Sting came to Seoul, Korea, for his Symphonicity Tour last Tuesday (11th Jan). Having been a great fan of his music since my late teens, I was very eager to watch him for real and, hopefully, get to hear his classics live.
To cut right to the conclusion, it was a mixed bag. Perhaps I should have listened to his Symphonicity album before going, because I heard later that the setlist that night was the same as the album itself. But the notion of yet another orchestra-fied take on an ageing artist’s back catalogue didn’t exactly set my heart a flutter – they’re all uniformly rubbish anyway. Had I listened, though, I might have been warned of the fact that Sting would bother to go through abominations such as ‘Moon over Bourbon Street’ and other forgettable jazzy numbers he sometimes likes to indulge in and which I always skip when I listen to his albums.
His live performances of ‘Every Breath You Take’ and ‘Fields of Gold’ are, in all honesty, travesties of the recorded versions. Fans who will have heard them for the first time at this concert – slim chance, sure, but you never know – will never be able to experience, in the former’s case, the slow-burning intensity of a dark obsession made more powerful by Sting’s straight, sustained delivery of those fabled lyrics over the circular arpeggio; likewise, in the latter, the plaintive and luxurious appreciation of a life’s love is maintained by Sting’s unhurried, lingering vocals that hits you and washes over you in the first listen, and consequently one is not able to really appreciate what great songs they are watching Sting live. His performance on that night confirmed my fears: he rushes his words, in and out in great hurry, as if he’s running out of his breath. We know it’s not fatigue that is causing this, because just before ‘Fields of Gold’, he delivered an absolutely brilliant, powerful rendition of ‘Why Should I Cry for You’ which exhibited none of the above problems. The staccato way Sting sang his two most famous songs was, while not a surprise, still a genuine disappointment.
What else? Thanks to the aforementioned ‘jazz’ songs, the second half of the show was mostly a shower of letdowns. There are at least half a dozen songs he didn’t sing that night which are not just among his best songs, but the finest pop music of the 25 years: ‘They Dance Alone’, ‘All This Time’, ‘Be Still My Beating Heart’, ‘Ghost Street’… The list goes on, and I understand that this wasn’t a ‘Greatest Hits’ Tour of any kind, but some of the stuff Sting sang was real bottom-of-the-pile stuff for him. It’s a fan’s selfish whine, absolutely, but the song selection definitely could have been better.
Now the good stuff: Sting is an amazing guitarist! I should’ve known, since he’s written some cracking guitar-led songs, but on ‘Fragile’ he played the lead and was flawless. They’re not easy notes to hit, and to sing the vocals as well as do that… It was very impressive stuff and all my angst at the poor songs beforehand was washed away in my admiration for him. Also, Dominic Miller, the man who gave us those riffs for ‘Shape of My Heart’ was the main guitarist on the show, and to see the master in the flesh was hair-raising stuff.
The crowd was generally very appreciative, although quite a few scandalously left mid-show (corporate tickets, perhaps). I didn’t mind that the concert was a giant advert for Hyundai Card, since without their sponsorship Sting wouldn’t have been here. There was a minor audio problem right at the start – vocals too loud, instruments muted – but was corrected relatively painlessly. The encores roused the crowd considerably, and Sting came out and went back in again about three times, each time delivering faster-paced songs like ‘Desert Rose’. The very last time, he sang the dirge-like opening warble to ‘I Was Brought to My Senses’. I became very excited, sensing a glorious finale rounded off by the lovely, lilting acoustic parts which segue in from that opening, but instead Sting delivered a kick in my gut by walking off without singing the rest of the song, the git.