I was working construction the year Roxanne peaked on the Billboard charts and was playing all the time. With some of the more monotonous jobs, such as grading slabs, the radio is an important part of getting through it. I wasn’t into the Police, yet had nothing against them. I preferred Roxanne to Message in a Bottle, which in 1979 was just being released, mainly because of that annoying line in the latter about sending out an S.O.S.
We’d parked the truck in the middle of the slab with the radio turned up, so you couldn’t escape that S.O.S., which repeats about 30 times. A couple of times I whirled to it in mock Sufiesque joy. I managed to enlist Jamie Bennett, the other laborer on the job, in what I called the Shovel Dance, though he probably only did it to appease me.
In 1979 I certainly did not anticipate Jamie would become a St. Petersburg City Council member, or that I would wind up as this newspaper’s performing arts critic. Or that Sting, the lead singer for the Police, would become an international superstar whose performance at a fundraising gala would be seen as a major coup for the Florida Orchestra.
But all of those things happened. The British singer-songwriter is coming to the Mahaffey Theater on Dec. 9. He has become one of popular music’s biggest names, in large part because of his continuous outreach into other forms, including albums built around jazz and classical stylings (The Dream of the Blue Turtles and Songs From the Labyrinth), even an original Broadway musical (The Last Ship). Several years ago he went further, teaming with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Rob Mathes, who has arranged songs for Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and Renee Fleming, resulting in the Symphonicities album and tour. With the orchestra’s backing, he’ll play songs like I Burn for You, Englishman in New York, Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic and, yes, Roxanne.
I’ve been listening to a lot more Sting lately — and realizing I have a lot of catching up to do. Where other stars are content to play golden oldies, he continually reinvents himself. I am enjoying following along on his journey. Given his crossover appeal, one music critic didn’t seem enough to talk about the concert. Times pop music and culture critic Jay Cridlin and I try to get our arms around Sting and his music.
Andrew Meacham, Times performing arts critic
Jay: Let me start with a question: Are you excited by this pairing? Because Sting might not necessarily be my first pick for an orchestral collaboration. I’m not sure that a lot of his and the Police’s best stuff necessarily lends itself to that sort of enhancement. Is there any potential for this show to be a truly magical, transformative event? Or will it be just another concert by Sting?
Andrew: To his fans, definitely, a lot of potential. The arrangements are different; it’s not elevator music. They enhance the songs, bring out a different dimension within the songs.
Jay: That’s true of certain songs on Symphonicities. When We Dance and Englishman in New York were and are obvious choices for orchestral accompaniment, but it’s the deeper cuts where I felt the addition of a symphony really yielded something new. That album had a bonus B-side of Why Should I Cry For You?, which was never a big hit, but it’s lovely and deserved the big, orchestral bump he gave it. If I’m a big Sting fan, I’d probably rather hear that than some bossa nova jazz version of Roxanne.
Andrew: Right, Englishman in New York establishes itself with that clarinet again, just as it did on Nothing Like the Sun. But in Symphonicities, that whole song is brighter, more selective in the instrumentation, which is ironic given that there seem to be more instruments at work. By the way, I kind of liked Roxanne on the latter as well, even without the iconic screech of the name, just because you can hear the city more on the orchestral version.
Coming back to what makes a makes an unforgettable concert experience — so often it’s raw power, right? But with Sting, it’s a different kind of power. The instrumentation in a song like You Will Be My Ain True Love, which is essentially a folk song, is exquisite. You can almost hear the wind flapping in the sails, smell the canvas. The violins give off this sense of sadness and adventure. So the power comes from places like that.
Jay: Oh, Sting’s still powerful, that’s for sure. He rose to fame in what was, for a time, arguably the biggest rock band in the world. And he clearly understands that many people still want to keep him in that space, because he keeps reaching back to it. Brand New Day was a huge hit album in 1999. He re-formed the Police for a pretty lucrative reunion tour in 2007. And his latest album, 57th and 9th, is a legit rock album — I Can’t Stop Thinking About You totally could have come from Synchronicity or Ghost in the Machine.
But not unlike his mononymous buddy Bono, Sting has cultivated this reputation for being pretentious, for trying to steer the conversation about his artistry toward some higher-minded plain. Which is fine and all; good on him for it. I just hope this show with the Florida Orchestra is actually, you know, kind of fun.
Andrew: Right. The year before that reunion tour, he went 16th century, releasing Songs From the Labyrinth, by Elizabethan composer John Dowland. Some called him pretentious for that. Yet fans loved those mournful songs accompanied by the lute, and for a while Labyrinth topped Billboard’s classical albums chart. At that time, he told a PBS interviewer he loved the word "pretentious," because it means pretending, which he defined as learning, experimenting, taking risks and always being a student.
Jay: Well, Elizabethan lute music is definitely experimental, I’ll give him that. And some of his peers have gone down equally odd paths — David Byrne’s leftfield divergence into the world of color guard comes to mind. You do always want your aging rock stars to keep feeling creatively fulfilled.
Andrew: In that same PBS interview, he said he’s also fine with being called an "aging rock star," and for the same reasons — that it’s about keeping your mind flexible, and that solves the usual negative connotations about age, or indirectly about fame. That was seven years ago. He’s 66 now and doesn’t appear to be slowing down. So is that at least part of the reason for his superstardom, his continued willful versatility? I mean, the guy does put muscle into his work; he’ll never be a glorified lounge singer.
Jay: If Sting decided just to be a legacy act, he would fill arenas and headline festivals everywhere he goes. And he has enough beloved songs that he could mix each night up just enough to feel fresh, sort of like Billy Joel’s recent shows. But the fans who lined up early to snatch up tickets for this show probably want more than that. Hopefully they’ll get it.
Andrew: Do you think they’re baby boomers? Or are there some post-boomers in there, too? Maybe it’s a shot in the arm for those folks, given that the real spotlight, that sense of moment with a big musical act, always falls on the young — young musicians, young fans. And he’s clearly a notch above what the orchestra could have hoped for, based on their likely budget. (They won’t say how much they paid him.) So is it fair to say there’s some anticipatory euphoria in the air?
Jay: It’s funny: Outside of a couple of obvious examples (Puff Daddy’s I’ll Be Missing You, Bruno Mars’ Locked Out of Heaven), I don’t think of Sting having an obvious influence over younger artists in the same way as, say, the Smiths or Talking Heads. Even Phil Collins is a greater sonic touchstone for modern pop artists like Lorde and Taylor Swift — and back in the ’80s, when Sting was respected and serious and Collins was kind of a joke, that might have been unthinkable. So if there is a cult of Sting out there, I’ve yet to meet anyone in it. If anything, more musicians probably idolize his old Police bandmate Stewart Copeland.
Andrew: The most important musician involved with this concert — other than Sting — won’t be performing: composer and arranger Rob Mathes. He has worked with Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Yo-Yo Ma, and did most of the songs on the Symphonicities tour in 2010-11. The final setlist at this concert is up to Sting, and it will most likely include a couple of songs Sting has done since that tour. He’s the one who seems to add that punch — a realness, an urgency, a vitality — into whatever he’s done.
An interesting side note: Mathes also arranged Renee Fleming’s national anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl, which many, including me, thought was the best ever.
Jay: I’ve never seen Sting live. And even though this might not be my first choice of setting to cross him off my bucket list — oh, do I regret missing that Police reunion tour — I’m sure it’ll be memorable and unique. You’re reviewing this show, right? To wrap this chat up, what do you most want to hear on Saturday? From Sting, from the orchestra, from the patrons who paid all that cash to get in?
Andrew: I hope we get the spirit of the man. And while I haven’t noticed a cult of Sting either, I think the sense of thrill around his music lives on a deeper level than thousands of fans holding up cigarette lighters. He talks about preserving his music by reinventing it, just as he has explored other genres altogether. He has even come up with mellower versions of Message in a Bottle. I’m hoping he delivers a concert that will reach young people and season ticket holders as well as his hard-core fans. Sting makes a great case for music as a way to "bottle" the important messages and send them around the world. I hope he does that.
An Intimate Evening With the Florida Orchestra and Sting
7 p.m. Dec. 9, the Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S, St. Petersburg. Tickets are sold out. (727) 892-3337. floridaorchestra.org.