Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Genesis of a Policeman: Peter Gabriel and Sting Combine to Showcase Two Big Time Careers -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Sting & Peter Gabriel
United Center, Chicago
July 9, 2016

When Friend A recently heard from Friend B that we were going to see the partially reunited Guns N' Roses at Soldier Field, he supposedly scoffed at the idea of an old band with no new material touring for seemingly--at least in part--mercenary reasons.

His affinity for live rock 'n' roll seems to almost exclusively traipse in younger bands performing newer material in smaller clubs.

I generally respect Friend A's take on the creative arts, and realize that his way of thinking essentially spawned punk and indie rock, which I see as forever vital to the rock genre and my appreciation of it.

Yet I happily go to big shows by old artists who often haven't recorded anything great in the last 30+ years--and usually love them far more than the occasional new band I see. (There honestly haven't been many of the latter who have beguiled me.)

Friend A is certainly entitled to his opinion, and especially if one connotes rock 'n' roll--a bit anachronistically--as a strident cultural force and not just a wide-ranging music idiom, I don't strenuously disagree with his reasoning. The creation of something new, and perhaps socially relevant, is to be championed as a component of "artistry." 

But as I posited to Friend B, rock 'n' roll seems to be one of the only art forms that could be held to Friend A's standard.

People going to hear a symphony orchestra perform Beethoven's 9th likely don't complain that it's been around for nearly 200 years, nor would opera aficionados stay away from Tosca because Puccini hasn't written anything new (since dying in 1924).

While it's great that we're in a golden age of dramatic television, I don't think many would deride others for enjoying Seinfeld, All in the Family or Honeymooners reruns.

And I myself have heard Friend A wax poetic about the lasting brilliance of director Jean Renoir's twin cinematic masterpieces from the late 1930s: La Grande Illusion and The Rules of the Game. More so, in fact, than any recent movies I can recall.

So I don't quite understand why he feels modern, modest, possibly pure-of-art rock bands and remaining (or returning) stadium-filling stalwarts of an earlier age can't comfortably co-exist in the rock 'n' roll landscape. (Especially when, IMO, the geezers typically have far greater songs and catalogs.)

Which brings me, finally but relevant to the competing schools of thought, to a review of Saturday's joint concert by Sting & Peter Gabriel on their brief Rock Paper Scissors tandem tour.

Neither artist has released an album in the last 5 years and nearly all of the 27 songs performed, separately or together, predate the 1990s.

But in what Gabriel cheekily referenced as "Karaoke night at the United Center" at the ouslet, he, Sting and their excellent bands--often onstage en masse--delivered enough truly sterling renditions of songs I love for me to be largely delighted.

In their mid-60s, both Englishmen are still crisp of voice and offered plentiful glimpses of what made them not only legendary, but once upon a time rather visionary in ways that few modern rockers will ever approach.

Led by Sting's vocals and driving bass, The Police merged the urgency of punk--in real-time--with a romantic melodicism and reggae stylings, well-exemplified at the UC by songs like "Message in a Bottle" and "Roxanne."

Since his initial run with the Police, I have often been turned off by Sting's smug persona and annoying vocal affectations that even ruined 2007's Police reunion tour for me, but his unexpected dual outings with Paul Simon in 2014 and now Peter Gabriel have been good-natured performances showcasing the boatload of great songs he has written and sung. (I also liked the tunes he wrote for the The Last Ship musical, which didn't deserve to sink on Broadway as quickly as it did.)

And while they were written decades ago, the topicality and resonance of songs like "Driven to Tears" and "Fragile" couldn't be missed, even if Sting hadn't mentioned the killings in Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Orlando.

Though Gabriel's groundbreaking theatricality while fronting Genesis in the early-to-mid '70s was only referenced by a snippet Sting sang of that band's "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight," despite his quip about karaoke and possible perceptions of this being a night of low-hanging greatest hits, takes on rather literate and/or activist tomes like "The Rhythm and the Heat," "Games Without Frontiers," "San Jacinto" and "Red Rain" suggested artistic integrity wasn't left at the door.

His crack band helped "Secret World" truly blister, and "Solsbury Hill" was the buoyant delight it always is, complete with Pete bounding around the stage.

Unlike the playbook of most tandem tours, which typically involve a few songs played together by both headlining acts, an hour or so separately and then some joint encores, I liked the way the Rock Paper Scissors tour was more consistently interactive.

Reference the setlist breakdown for a better sense of the itinerary, but neither Sting nor Gabriel was ever offstage for more than 2 songs in a row.

They performed individually with one or both bands, and often together, singing their own songs and sometimes each other's. And occasionally when they took turns in the spotlight, the other guy would contently join the chorus of background singers.

The one Gabriel song I didn't know, "Love Can Heal," was beautiful and particularly poignant as he dedicated it to recently murdered British MP Jo Cox, who he had met at some kind of summit.

Sting solo material "Hounds of Winter" and "Englishman in New York" came off with unexpected vibrancy, while old Police hits "Invisible Sun" and "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" sounded great.

And after an extended take on "In Your Eyes" ended the main set, great runs through "Every Breath You Take" and "Sledgehammer" closed out nearly 3 hours of mostly excellent music.

Yet while my @@@@1/2 rating denotes a first-rate concert in terms of the selections and performances--and I would like to think even Friend A would find some merit in the quality of the two stars' best material--I can't deny feeling the show was a bit too staid.

Given that all 14 musicians onstage had to quickly learn several songs with which they weren't intimately familiar, with arrangements, lighting and video cues having to be coordinated, I understand why the setlist needed to be pretty tightly scripted and the festivities couldn't allow for much spontaneity. (Being able to see a bank of teleprompters with song lyrics only added to my sense that this "rock concert" felt slightly like a Las Vegas revue.)

Thus while the rather winning Rock Paper Scissors tour validated my--and presumably Friend B's--feeling that great rock music, well-performed by the original artists, can be timelessly satisfying even devoid of clear urgency, the concert also suffered somewhat from the lack of it.

So I guess I would say to Friend A that though I'd take 150 minutes of cherished, classic songs over an hour of reckless-but-rote abandon any day, I'd stipulate that even the best music can greatly benefit from an infusion of insurgent energy.


Friend A said...

Very cool you set aside space in your review to explore different people's approaches to rock music. Here's some comments to expand on the points you make:

* Analogies of live music to TV or movies don't work, since their contents are set once they're released, while live music is a experience made in a specific moment.

* The difference between rock and classical or opera is the facing. With the latter two, the conductor faces away from you. You're supposed to focus on the musical piece for itself - how does the music itself make you think or feel?

For rock, they face you. And that makes a huge difference, because instead of a rendition, it becomes a communication. Not "here's the music - what does it tell you?", but "Here's something *I* have to tell you!" It's what makes rock music work on such an intimate and personal level, even in a vast arena, and turns a moment experienced at a specific time into a moment shared between audience and artist at a specific time.

I think that sense of honest, personal expression is an essential component of "rock" (and can supplant even such 'requirements' as specific instruments - Public Enemy, Armin Van Buren, and Bob Mould acoustic can "rock" just as hard as any guitar / bass / drums combination.) And there's many ways that sense can become lost. If a band "sells out" a song as a commercial jingle, have completely different people play the music than the people who initially created it, and, in the case of Branson bands, be playing music clearly at odds with the current situation (Having Don Henley sing about "kill all the lawyers" is hilarious in light of all the lawsuits he started, and can the thought of Daltrey belting out "Hope I die before I get old" be anything other than a sour joke at this point?)

* This combines with a great live rock show's ability to have a collective yet transient experience. At the point someone's singing a song to you at a rock show, you should ideally feel they're really singing this for you from some place they're feeling right that moment, and not merely reciting it. Of course, the possibility of feeling it's the latter can't help but grow as a likely option the longer it's been since they've last expressed the song (and it has a multiplier if the band has done nothing creative in between.)

Person A said...

* Even the sense of a band not really 'meaning' the songs they're playing can be mitigated by their enthusiastic playing, creative interpretations, engagement with the audience, and of course, the awesomeness of the tunes themselves. There's a lot of goodwill that an audience brings to a live show, and if you competently deliver the songs they enjoy, that goes an long way to making the experience decent at least.

* That's where Guns 'n' Roses come in. NO ONE has squandered fan's goodwill more than GnR. Even in their prime, they were known for treating their fans like shit. Cancelled shows, epic album delays, firing beloved band members (and former best friends), performing while all kinds of fucked up, showing up on stage hours late, and literally inducing riots, all in the service of acting like petulant, Grade-A prima donna dipshits. Why would I give a dime to people who aren't just assholes, but assholes who clearly hold me, my time, and my attendance at their shows in contempt? And that contempt they showed is a giant impediment to considering their "reunion" shows as anything but mercenary endeavors.

* So the GnR show at Soldier Field gave every indication of being a robust failure in a creative, personal, or honest level, an a good possibility of failing at a basic music-delivery level as well. That's why I considered anyone attending the show to be getting, at best, the same level musical dedication and ability displayed by "Lies: the Greater Joilet Guns and Roses Experience", only with more traffic, and time and money would have been better spent on a band that has shown some evidence, any evidence, of giving a shit over the past 20 years.