Review: Sting & Peter Gabriel @ Key Arena, July 21, 2016

Once again something I intended for publication at one of my outlets didn't end up getting used. So, I offer it for you, my friends and readers. Hope you think well of it. 

The abyssal separating the songwriting abilities of Peter Gabriel and Sting was never more apparent than from the opening salvos by both artists that kicked off the final U.S. date of their Rock Paper Scissors tour.

After a long intro of pre-recorded drones, the 11-piece band (a combination of the two men’s regular touring groups) thundered through an appropriately sweat-inducing version of “The Rhythm of The Heat,” led by a serious and seething Gabriel. As the last notes faded out, Mr. Sumner bounded on the stage in his well-toned glory and led the ensemble in his sunny 1993 hit ”If I Ever Lose My Faith In You.” It felt like a dizzying smash cut from an Amnesty International documentary to an episode of Friends.

And that’s the way it carried on for a full three hours with each artist going back and forth through their respective catalogs. They shared the stage often while also ceded the spotlight to other, as well as welcoming special guest Eddie Vedder to growl along to a couple of tunes (“Driven To Tears” and “Red Rain,” for those of you keeping score at home). Sometimes the transitions would feel well considered and wise. The move from the moody “Invisible Sun” to Gabriel’s tense “No Self Control,” for example, was particularly great. Other times it felt confused, like the weird downshift from “Roxanne” (with an added jazzy interlude that slid into Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”) to “In Your Eyes.”

Though this new tour is simply a repeat of similar jaunts the two did in 1986 and 1988, it’s difficult to parse out the logic behind it. On paper, it’s a sensible choice. Both men are well-known for leaving their well-known bands—Genesis and The Police—at the height of their creative and commercial power (respectively) and carving out massively successful solo careers. And both are vocal supporters of various humanitarian causes. Oh, and I’m sure these two serve to make a boatload of cash from this joint venture.

Beyond that, the stark differences between how each man approached songcraft and performance only became more glaring. Gabriel has long embraced the theatricality of the live show, bringing costumes and choreography into the mix. There was as much of the latter as the 66-year-old’s body would allow, but it was simple and effective. He didn’t need to march around the stage as he and Sting traded off lines during a militaristic rendition of “Games Without Frontiers,” but it drove the song’s point home even harder. As well, he and his backup singer Jennie Abrahamson could’ve handled the poignant duet “Don’t Give Up” without Gabriel acting out the disaffection of his lyrics, yet when they eventually joined hands at the song’s climax, there was an electric thrill to the moment.

Sting had his own part to play: that of the well-heeled rock star. It’s one he’s accustomed to, and, well, it works for him. He’s lean and muscular and compelling, making it incredibly easy to gawk at him for the better part of an evening. And I’d like to think that he knew that his buddy Peter would have the more showy aspects of the night wrapped up, so he stuck to his own strengths: his unwavering voice and his crack backing band.

Things only got muddied in his song choices. Sting, surprisingly, avoided nearly all of his biggest solo hits, leaning instead on his work with The Police and some world music-influenced material in, I’m guessing, a nod to his tour mate’s career supporting musicians from far flung parts of the globe. Did anyone at the Key Arena necessarily want to hear “The Hounds Of Winter,” a relative deep cut from his 1996 album Mercury Falling instead of a guaranteed crowdpleaser like “Fields Of Gold”? Hard to say, but from the reaction that he got throughout the night, he could have broken out his lute and run through the full Songs From The Labyrinth, his 2006 pop-classical hybrid, without anyone blinking an eye.

If we were scoring this like a boxing match, Gabriel took the night on points. As he’s done throughout his career, he deftly balanced comedy and sincerity, smoothly adjoining a hilarious bluesy cover of “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” and a touching dedication to murdered MP Jo Cox before a performance of a new song “Love Can Heal.” But give Sting some credit for getting his shots in, like tossing a quote from the Genesis anthem “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” into the set before “Message In a Bottle.” But looked at as a whole, neither man ran away with the night alone. They instead clasped hands and supported each other as they went the distance together.