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SANDPAPERY, SOARING, SUPERB

He may be the pop star critics love to hate for his pretensions, but Sting did a fine job of getting off the high horse and pleasing a sold-out crowd of 2,500 Monday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on his Sacred Love Tour.

Sting, 52, who, began his career a quarter century ago fronting The Police, joked with the audience and delivered 90 minutes of material both from his solo career and several chestnuts from what he called his "former incarnation."

The British star began the night the picture of sophistication, dressed in a black suit, plucking strings on an upright bass, as he and his seven-member band gave a jazzy workout to the Police gem Walking On The Moon. Quickly, the big bass and the suit jacket were whisked away by a stagehand. Electro-beats blasted, disco lights flashed, and Sting was swiveling his well-toned hips. Behind him, three video screens flashed vivid images of belly dancers and arty graphics. The song was Send Your Love from the 2003 Sacred Love, the most recent Sting solo album steeped in hobbly gobbly "mysticism" and watered-down world music. Sting's excursions into global sounds have increasingly produced a hodgepodge of regional instruments and New Age fixin's _ often pleasant, sometimes disastrous. (Memo to Sting: ixnay on the wind chimes!)

Sting's voice, always an endearing, sandpapery croon, has aged magnificently. Sting can now stretch it and toy around, scat, send it soaring and demonstrate its fine, rich nuance.

The show had several highlights: a medley of Police tunes featuring a lively singalong Hole In My Life, an acoustic Dead Man's Rope, and a powerful Synchronicity II. Folks who were adolescents when that song was a smash _ possibly the fans who lept to their feet to scream along to the words? _ can surely now relate to its suburban angst-drenched lyrics:

Daddy only stares into the distance

there's only so much more that he can take

And male or female, who can't relate to:

Every single meeting with his so-called superiors

is a humiliating kick in the crotch

The title track of Sacred Love and Fields Of Gold were lovely turns. As was a snappy An Englishman In New York, with Sting's elegant thumps on the ol' upright bass, and a truly rousing Roxanne.

Opening act trumpeter Chris Botti played a sublime set of jazz and pop instrumental music with a vivacious backing band. Botti, 41, gets a warm, voluptuous tone from his horn that we don't hear enough of in these days of showy, obnoxious players. Botti understands his instrument. That's why when he plays numbers like My Funny Valentine, inspired by his idol, Miles Davis, you want to both clutch your heart and dab your eye.

To contact Gina Vivinetto email ginasptimes.com.

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