Night of the Exuberant Chuckleheads

No amount of dorky, proggy wankery can squash the joy of a Police reunion

Rob: "Goin' to see the Police tomorrow! Yeahhhh!" (Intense rock gestures.)

Roomful of Voice editors: "Awwww, no! Boooooo!" (Hoots of derision.)

I understand the aversion here. These dudes are old. Sting reigns supreme in the pantheon of pedantic, self-aggrandizing, lute-plucking chuckleheads. (This is admittedly a small pantheon.) And the glorious Police reunion, tearing a trail from Vancouver eastward lo these past few months, is a towering monolith of no$$$talgia, magically transforming Madison Square Garden into Scrooge McDuck's vault of glittering gold coins for Sting and Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland to dive into and paddle through Wednesday night. To once again delight in Sting's vocal tics at the band's first headlining NYC show in 15 years or so cost you about $20 per eeee-yo. And oh, did the masses pay, snappily dressed oily gentlemen slapping their conspicuously more attractive lady friends on the ass in perfect time to "Every Breath You Take."

Gratefully keeping the Jazz Odyssey impulses to a minimum
photo: David Atlas
Gratefully keeping the Jazz Odyssey impulses to a minimum

Loved it, loved it, loved it. I am not going to pretend to be objective about this—as a kid, I had two goldfish named Stewart and Andy. (Naming a goldfish Sting seemed absurd.) Crass as one might understandably find the cash-grab reunion extravaganza, for true believers, whether your religion involves the Pixies, Squeeze, or Rage Against the Machine, such a second coming can inspire rapture indeed.

Consider the case of one guy in absolute rapture Wednesday night: Stewart Copeland. The Police's revered drummer, the heartbeat—manic, erratic, regularly irregular—of the trio's half-propulsive, half–forgivably pretentious reggae-rock hybrid, looked absolutely overjoyed to be up there, the ol' band back together again, bashing out those first few snare shots of "Message in a Bottle" with the gleeful aplomb of a two-year-old whacking an overturned box with a soup ladle. His noggin slapped up on one of the three JumboTrons, Stu looked like a long- retired Egon from Ghostbusters, a headband barely suppressing a weedy shock of gray hair permanently threatening to engulf his professorial glasses and secretarial headset for the occasional backup vocal. He looked absolutely shocked to be there, shocked and overjoyed, like he wasn't the Police's drummer at all, but a superfan who'd won some sort of contest, and now he got to jam at MSG with his Favorite Band of All Time, rattling off fills within fills, Russian nesting dolls of exuberant overplaying. Whenever he broke a stick (which was often), he'd whip it high in the air, where it'd clank to the ground 20 feet behind him, offstage. Reunions are indulgent, absolutely, but it ain't always about the money.

On to the somewhat objective criticism: The slow, atmospheric tunes were slightly better, the punked-up rockers slightly worse. Nobody can screw up "Message in a Bottle," but "Synchronicity II" followed and slogged about, muddy and stuttering, a jumble of verses, pre-choruses, and pre-pre-choruses with less clarity and tangible form than the Loch Ness Monster itself. Anything aggressive and steely—Outlandos D'Amour tracks, basically, along with a lurching "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" (the only visceral stinker of the evening, dopey key change and all)—suffered thus, but not horribly. Hell, even the crowd call-and-response on the stinker was pretty great:

Sting: "De do do do!"

Besotted crowd: "De da da da!"

Sting can still boom out those eee-yo's, though at a slightly lower pitch, craftily dodging the high notes and keeping a little in reserve on everything but, oddly enough, the forlorn rocksteady of "The Bed's Too Big Without You," probably the least famous song in the entire two-hour set. Probably not a coincidence. He hit his marks and kept things moving. The true danger of this show was that the boys would go all Jazz Odyssey on us, unleashing wan, wonky jams that'd turn every three-minute pop grenade into a 10-minute dunce-prog ordeal. But Sting kept his lute-plucking chuckleheadedness in check, literally and metaphorically, leaving the histrionics to drums (the JumboTron flips back to Stu, merrily bashing away) and guitar.

Indeed, Andy Summers was the evening's true show-off, evidently hellbent on justifying all those Guitar World accolades of yore with blistering bouts of shredding, a bit of cock-rock bravado on "Driven to Tears" and more high-concept King Crimson hysteria on "Don't Stand So Close to Me," a brutally elegant showcase of flippant Frippery. (Frippantry?) Stu won the equipment battle, though: He leapt onto a small platform and pounded on what looked like Home Depot's entire wind-chimes section for quieter, moodier fare like "Wrapped Around Your Finger" and "King of Pain" and "Walking in Your Footsteps" (underrated), once again whipping his sticks in the air and jumping back down to the main kit when he got bored and decided to provide a steadier backbeat. Like a hyperactive, starry-eyed kid handed two (or 20) mallets and set loose in a Sam Ash.

Given all this fanciness, it's fair to say the three didn't play with each other so much as over each other, messy but playful, born of rampant enthusiasm rather than show-offy pretension, every mega-hit you'd care to name ("Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," "So Lonely," "Roxanne" with a now-expected Jazz Odyssey interlude) sketched out roughly but still recognizably. And there's an undeniable thrill when the theatrics cease and these guys really, truly click, even (especially) given that it only happened once: "Walking on the Moon." Simple bassline, a sing-song melody and direct lyrics ("I hope my legs don't break") perfect for a little kid with two goldfish named after the two less-famous guys in the band, ringing guitar chords that reverberate for 10 seconds or so apiece, yawning vacuums of negative space for Stu to have another exuberant seizure or Sting to let fly with $1,000 or so worth of ee-yo, ee-yoyoyo's.

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