Sting Plays the Wrong Set List in Thackerville

WinStar World Casino (Thackerville, OK)
– Words by David Huff –

I don’t get it. What on earth was Sting thinking when he put together the set list for this retrospective tour? If he was under the assumption that high praise would come his way for performing songs very few people recognized, or even cared about, he was wrong. This concert, for all intents and purposes, was a bitter pill to swallow in every sense of the term. Listen, if you think you got what you paid for at this show, then more power to you. From my perspective, however, it was a ‘b-side single’ show sprinkled with a few random hits. And that in itself was the real tragedy.

This acerbic observation isn’t coming from a writer who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’ve chronicled Sting’s career since his infant days with The Police. I consider his solo debut, Dream of the Blue Turtles, and his swan song with The Police, Synchronicity, to be two of the Top Five albums released in the ‘80s. But this show, especially the abysmal one-song encore, ticked me off to no end. When I finally reached my vehicle at the WinStar World Casino parking lot in Thackerville, Oklahoma, I was fit to be tied. The 90-mile trek back to Dallas literally whizzed by.

Sting // Photo credit: Jackman Kidman

I want to make a point clear before fans start throwing ‘stingers’ at me. This crowd was made up of individuals, like yours truly, that had grown up with Sting through his days with The Police and his solo expeditions the past 33 years. During that time, the magnificent compositions he created became our good friends. Over the decades, we sang and danced in celebration as each new single hit the airwaves. The music became our constant companions over time, and in the process, we simply fell in love. That deep affection was the reason everyone in this room was gathered at the WinStar this evening. Unfortunately, this truly gifted songwriter failed to take that aspect of his audience into account. The selection of material Sting chose to perform was a clear indicator of that.

Yes, Gordon Sumner appreciated the fact his hits had made him a wealthy man. His alter ego even alluded to the fact that his songwriting talents had allowed him to purchase an immense 60-acre country estate in England. The land around his ‘castle’ had even spawned the hit single, “Fields of Gold.” Bully for him. Whatever highs the tunes Sting played tonight gave him, it created nothing but a perpetual low for me as I waited for him to snap out of this funk he was mired in. It never happened.

The virtuoso performance of violinist Peter Tickell at various junctures of the show was a pleasant surprise. And the plaintive wailing of back up vocalist Jo Lawry was refreshing as well. It’s too bad her beautiful voice wasn’t backing Sting on “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” or “De Do Do Do” off the Zenyatta Mendatta album instead of “Driven to Tears.” Again, tonight the highlights of the songwriter’s four decade career were very few and extremely far between.

Seriously, why on earth are you going to perform “Shape of My Heart” and “Love is Stronger than Justice” off of Ten Summoner Tales, and not even consider the true classic cut from that record, “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You”? I don’t get it! I simply don’t get it! And forget the cheesy reference to the Winstar’s London and New York motifs to introduce “Englishman in New York,” off of the Nothing But the Sun recording. The songs he should have played were “We’ll Be Together” or better yet, “Be Still My Beating Heart.” Talk about the land of confusion.

Baby boomers, and that’s mostly what tonight’s audience consisted of, are all about reliving the past at this stage of their lives when it comes to music. That’s why they shelled out considerable sums of money to attend the opening leg of Sting’s six-city North American tune-up before he heads over to Europe. When you literally grow up with someone’s music, which this audience had, it becomes a part of you. That’s why you like to hear the radio staples performed live. It allows you to sing to your heart’s content, while at the same time, relive those cherished moments of yesterday the music brings back to you. That’s why Sting’s lackadaisical approach to the song selection this evening was so disheartening. Outside of The Police line-up that included “Roxanne”, “King of Pain”, “Every Breath You Take” and the blah “Next to You” at night’s end, this was a snooze fest no matter how you look at it.

I hate to say this, but the real highlight of the show wasn’t the savvy musicianship of violinist Peter Tickell or guitarist Dominic Miller. No, it came when the venue’s sound system shut down during the middle of the first song, “All This Time.” No one could hear Sting sing, or the band play. The sound from the stage was muffled. Gordon was completely oblivious to what was going on. It was especially amusing when the singer introduced the band members by name after the first song. The crowd had already erupted in boos before the first introduction. It only intensified every time he mentioned someone’s name.

Again, Sting was completely unaware of the sound problems. All you had to do was look at the confused reaction on his face, on one of the large projection screens, to know that. He could not understand the crowd’s hostile reactions. When the band launched in to “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” the catcalls grew louder. Instead of the expected cheers after The Police classic was performed, a disgruntled crowd vocally expressed their frustrations in resounding fashion. Finally a stage manager came out and told the boss what was going on. Sting left the stage until the problem was fixed. After a few minutes, the band returned and played “Every Little Thing” once again, only this time to resounding cheers.

Frankly, in my 30 some years of attending shows, the sound system malfunction was a first for me, as was the repeat performance of a song. I had already witnessed a performer’s worst nightmare some 22 years earlier with Madonna on her Blonde Ambition tour. She had wowed a sold-out Dallas crowd at Reunion Arena with her dazzling show. At the end of the night, the crowd was eating out of the palm of her hand. Right before she left the stage to the thunderous cheers of 20,000 strong, she walked up to the mic and said, “Thank you Houston!” The cheers stopped immediately. The booing began. It was so intense, Madonna ran off stage. She came back to do an encore, tried to apologize for the gaffe, but it was too late. The crowd literally booed her off the stage. Now Sting’s sound problem didn’t compare to Madonna’s stupidity because it wasn’t his fault. The songs he chose to perform throughout the evening were.

Here’s the thing. Sting had the crowd right where he wanted them after the sound system was fixed. The moment slipped away over the next five songs. So what if Gordy grew up in England enjoying old Westerns on TV like Bonanza and films like the Magnificent Seven. I grew up enjoying songs like “Message in a Bottle”, “Invisible Sun” and “Synchronicity II.” And please, can someone explain to me how you can perform a retrospect tour and not include any songs from the epic Dream of the Blue Turtles? It’s simply unfathomable that “Fortress Around Your Heart” was omitted from the play list, but it was. By the way, “Desert Rose” just doesn’t cut it without Cheb Mami singing his hauntingly beautiful vocal part. And while I’m complaining, what nonsense is it to perform “Demolition Man” from Ghost in the Machine when, I don’t know, the aforementioned “Invisible Sun” or “Spirits in the Material World” would have been the real winners from that disc to perform instead.

Usually I have a witty ending to end my reviews, but I’m just too damn disappointed to think of something clever. There is no doubt Sting has created a body of work that will stand the test of time. It’s just too bad he didn’t display some of the better parts this evening. Sending out an S.O.S.

Set List:

All This Time
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic (Police song)
Englishman in New York
Seven Days
Demolition Man (Police song)
I Hung My Head
Driven to Tears (Police song)
Fields of Gold
Sacred Love
Shape of My Heart
Love Is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)
The Hounds of Winter
The End of the Game
Never Coming Home
Desert Rose
King of Pain (Police song)
Roxanne (Police song)
Every Breath You Take (Police song)
Next to You (Police song)

James Villa