The same songs that sounded stiff and self-conscious on Sting's two solo albums were transformed into loose, spontaneous rock 'n' roll by Sting and his eight-member band at the Patriot Center Saturday night. Although the endemic access problems at the Fairfax facility prevented much of the crowd from hearing the first few songs, the concert showed off Sting's strengths -- his seductive rhythms and joyous melodies -- and minimized his biggest weakness -- his strained intellectualism.
The concert also showcased far better singing than Sting has ever committed to record. An early medley found Sting, shirtless under a white jacket, concentrating on his vocals without an instrument to play, and he came a lot closer to Van Morrison than one would have ever imagined possible. He sounded surprisingly loose and humorous on "Englishman in New York," and then belted out a passionate ballad version of "Sister Moon" that climaxed first in a Ray Charles growl and then in a high wolf call. The band segued into a rocking blues arrangement of "Rock Steady" that found Sting sounding sassy and aggressive.
Sting shared the stage with Branford Marsalis, whose saxophone fills and solos were so distinctive and expressive that they often seemed like duet vocals. In the medley, for instance, Marsalis' soprano sax responded to Sting's every phrase as if the horn were Tammi Terrell talking back to Marvin Gaye.
Percolating Latin rhythm arrangements sped along syncopated eighth-note accents. Sting helped the cause with a strongly punctuated vocal on his Brazilian-flavored "Consider Me Gone." "History Will Teach Us Nothing" ended in Sting's high, counterpoint vocal against his chanting band and then moved into a rousing version of Bob Marley's "Get up, Stand Up." Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" began with Sting's subdued acoustic guitar intro but built inexorably until Sting was screaming over a roaring electric guitar solo.