful crowd that had come to party, but Madness charmed the audience with its fast-paced tales of jolly English youth.

It looks as if the United States is finally warming to Madness' brand of ''ska'' music - a subdivision of reggae that emphasises pumping dance rhythms. Stars for four years in England, the group's 'Our House' single is finally making them well-known over here, and that peppy tune was the high point of the band's set yesterday.

(c) The Philadelphia Inquirer