As both the frontman of The Police and as a solo artist, Sting was one of the most popular performers of the 80s and 90s, winning numerous awards including sixteen Grammy Awards and, with The Police, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet after the release of his seventh solo album Sacred Love in 2003, Sting appeared to leave the world of rock music behind, instead embarking on a number of more personal projects including an album of lute music (Songs From the Labyrinth), an album of winter-themed songs which veered heavily in folk and classical directions (If On a Winter’s Night…), an album of symphonic arrangements of his songs (Symphonicities), and a folk- and jazz-based concept album (The Last Ship). After all of that, it might not have been too much of a stretch for fans to assume that he had all but retired from rock. Then late last year he released 57th & 9th, his first rock album in well over a decade, and a strong return to form.
Sting’s tour for the new album this time brought him to some smaller, more intimate venues than the arenas that he has been known to play in the past, including for the DC area the still-new, 4,000-capacity Theater at MGM National Harbor. Backed by a band including Dominic Miller and Lyle Workman on guitars, Josh Freese on drums, and his son Joe Sumner along with members of opening band The Last Bandoleros on backing vocals, Sting played a set drawn primarily from two sources at opposite ends of his career – the new record (from which he played eight of the ten tracks, including “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” “One Fine Day,” and “Petrol Head”), and The Police (from which he also played eight tracks, including “Synchronicity II,” “Spirits in the Material World,” and “Roxanne”). In between, he touched on several other solo albums including 1987’s …Nothing Like the Sun (“Englishman in New York”), 1993’s Ten Summoner’s Tales (“Fields of Gold,” “Shape of My Heart”), 1996’s Mercury Falling (“I Hung My Head”), and 1999’s Brand New Day (“Desert Rose”). For a mid-set cover of David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” he took to the side of the stage while Joe Sumner came forward on the lead vocal. Two encores featured two Police tracks (“Next To You” and “Every Breath You Take”) and one new song (“The Empty Chair”).
Even though he’s now 65, age has done little to impact Sting’s vocal abilities, and he sounded as strong as ever (stronger at times, in fact, than he sounds on the new album itself). While many fans might have preferred to hear more of their favorites from his now-classic records, he and his band did a good job of winning the audience over to the new songs and mixing things up well enough that he never risked losing them. Whether this is Sting’s grand return to the music that made him popular or simply another diversion on the winding road that he’s been following remains to be seen – let’s face it, the man can pretty much afford to do whatever he wants at this point. But for now, 57th & 9th and the associated tour are a welcome reminder of why Sting became a pop music icon.